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!