Self-Care for the Suffering
Self-Care as you Fight the Good Fight
When you engage in fighting injustices like racism or sexism (remember you aren’t fighting flesh and blood – Eph. 6:12), you will become wounded and spent. Jesus himself, when bringing the Kingdom of God against the gates of hell, would frequently break away from ministry to engage in a time of restoration with the Father.
Retreating for a time of rest is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of wisdom. This article is aimed at giving you Bible-informed instruction for ‘self-care’, along with several practical strategies to use during times of stress.
Self-Care – or How to Engage Pain Wisely
Below are three primary, but not exhaustive, measures which Scripture gives for taking care of ourselves in the midst of suffering.
Remember Galatians 6:9 “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” is preceded by Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The law of Christ being John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” You cannot care for yourself entirely by yourself alone. In a very real sense, ‘self-care’ is an oxymoron. When you are burdened, let a trusted brother or sister know, and then receive care from them. This is the model of Jesus, to have a group of at least 3 others (Peter, James, and John) who you can call on when burdened.
Pray and Confess
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. James 5:13-17 (ESV)
If you are suffering, pray. If you are sick or hurting, ask others to pray over you. In all of this, confess your sins (i.e. tell all your junk to somebody) so that you may be whole and healed. Have folks you can confess to, and in return, receive their healing prayers.
What does Jesus mean in Mark 2:27 when he says “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”? Ezekiel 16:23 calls the Sabbath a ‘day of solemn rest’. Jesus means, we need rest. Really need it. We need it to such an extent that God created an entire 24-hour period for us, so we wouldn’t miss out on it.
The next question, then, is what does it mean to rest? It’s easier to say what rest is not. It is not zoning out, distracting yourself, running away, putting your head in the sand, or crashing. To rest in God’s economy means you live a trusting life, receiving care from him. He gives us primary ways for doing so (Scripture, Prayer, and Sacraments), as well as an enormous amount of secondary means like solitude, music, journaling, enjoying creation, play, and so on. I implore you to set aside time to intentionally disconnect from stress and connect to the Father, being creative with how you do so. Also, develop good sleep hygiene.
Here are a few in-the-moment techniques to use in acute suffering or stress, before it becomes overwhelming. I want to encourage you to practice these before you need them. These techniques only serve to help a situation or issue become more manageable; they are not meant to ‘fix’ the issue at hand. Without engaging in community, prayer/confession, and rest, these techniques will only serve to postpone pain.
Anxiety manifests as a flight/fight response to stress, raising your heart rate and preparing your body to move. Taking deep breaths and holding them allows your body to absorb oxygen, while also slowing your heart rate down. It has the effect of decreasing the physical symptoms of anxiety. I like to practice deep breathing in 4’s.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, expanding your gut rather than your chest.
- Hold your breath in your gut for 4 seconds.
- Slowly breathe out through your mouth for 4 seconds, as if you are blowing through a straw.
- Hold for 4 seconds before slowly breathing in again.
Do this four times in a row.
Often, I will practice ‘breath prayer’ while doing this. I breathe in a truth and hold it in my mind, until it takes root in my heart.
I know the word ‘mindfulness’ has gotten a bad reputation in many Christian circles, but it is really just a matter of making yourself aware of the present. Using your five senses, pay attention to what is going on around you. For instance, you may want to choose a color and then notice that color in objects around you. Chewing a piece of gum and noticing its flavor as it slowly changes can be helpful. I particularly like breathing (as in the above) and feeling the air come in and move through your body. You will also be able to notice changes in your body as you do so.
Sit still and try to blank out your thoughts. Now, starting with your toes, pay attention to what they feel like as they touch the floor. Now the balls of your feet, then arches, then heels, then ankles and so on. What do your clothes feel like on your body? How do your hands feel as they lay on the arms of your chair? What does your hair feel like as it sits on your head? Take the time to work up your body from your feet to your head, and then back down if necessary.
This is my go-to in times of feeling overwhelmed. I often list out all that I am not in control of as I pray.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
The full prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr is worth your time to look up and utilize as well.
If there is a particular thought or event that is intrusive, you may find it helpful to practice ‘containing’ it in something. You may do this literally, by writing it on paper and locking it in a safe or filing cabinet for instance, or you may do this metaphorically, by imagining yourself taking that thought and putting it in a proper container. Remind yourself you can come back to this later, as needed.
I find journaling to be helpful at all times, but particularly as I find myself overwhelmed. Through journaling, you are giving your mind the opportunity to put things together. As you write, your brain can communicate across hemispheres, helping your logical thoughts to join up with your emotional experiences, resulting in a greater sense of clarity about what is actually stressing you out or causing you to feel a certain way.
It takes your brain and body about 20 minutes of doing something else to flush out all the stress-induced chemicals. During this time, I would encourage you to drink a pint of water, as dehydration can often look like anxiety. You need to be doing something that is relatively distracting, but not taxing (like Twitter). For instance, I like to shoot hoops when I get a chance as it takes my mind off what was stressing me, but is not so overwhelming that I become absorbed in it or triggered by it.
Some other ideas are taking a walk, reading an article, drawing/coloring a picture, watching a show, cleaning dishes/laundry, cooking a meal, playing or listening to music and so on. Make a list of 4-5 things you can do when necessary.
*If you find yourself experiencing unrelenting pain from racially wounding experiences, here is an article on responding to trauma and PTSD that you may find helpful.