LIVONIA — Father John Hayes is fond of a saying he once heard from a friend: "I thought I had a stress-free life, until I realized I was stressing about maintaining my stress-free life."
In other words, certain amounts of stress and anxiety are unavoidable.
"There’s no such thing as a stress-free life," remarked Father Hayes, who serves as pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Livonia and St. Mary Parish in Honeoye.
At every Mass we pray that God will "protect us from all anxiety." Yet Father Hayes said that since stressors inevitably surface at work, home and thousands of other places in our daily lives, he invokes the term "needless anxiety" when celebrating Mass.
Just what is stress? The Mayo Clinic’s Web site, www.mayoclinic.com, describes it as "a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life." This bodily and mental tension causes the brain to release hormones signaling some kind of threat, and "when the threat is gone, your body returns to normal. Unfortunately, the nonstop stress of modern life means that your alarm system rarely shuts off," according to the Mayo Clinic.
Father Hayes is well-versed on the subject, having earned a master’s degree in social work in 1999 from Syracuse University. He has ministered privately to people in such high-stress jobs as law enforcement, as well as those affected by the stress of marital discord and employment loss. The Mayo Clinic added that stress is spread throughout a seemingly normal day — "managing a huge workload, making ends meet, taking care of aging parents as well as young children, and simply making it through the morning rush hour."
In asserting that everyone gets stressed, Father Hayes pointed out that Jesus himself most surely felt stress while angrily clearing the temple, facing a murder plot against him and going through the agony in the garden. However, the priest also observed that Christ would at times seek a quiet place to pray, thus setting a good example for how to cope with stress.
"Jesus knew enough to walk off, go up into the mountains and commune with his father," he said.
In his own priestly life, Father Hayes acknowledged that he has experienced stress when ministering to people facing tragedies, as well as from having to oversee two parishes. To cope with his stress he leans on his parish staff to distribute administrative duties, and he lives in a private home rather than a rectory so as to separate himself from his work. In addition he takes time off for himself, saying a priest is just as human as anyone else and can’t do effective ministry 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Father Hayes highly endorses reflection and exercise as ways to manage stress. He also said it’s valuable to simply acknowledge your stress, even if that might mean revealing anger or tears at times.
"When you try to stuff it down, it’s going to come out in a different way," he said, adding that people shouldn’t simply say "I’m fine" when they’re really not.
Some key self-reflection questions posed by Father Hayes include: Do I have a handle and perspective on my stress and anxiety? Do I understand the sources? Am I willing to take steps to manage the stress, even if that might mean seeking help through a doctor or counselor? Father Hayes said he does a number of referrals for professional help but noted that many people, unfortunately, still feel stigmatized by taking this step.
He said it’s vital for folks to do whatever is necessary to reduce their stress before it takes a toll on their physical, emotional or mental well-being, potentially resulting in loss of sleep, poor decision-making, overeating, addictions or perhaps even acts of violence.
Regarding this crossover into unmanageable stress, "It is a very thin line," Father Hayes stated.
Tips for managing stress
The Mayo Clinic offers a number of suggestions on how to manage, and gain relief from, your stress. Examples include:
* Practice positive thinking.
* Seek social support.
* Make attempts to laugh more.
* Invoke prayer and spirituality.
* Learn how to say no.
* Assess how to cope with the holidays.
* Be aware of the balance between work and home life.
* Practice forgiveness; let go of grudges and bitterness.
* Address anger management.
* Overcome denial that a problem exists.
Additional details are available by visiting www.mayoclinic.com and clicking on the "stress management" link.