Prayer and Stress Management

the prayer continued

Stress is a major factor in our health. If stress is not controlled it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. On a more emotional level, stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, anger issues, and relationship problems.

There are many resources for trying to alleviate stress. Of course, exercise is one way to reduce it. People often point to meditation as well. There is much research to support both of these approaches.

I used to have a pretty consistent meditative practice. I would listen to on-line guided meditations nearly every day–usually for just a few minutes. Weekly, I would tune into a Jewish meditation group. My schedule got somewhat complicated and with the move to Cleveland, a new home, 3 new jobs, etc., meditation almost completely fell off my list of priorities. I am not proud of this; stress is still a part of my life and I wish I had a better practice of meditation.

Back in 1986 when I was a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel, and while I was in the process of applying to rabbinical school, I promised myself that I would pray (the formal prayers in the Siddur–or Jewish prayer book) at least one time every day. This was not a huge challenge since I knew many of the prayers and my day had few responsibilities except for picking pomelos during the day and relaxing in the afternoon and evening. Eventually, I made the commitment to pray the traditional services three times per day and since mid-1986 that has been my practice. I have only ever missed it when I have been too ill or immediately following the deaths of my parents–both times when our tradition exempts us from praying.

I got to wondering whether I could “count” my prayer as meditation. They are similar in many ways. I take time out of my day to center myself (sometimes I am more successful than others) and recite the traditional words–kind of like a mantra. Even though it is not always a spectacular spiritual experience (which is often the case with meditation), it does take me out of the mundane for a period of time thrice daily. I may not focus on my breathing, but I do try to quiet my mind and concentrate on the words and what they mean. When I pray with others–which is a story unto itself during a pandemic–I do feel like I am more successful at reaching some kind of spiritual goals.

I ran across an interesting blog post by Marek Struszczyk, a co-manager of http://www.managerup.com. Although the blog is directed to executives, there is a great post about prayer and stress that has broader implications: https://www.managerup.com/prayer-for-stress/. Struszczyk cites a number of studies that show the positive effects of prayer in reducing stress. I did not take a deep dive into each of the articles cited, but the conclusions indicate that prayer can help us to center ourselves, focus on areas of stress and how to alleviate them, and bring better health outcomes.

In Judaism, the verb for “to pray” is actually reflexive. It kind of means to “pray one’s self.” Rabbis have noted that prayer does not just go out to a higher power, but it should also go inward. Prayer should not just move God (or whatever higher power you believe or do not believe in), but should move us to action as well. For instance, there is a prayer in the weekday Amida recited three times a day for justice; because our prayer is reflexive, we address God asking for judges and other authorities to administer laws fairly, and we also challenge ourselves to make justice a reality in our world. It’s not all up to God; we are partners in making prayers into reality.

This way of looking at prayer can reduce stress by helping us to recognize the stressors in our lives and pushing us to find ways to resolve them. It seems almost oxymoronic, but by naming the stress we make it real and can then confront it.

I am a personal trainer and a rabbi so, of course, I’m going to recommend prayer as part of a way to address one’s spiritual, emotional and physical health. At the same time, do not think that prayer alone will make a difference health-wise; it is reflexive and has to be done in tandem with a proper diet, exercise, and sufficient rest.

I will strive to add some meditation back into my schedule, in the meantime, it is encouraging to know that prayer serves a similar purpose and can provide many of the same benefits when it comes to stress. Just knowing that has already relieved my stress a little!

A Heartbreaking Side-Effect of COVID-19

Stress

By now, most of us are familiar with the symptoms, illness and too often death that result from COVID-19. It is has stressed nearly everyone…and that stress is having a negative effect as well.

The most recent issue of AARP Bulletin reported on a recent study published in JAMA Network Open (part of the Am erican Medical Association) noting increased cases of Stress Cardiomyopathy since the beginning of the pandemic. Stress Cardiomyopathy is often known as “broken heart syndrome;” great sadness or other major upset can actually cause heart muscles to weaken. This phenomenon was studied at the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic-Akron General, where incidences of Stress Cardiomyopathy increased from 1.7% of patients before the pandemic to 7.8% between March 1 and April 30, 2020–when the full effects of COVID-19 were becoming known and affecting our lives.

Must we just sit back and take it? Must we allow our hearts to take a beating? Grant Reed, a cardiologist cited in the article, suggests that those feeling overwhelmed by the stress of the situation should share that information with their medical provider. In other words, this is not just an emotional issue, but a physiological one as well. The article noted that the symptoms of Stress Cardiomyopathy look a lot like the warning signs of a heart attack: chest pain and shortness of breath among them.

One line of defense is to work on reducing stress. We all have our own ways of dealing with it (I listen to Earth, Wind and Fire), but we may want to think about meditating (or prayer if that is a part of your tradition) and connecting with family and friends–even if that means over the phone or virtually, and only those family members who won’t stress you out even more!

Finally, exercise is also a great way to reduce stress. Physical activity can release hormones that make us happier called endorphins. Even if you cannot get to the gym, there are other ways to keep active like going for a brisk walk, riding a bike, on-line workouts, etc.

Many of us are indeed broken-hearted about the loss of life and suffering caused by COVID-19. Let’s do what we can to reduce our stress and build our immunity through exercise, proper rest, good nutrition and connections with others. Nobody wants to test negative to COVID-19 only to fall ill to the stress associated with it. Let’s take care of ourselves.

Stay Away from the Gym!*

The Sleeping Dog Lies

*A couple of days ago I had a conversation at the gym with two young men; we were in the sauna and one asked “I wonder if the sauna is good for my fever….” Um…what?!?! I had just seen them both working out in the Fitness Center. In the course of the very brief conversation, it came out that the other young man had only slept two hours the night before. Again…um…what?

I am as much of a workout/gym fanatic as the next guy/gal but there are times when I know I should not be at the gym–if not for my own well-being then for the well-being of others who come to workout to get healthy…not sick!

How do I know when to stay home? If I am contagious or otherwise have what appear to be infectious symptoms, I obviously stay home. Otherwise, usually my body tells me. Sometimes I am just so tired that I cannot drag myself out of bed or off the couch; this is my body telling me that it needs a break. Of course, I cannot do this every day, by every once in a while it does occur.

A recent article on http://www.nbcnews.com focused on times when we should stay home from the gym. SPOILER ALERT!!! Here are the subject headings, but it is worth reading the entire article: 1. When we are really stressed. 2. When we are sleep-deprived. 3. When we are feeling under the weather. 4. When we are really sore. 5. When we’ve just checked a marathon off our bucket list. The author, Stephanie Mansour, goes into depth and explains why we sometimes need to step back in order to be more effective when we step forward again.

Luckily I had read the article before the conversation and I told these two men (politely) that they might want to rethink their decision and wait until they are in the proper shape before they head back to the gym. Give this article a read: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/5-times-when-you-shouldn-t-work-out-ncna1068281–especially the next time you are not sure whether you should give it your all…or give it a rest.