How to Handle Stress: a Q&A with Christopher Lafitte
I love the feeling fall brings. The crisp air and changing leaves breathe new life across campus as summer turns into autumn, and – the best part of all – you’re no longer sweating as you run between classes, work and meetings of every kind. But with the cool of fall comes the heat of midterms, projects and deadlines that tend to weigh heavy on our minds and hard on our hearts. Sometimes, failing an exam, being rejected from something we hoped for, or just facing the trials life throws our way can cloud our vision and pull us away from joy.Thinking of the difficulties this season brings, I sat down with St. Mary’s Director of Pastoral Counseling, Christopher Lafitte, to talk about dealing with the stress of school and college life. Here’s what he had to say.What should I do when I feel overwhelmed?Although it sounds counter-intuitive, the first thing I would encourage you to do is settle into that feeling. Our initial instinct is often to avoid feeling negative emotions, but running from the reality of our present experience ends up locking those feelings of being stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed in place instead of allowing us to actually release it. So the first thing we have to do is settle into how we’re feeling. When we’re actually experiencing how we feel, we can connect with God there in our hearts as we express it to him, and we can begin to receive from him relief or healing. Going for a walk, taking time to exercise, and good sleep are also very important.If I’ve been running from how I feel, how can I begin to allow myself to stop and experience my emotions?Many of us struggle with affect intolerance, meaning we aren’t able to handle our internal emotional experience, or our affect, very well. We are hesitant to let ourselves feel because we aren’t really sure what to do with our emotions. But, the answer is simple. Just feel it. If you’re depressed, be depressed. If you’re afraid to be depressed, just feel the fear and let yourself be afraid - but don’t stop there. We are made for communion, so we need to connect with someone in that. When we feel anxious or depressed, and present ourselves authentically to God like that, we are able to be in real communion with our Father because that is the real state of our heart at that moment. We don’t have it together, so that’s how we need to approach him. That’s when He can begin to heal us and transform our anxiety into peace, and depression into joyful communion.How can I better offer my emotions to God?We can’t give anything to Lord that we’re not connected to. We need to be honest with where we’re at, with what our internal experience is and keep on praying and speaking to God from our hearts. We often stop the sharing with God because we’ll say everything we need to say from our ‘loneliness’ or ‘anxiousness’, and we won’t feel ‘that’ particular emotion as much anymore, instead we’ll feel another emotion more prominently - like ‘anger’ or ‘depression’ for example. We need to notice the movements within ourselves and then speak to God out of that ‘new’ emotion - not about the emotion, speak out of the emotion. In a certain sense, we don’t share our emotions, we share ourselves. As long as we’re connected to ourselves and continue sharing ourselves with God - we’ll eventually open our hearts completely and be able to receive from Him. Unexpressed emotion keeps our hearts suppressed/closed and makes it difficult to receive love. We often stop sharing our hearts when it gets too painful, especially if we start feeling abandoned by God. But as long as we continue crying out from that place until we’ve expressed all the emotion that’s there, our hearts will eventually have nothing left to share, and be an empty space ready to receive, then we are ready to be filled by God. Then, we can abide in peace, joy, and the other fruits of the Spirit.How do I know when my stress is too much to handle on my own?Stress is often the fruit of a poorly balanced life. When you’re stressed as a college student, with the amount of free time you have, it’s important to look at how you spend your time. If you’re constantly stressed out, something is out of order. Cut out excesses, and get a routine in place that gives adequate time for every facet of your life. If you start making changes and introducing new things, I recommend doing so gradually but consistently. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with too much change at once, and you want the changes to last.Who should I talk to when I feel distressed?Stress is always too much for us to handle on our own, and that’s important for us to remember. In this sense, I encourage you to cultivate a disposition of dependence upon God, acknowledging our constant need as his little children. Much of what I shared above is how that is grown and fostered. It’s also important to reach out to a friend, spiritual director, counselor, parent, academic advisor, etc., depending on who the appropriate person is for our particular need. If it’s something spiritual, seek spiritual direction. If it’s struggle with sin, confession. If it’s emotional or psychological, counseling. I’d like to mention a few things about friendships for a moment. Friendships can sometimes be an appropriate place to discuss everything just mentioned, but we should not put someone in a position that they are not comfortable with or capable of being in - for our sake and for theirs. To treat our friends as counselors or confessors can confuse a relationship and drive a wedge into a friendship, fostering bitterness, resentment, and hurt feelings. If we are regularly treating a friend like someone other than a friend, we should probably seek a counselor or spiritual director, and honor our friends by keeping the relationship on the level of friendship. If we have overstepped boundaries in our friendships, that’s okay, but it is important for us to take responsibility for that, apologize, and do our best to honor our friends moving forward. A person who is willing to take responsibility for things like this in their friendships is typically a sign of a good friend.St. Mary’s offers the School of Healing, which meets in the church once each month. Counseling is also available on Texas A&M’s campus for free to students. For more resources on emotions, Christopher recommends the book Feeling and Healing your Emotions by Conrad Baars, and the book Be Healed by Dr. Bob Schuchts as resource for those seeking counseling.