By John Gustav-Wrathall, Executive Director, Affirmation
Now that we are in the midst of the holidays, it is a good time to talk about stress.
Affirmation is a community of individuals who have dealt with varying kinds of trauma, both recognized and unrecognized. Many of us have lost the support structures that can help us heal from the trauma we’ve experienced, not to mention help us cope with the stresses and strains of normal day-to-day life. Many of us struggle with loneliness.
One of the ways that Affirmation helps us to recover from trauma is by giving us opportunities for service. Many of us have donated hours upon hours of time and some of our best psychic, emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to the organization. Leadership and volunteerism in Affirmation are great ways to help us work through past pain we’ve experienced around being LGBT and Mormon. They can help us connect with others in a loving, unified community, empower ourselves and live more joyfully.
But leadership and volunteerism also expose us to heightened stress. Without discussing specifics, I am aware of situations where unchecked, escalating stress has ended very badly for leaders and members of Affirmation. I’ve seen stress and unhealthy responses to stress destroy friendships, alienate individuals from their support community, and undermine leadership teams and support communities. It’s extremely important to be aware of our limits and to take care of ourselves, whatever our role in Affirmation might be.
Recognizing the Cycle
From time to time I observe in myself a negative stress cycle that goes something like the following: When I’m feeling stressed, I can fall into unhealthy habits. The unhealthy habits, in turn, lead to shame and/or denial. In turn, the shame and/or denial can lead to more stress, and so on. When that happens, what do I do?
First, I can start to break the negative stress cycle through self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. I remind myself that perfectionism isn’t healthy! We all make mistakes! That’s what it means to be human! I can acknowledge that I’ve made mistakes, and want to do better, all the while reminding myself that I am a good person. I personally find comfort in the Gospel, in my belief in the atonement and in the possibility of repentance, which simultaneously reminds me that I am a child of God, I am good in my very nature, and that God loves me unconditionally, while it also reminds me that I can always, every day, start over with a blank slate and do better than I did before. That’s what helps me personally. I recognize that not everybody believes in the atonement, but I think we can all embrace beliefs that enable us to love and accept ourselves, even as we strive to do better.
A second way to break the negative stress cycle is to step back a bit, and take time to recognize what my stress triggers are and what my stress responses are. The more self-aware I am about these things, the less likely I am to just automatically fall into bad habits, and the more likely I am to consciously choose to engage in stress-reducing activities that are healthy (like, for me, going for long walks, practicing yoga, taking time for daily prayer and scripture study, or enjoying some fun activity with my husband). Finding healthy stress relief not only reduces stress and increases feelings of well-being, it also boosts my self-esteem and gives me more energy for service.
Sometimes just becoming more self-aware about the sources of stress in my life has been enough to help reduce the stress. Perspective is a powerful tool. It can enable us to let go of self-blame or fear, and tap into forgiveness and hope.
But sometimes perspective isn’t enough. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that maybe we’ve taken on too much in our lives, and we need to let go of certain things in order to find space, time and energy to take care of ourselves. Often we’re afraid of doing this because we’re afraid of letting others down or appearing weak. This is an important reminder for our leadership team in Affirmation. Learn to recognize when you are burning out, and learn how to say “No” when you need to, so that you can say “Yes” when it really counts!
When we observe the negative stress cycle in others, it’s not uncommon to project our own feelings of shame on them. I’ve observed this in the form of publicly shaming others, gossiping, and contention. None of these things help! They do the opposite!
Things that help: confiding in a trusted friend, forgiving others and letting go of offenses, listening, and remembering that we are all in this together. Rather than making good guys out of ourselves and bad guys out of people who are triggering us, we can step back and look at the bigger picture, and realize the nature of this work, which at its core is about healing ourselves and others.
Though these fundamental principles are the same for everybody, the way they play out for each of us individually is unique and different. Only each of us can ultimately discern for ourselves what our triggers are and what is an unhealthy vs. a healthy response to stress for us. One of Affirmation’s core values is “non-judgment.” Other core values of Affirmation that can help us deal with stress in ourselves and others include Christ-like love, optimism, patience, authenticity, inclusivity and mutual support.
As the holidays approach, another good stress-reducing exercise might be to take time to remember the things we have that bless us and that we are grateful for. Take time to thank someone who has made a positive difference in your life for the ways they have blessed you. Breathe, take a break, and find joy in simple things. Reach out and connect with someone new. Affirm others.
We can’t (and probably wouldn’t want to!) eliminate all stress from our lives completely. Stress can be a positive motivator! But we can be aware of it, and we can find healthy ways to deal with it before it manifests in damaging and dangerous ways.