A therapist I know said: “It would be great if our brain differentiated between real danger and emotions, but it doesn’t.”
You probably know what she meant. It is only the beginning of the semester, and already anxiety is in the air. Students are looking at their syllabi and wondering how they are possibly going to do all that reading and write all those papers. They’re worried about the overlap between their late-night labs and their extracurricular commitments. Faculty are still working out how to use new technology to best teach in these unusual and ever-shifting times. Staff are figuring out how to do their jobs in new ways on the fly as they work through COVID regulations and staffing changes. We’ve all got lives outside of campus that bring their own worries. And oh yeah — we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic paired with political and social turmoil (enough said).
For many of us, these stressors lead to some kind of physical response: a scattered mind, trouble sleeping, the feeling of being “on edge.” Some of us are particularly prone to anxiety, and sometimes our bodies react to worries as if we’re being chased by a bear: we are overcome by shortness of breath, racing thoughts, and the impulse to run or to freeze or to punch something.
When our reactions to stress run away with us, how do we re-center?
One of the best things we can do is surprisingly simple: breathe. Taking deep, slow breaths creates a physical relaxation response in our core systems, slowing our heart rate, lowering our blood pressure, calming racing thoughts. Even if nothing in our situation changes, deep breathing can have a powerful effect on the way we experience our lives. God created us with a built-in stress-reliever: we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14)!
It’s interesting to me that the biblical Greek word for breath — pneuma — is also the word used for the Holy Spirit. Like, it would almost be acceptable to translate the name of the third Person of the Trinity: “Holy Breath.” This is fitting for today’s reflection, since Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit’s work includes comforting us, helping us, counseling us, and pleading on our behalf (John 14:26).
Our breathing is something we have control over: we can take the time to fill our bodies with air, count to four, and exhale, over and over, until we feel more calm.
But God did not create us, give us the gift of relaxing breath, and then step back to watch us manage on our own. God is our “very present help” (Ps. 46:1). And the Holy Spirit — the Holy Breath of God — is the Person of the Trinity most associated with God’s immediate presence, help, and comfort.
“[God] will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth…you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13).
The next time you feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, make use of the gift God gave you: stop, breathe, and let the power of breath relax you. Invite God into that moment with you, knowing that you do not have to do it on your own. We have been sent a Helper. We do not need to find peace on our own, because we have also been given the Breath of God.
A prayer for times of stress:
(Inhale) Come, Holy Spirit,
(Exhale) fill me with your peace.
Jan. 27, 2021
Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor James A. Wetzstein.