When I was a teenager, the medical community thought that stomach ulcers were caused by worry/stress. Doctors would tell patients, “You have an ulcer. If you don’t stop worrying, you’re going to kill yourself.”
Sometimes this approach would seemingly lead to cures! Back in the day, like many teenagers, I worried a lot, and I thought to myself: Why does that warning work! If I were worrying myself to death, and a medically-qualified expert called me on it, the news would only accelerate the process. I’d figure I was doomed.
Today we’re told that the digestive imbalance responsible for peptic ulcers is instead likely the result of a bacterial infection (Helicobacter pylori); or overuse of NSAID’s such as aspirin, naproxen, or ibuprofen; or excess acid production from tumors (gastrinomas) of the acid-producing cells lining the stomach walls. Mystery solved. Perhaps, even though those early patients grew more worried, not less, the root cause of their ulcers was accidentally addressed by a course of antibiotics prescribed for some other reason, or through some other change in patients’ medication, diet or immune system.
That said, it is possible for us to reduce any hold that worry may have on our lives. I addressed that in last week’s Sunday services at Downtown Baptist Church. You can find the details on the video link. In the 21st-century, with its focus on 24-7 busyness, the temptation is to add to our lives an overlay of some additional activity. But given that our lives are so hectic, the keys to success in reducing worry most likely lie in another direction: subtraction. As expressed in this post’s title, they are four:
Relax. Let go. Give thanks. Feel the presence.
It might help to think of an area of your life where you’ve seen this work, and find your own means of calling that setting to remembrance whenever you catch yourself worrying.
For me, the picture is floating in water.
Chances are good that you learned to swim at such an early age that you can’t remember what it was like not to know how. But for me, life was different. I found myself sixteen years old and at sea (so to speak) around water. But by then it was clear I was going to a college that had a mandatory swimming test, and I had to learn how to swim. At that age I was my current height and weighed just over 140 pounds. (As the neighbors said, “we knew the Hookes had a skeleton in their closet but we didn’t realize they were educating it.”)
The folks at the community pool threw me in the water and said “relax!.”
I knew that was the one thing I must not do. So I’d thrash around wildly and uncontrollably, and sink like a stone. Then, one day, despite my best efforts, I relaxed.
And a whole new world opened up.
Since then, I’ve had many occasions to look back on that lesson. And when I find myself worrying, and thrashing around at the business of life, I try to relax. And this is where the letting-go has come in. One lesson of the pool is that you and I enter the pool traveling light. We don’t jump in holding onto the family car, the house and other worldly possessions, our bank accounts, our career ambitions, even our wardrobe. We leave virtually all of that behind. Much of life’s anxieties turn out to stem from things and activities we’re trying to hold on to when instead we need to release our grip. We come into the world with nothing, and that’s the way we’ll leave. Which brings us to gratitude. In preparing for this talk at church last week I asked my adult, autistic 40-something son how he dealt with worry. He answered that he just remembered times in his life where it seemed things were going badly but that everything eventually turned out all right. We could all profit by carrying around a bit more conscious memory of those times (including learning to swim) when grace operated in our lives, taking a moment to be grateful, and to realize that shortly whatever challenge/crisis we face at the moment will shortly be converted to another occasion for thanks.
Thanks to what? Or to whom? When we were kids learning to swim, chances are good a laughing parent was holding us in his/her arms, giving us encouragement, keeping us calm. Many people find that as even as adults, in trying to stay afloat while doing the business of life, they experience the presence of a higher power, laughing, enjoying the dance of the universe, inviting them to relax.
One closing point. Relaxation isn’t a destination. It’s a point of departure. In the 21st century, with its 24/7 lifestyle and work pressures, it’s tempting to think of rest from work. But that’s putting the challenge backwards. The key to successful living on this real world is learning to work from rest.