By Shanna Johnson, Writer, Loyola University Chicago
Arantxa Valverde recalls a particularly stressful day at work: “I was crawling on the ground, sniffing around like a dog,” she says. Valverde, an advisor for the Loyola Limited Program that operates six student-run businesses at Loyola University Chicago, works with more than 80 students and must be able to switch gears at any moment, responding to even the most unusual circumstances. In this case, it was an odd smell that she was trying to identify the source of, and time was of the essence.
“Most days I feel stressed because, while I am juggling several tasks at once, the thing that goes wrong is usually something that is out of my control,” she says.
Valverde is not alone. The American Psychology Association finds that 64 percent of adults say that work causes unwanted stress in their lives, and 44 percent of Americans report that their stress has increased over the past five years. And that was true before the pandemic and the need for social distancing added a new layer of stress to our lives.
Without healthy methods to combat this stress, people may end up suffering from fatigue, headaches, and other undesirable physical manifestations of their worries, according to the American Heart Association. Outside of physical health, stress is a well-known agent behind anxiety and depression. “We often use stress and anxiety interchangeably,” says Dianna Stencel, a licensed clinical social worker at Loyola’s Wellness Center. “People are experiencing more intense anxiety than ever before.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in America suffer from an anxiety disorder. “Anxiety can impact our mood and we can end up becoming depressed and even suicidal. Not dealing with it properly affects our relationships with loved ones as well,” Stencel explains.
The Mindful Approach
All hope is not lost. Stencel recommends using the practice of mindfulness as an everyday method to keep stress at bay. “Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in a particular way to our experiences,” says Stencel, who is a trained mindfulness stress-reduction teacher through the Center for Mindfulness. The practice, she says, can help to “develop and nurture our ability to have a non-judging attitude toward our experiences and allow the experiences to be as they are.”
The idea is to experience life with a “beginner’s mind.” That is, to take each moment fresh and approach situations with an open mind. With more mindful practice, Stencel says, it becomes easier to tackle stress and focus on the matter at hand.
Practicing mindfulness can feel like a daunting task: Stencel recommends seeking out a mindfulness teacher or group to jump-start the process. But she also cautions that mindfulness is not about a quick-fix and that it requires practice. Over time, you can begin to identify patterns that occur in your mind and recognize that stress is a normal human reaction. Mindfulness is, above all, about understanding our reactions to our experiences and learning to be less critical of ourselves. “If you develop a practice and you are working with a teacher,” Stencel says, “it really can be transformative.”
Before the pandemic, Loyola offered opportunities for students to gather for mindfulness sessions on campus. Now, meditation can be practiced alone and, in fact, has proven to be a key element in rewiring the mind to be more apt at mindfulness. “The more people meditate, the bigger the impact it has on the brain,” says Stencel. “Studies show that we need 11 minutes of meditation a day—at a minimum—to see real changes.”
If 11 minutes seems low to you, Stencel suggests pushing that to 20 minutes. “In a recent study it was found that students who did three 20-minute meditation sessions a week had lower cortisol levels—one of the hormones that causes stress—and less cognitive degeneration over the course of a semester,” says Stencel.
Mental health is not the only aspect of our lives that suffer at the hands of stress. Rev. Scott Hendrickson, S.J., a chaplain and Associate Provost for Global and Community Engagement at Loyola, recognizes the effects stress can have in our spiritual lives as well.
“Stress can be damaging because we tend to react negatively to stressful circumstances in our lives,” he explains. “These negative reactions often cause us to complain about, and to, other people, which is destructive in maintaining meaningful relationships—including our relationship with God.”
Hendrickson suggests taking part in a Taizé prayer service as a way to counter stress. “Taizé prayer is relaxing because it is based in song and chant. The verses are melodious and repetitive; singing them allows us to concentrate on the beautiful expression of the words,” he says.
If music isn’t your thing—or you can’t find a service during the pandemic—he recommends trying the daily Examen of St. Ignatius, which offers an opportunity to reflect on the day and look ahead to the next. “The Examen helps remind us of what we are grateful for and gives us the ability to appreciate even the small parts of our day that are easy to overlook,” says Hendrickson. “This allows us to recognize God’s grace where we might not readily perceive it, and helps us to maintain our positivity even in stressful times.”
For Valverde, dealing with the unknown at work and staying ahead of stress is all about being prepared. “I need to keep lists of everything I have to do and prioritize the tasks that need immediate attention,” she says.
Communication with co-workers—who also act as a support system—is key. “I have to communicate at a high level with my supervisor so she knows where my stress level is at,” Valverde says. “It helps to talk things through with someone who knows what I am working with so I can gain a new perspective on the matter at hand.”