Anxiety, worry and stress are feelings that people cope with daily through life’s highs and lows. However, for many today these feelings are heightened as the world navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and its uncertainty. And it can be overwhelming!
Thankfully, there are proven methods that can be used to manage anxiety and stress in situations like these. We have taken the time to interview a clinical psychiatrist from within our own church on how to manage stress to help you in this season.
Susanne Vind, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist specializing in Schema Therapy, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Susanne has extensive experience in the field of psychiatry as a clinician, an educator, and a board member for the International Society of Schema Therapy. She currently leads her own clinic and training institute in the heart of Copenhagen and has been a part of Hillsong Church for the past few years.
Here is a look at our interview with Susanne:
Q1: Can you briefly explain to us what stress is and what happens in the body when we’re stressed?
A1: When thinking about stress in the body, it’s useful to imagine that the body is like a car. Under normal conditions, our bodies go through daily life in a relaxed, steady gear. When we are shocked or feel endangered, the whole body shifts into another gear where our nervous system is on high alert. This is where we can feel the “fight or flight” reflex.
Being stressed, however, is a different state which can occur when we are required to achieve or produce something at a high speed for an extended time. Using the car analogy, it is like the body is spending a very long period between the two gears described earlier (this isn’t very good for a car’s engine, and it’s not very good for our bodies either). While this state can be used to get results for a time, it does not come without costs to our health.
In a prolonged state of stress, our bodies can experience a higher pulse, higher blood pressure, lower energy, increased anxiety, poor sleep, body aches and tensions, upset stomach, loss of appetite, or cravings for unhealthy foods. On a hormonal level, our bodies produce more of a stress hormone cortisol and less of the hormones related to feeling good and using your brain well. The mental effects of stress include making it difficult to concentrate, focus, and remember things. It can also lead to you being more irritable, worrisome, and overwhelmed. Overall, stress doesn’t make you feel well at all!
Q2: In your experience as a psychiatrist, why do people experience stress?
A2: There are two main reasons I see people become stressed. The first reason is that people find themselves in stressful circumstances that are beyond their control. The stress people feel from the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters are good examples of stress caused by something that is largely out of our control.
The second reason people become stressed is because they either choose or feel pushed into circumstances that are in conflict with their major life themes, goals or values. In this second case, we are in some way responsible for our stressed state. One example of this is when we place harsh demands or unrelenting standards on ourselves which we can’t live up to. This can cause us to become self-critical and wear ourselves out. People who focus on caring for others or pleasing others can end up stressed because they leave no space to care for themselves. This is where self-compassion and self-care become very important.
Q3: What can we do when we feel stressed or anxious?
A3: When you feel stressed, first try to look at your circumstances to figure what about them is causing you to be stressed. Then try to adjust the circumstances you can control and structure them to be comfortable and safe for you. For example, during this pandemic, I have tried to make some structures to keep myself safe when I go out of the house. I try to do my shopping in the morning when the stores are less busy and before too many people have come in to touch the products. I also try to wash my hands regularly.
Some very practical things you can do to help with stress are to give your body healthy food (even when you crave bad food), exercise, spend time in nature, talk about things with friends, and get a good sound sleep. Since sleep is very important in stress management, try setting a structure for your mornings and evenings. In the mornings, this could look like enjoying a cup of coffee or tea and adjusting yourself to the current day instead of stressing about what you have to get done from the moment you open your eyes. In the evening about one hour before you go to bed you could try dimming the lights, putting away electronics, reading, and having a cup of herbal tea to wind down your system.
Also try to incorporate things that stimulate the five senses, like cooking something that smells nice, going for a walk, or listening to the birds. Being present in the moment and focusing on what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell can help get us out of our heads and into the moment when we are stressed. Practicing gratitude can also help us feel less stressed. You can do this by thinking of all the things you are grateful for, like your warm house, the food you have, and any family or friends you are in touch with.
Q4: Is stress something you can address on your own or should you try to get help?
A4: You can always do something yourself to manage stress as I’ve mentioned, but it is also very important to find out what your life themes, goals and values are and how they play a role in your current stressed state. You may find that you need help to change your life themes so that they don’t cause you so much trouble. For many physiological reasons, it is very easy to slide from stress into depression if it is not properly managed. So make sure to seek some sort of help if your struggling, for example, by contacting pastoral care or contacting your doctor.
Q5: How can you best support someone who’s experiencing feelings of stress?
A5: First of all, establish contact. Ask, “How are you feeling?” or, “Is there anything I can help you with?” The key is to ask genuinely and really listen. If the person says, “I’m alright,” but doesn’t seem to be, you can share why you worry and that you’ll be there. Based on the response, you can offer support in simple ways, such as inviting to go for a walk together, call or text once a week, or offering to accompany the person to the doctor if needed.
Q6: What role can a relationship with God and the church play in supporting people to overcome stress?
A6: These play a huge role. Praying to God can help us to connect to hope and to knowing there is more, which is very important during stressful situations. There are also beneficial changes that occur physically in the brain when we pray. During deep prayer the electrical waves in the brain change to a level similar to the most profound relaxation during sleep, even beyond the dream phase. As the brain relaxes to this degree, little ventricles or fountains in the brain release a special liquid that gives the brain a nice shower so we feel refreshed and well.
Community is also vitally important that can really help people get through tough times. When we gather together, pray together, and do life together we become aware that there are valleys in life but we get out of valleys. They are not a permanent state. They can be hard but are only transitional. We are meant to be with one another. It’s so tremendously important.
While prayer and church community are beneficial in stress management, it is important to note that they are only two pieces of a holistic approach to helping people manage severe stress. For questions on what a holistic approach could look like, contact a medical professional.
Q7: Just a final question: with the current pandemic in mind, do you have any specific tips on managing the stress of unknown and uncertain situations like many people may be feeling these days?
A7: During a pandemic, we all collectively face risk in our daily life circumstances. One of the best things you can do is to make a structure where you actively take care of yourself. Go online and learn how to wash your hands like how a surgeon would so that you know your hands are clean. Look up tips on how to maneuver public spheres in everyday life. When you have built safe structures into your daily routines, then you don’t have to be scared. You may still be anxious because there is always a risk that you can catch the virus, but you can feel some relief because you know that you have done what you can to diminish the risk. Allow yourself to feel that! Being panicky doesn’t help your health but being aware of your structure helps greatly.
Thank you for reading through our interview with Susanne Vind. If you’d like to talk with someone from our church about something you or someone you know is going through, feel free to write to [email protected] and one of the pastoral team from church will get in contact with you.
We’ve also collected some Bible verses on the topic of stress and anxiety which you can see below.
Proverbs 2:10 Passion Translation – “When wisdom wins your heart and revelation breaks in, true pleasure enters your soul.”
Psalm 42:5 NIV – “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Romans 12:2 NIV – “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Proverbs 12:25 NIV – “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”
Matthew 11:28 NIV – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”