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Stress Inoculation for Our Times: Case Study

LukeNotes, Summer 2020

Father John knew that, like many others living through our current times, he was under more stress than he could manage. The pandemic was dragging on longer than expected, and he felt increasingly helpless knowing that many of his parishioners were hurting due to the loss of a job or a loved one. His distress was exacerbated watching nightly news coverage of the effects of racial injustice in the country.

Father John took stock of his depleted emotional reserves and decided to contact a psychologist acquaintance who had helped some of his parishioners in the past. The psychologist validated what Father John was feeling. He affirmed him for seeking help, noting that it is often hard for those in a helping role to seek assistance themselves. Father John found the therapist easy to speak with, and they decided to start weekly teletherapy sessions, focusing on stress reduction.

Although Father John had always maintained a good prayer and spiritual life, he appreciated the therapist’s emphasis on body awareness and the untapped power of emotions. Father John responded well to the concept that the only stress/feeling that could truly hurt us is that which we fail to acknowledge and learn more about.

Father John had always prided himself on his ability to tolerate a great deal of stress, a frequent occurrence for a pastor and administrator of a large parish, and as the child of two alcoholic parents. What he came to understand through weekly therapy was that just “tolerating” stress really meant he was ignoring important signals his body was giving in the form of feelings. As a result, he would frequently overlook these signals and end up working even more.

Father John and the therapist worked to develop what the therapist called stress-inoculation skills, referred to by Father John as “intentional self-listening skills.” They began with a remarkably simple “body scan” technique. Father John felt immediate relief just by purposefully shifting into the mindset that he has a right to know/learn about his own feelings in the moment.

He practiced the body scans daily, starting at the top of his head and moving slowly to the tip of his toes. Father John found that the associated deep, cleansing breaths—four counts in through the nostrils, holding to a count of seven, and then exhaling through the mouth to a count of eight— initiated a relaxation state, making it easier to determine the location and degree of stress/other feelings he was experiencing. Father John listened closely to the “new” feelings he found within and embraced the concept of feelings as signals. He felt restored, imagining God’s healing, nonjudgmental light addressing the stress in the moment and accepting his feelings as they were, versus minimizing, ignoring, or trying to rationalize them away.

Gradually he let go of the excessive guilt accompanying his feelings of helplessness engendered by the number of hurting people around him. He was also able to employ the signals to plan some achievable action steps to help others, without giving more than he was truly able, as was his habit in the past. He felt less overwhelmed and more balanced overall as a result.

Within a relatively short period of time, practicing the body scans in and out of therapy sessions, Father John observed a recurring pattern. His tension and stress were almost always related to feelings of guilt and/or anxiety that he was not doing enough for others.

By engaging in the daily body scan practice—systematically asking himself “what, where, and how intensely” he was encountering a feeling—he was better able to utilize his feelings as intentional signals to take action instead of letting them trigger his impulse for overwork. With his therapist’s help he made the connection that his habitual self-sacrifice and responsibility issue was rooted in his history of family alcoholism. While he had always Fr. John continued been acutely aware of his parents’ alcoholism, he had never experientially connected his present-day feelings of excessive guilt with his family dynamics growing up.

Father John feels grateful he can now respond in a healthier way to stressful situations. He is more confident in his ability to manage external events he cannot control with personal and pastoral effectiveness. And, while the pandemic and upheaval around him still certainly feels overwhelming at times, he has begun to see how his family history magnified these feelings, making it harder to respond constructively. Father John is looking forward to continuing to act and respond based on his feelings as signals as opposed to reacting out of old, unconscious triggers.

For confidentiality reasons, names, identifying data, and other details of treatment have been altered.