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Chronic & Cumulative Stress: A Mental, Spiritual, and Physical Health Crisis 

By Kenya Tuttle
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

February 15, 2023


By Kenya Tuttle
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary


Photo by Jack Moreh from Freerange Stock

In October 2022, I co-led #Letstalkmentalhealth, a 3-hour Mindful Mondays series that took place over two weeks. The goal was for students of theology to have conversations about mental health, focusing specifically on psychological stress. The sponsors of the event, the Job Institute for Spiritual Formation, the Stead Center for Ethics and Values, and the Office of Student Life were intentional about creating a program that fed the mind, body, and soul through psychological awareness, nourishment, emotional support, and connection.

As a Ph.D. student in my fourth year of a clinical track program in Pastoral Theology, I was grateful to facilitate a sacred dialogue about our mental and spiritual health. Particularly how psychological stress affects our mind and body. We began dialogue by asking students to take a perceived stress assessment.

We wanted students to understand and make sense of their current and ongoing stress levels.

We aimed to foster a supportive group atmosphere to encourage students to be open about their stress and coping strategies. During sessions, students often discussed personal topics such as chronic pain, financial hardships, relationship conflict, and imposter syndrome, to name a few. As well as more routine concurrent stressors such as work, school, and family demands. In theological vocations where, professional work is so deeply tied to personal growth and wellbeing, naming stress and one’s ability to cope with it is paramount to the Christian professional ethicist theological principle of “do no harm.”

Stress affects all people as it is a survival instinct, a response to external threats. Stress is how the body reacts to anything our brains categorize as a demand, be it physical, mental, or emotional. Those demands are stressors. According to the diathesis-stress model, our biology combined with environmental stressors creates vulnerability. Our level of vulnerability is influenced by the effects of stressors combined with our mental, physical, and spiritual life. The environments we interact with, including various oppressions or privileges, and the coping skills we develop contribute to mental health outcomes, disorders, and illness.

Although we all experience stress, and its effects, chronic stress impacts some people more than others.

It is a silent killer directly associated with the six leading causes of death in the United States. Research indicates higher stress levels are predictive based on one’s race, class, gender, and sexuality oppressions. Material resources and the ability to have agency and a sense of control over factors in one’s life influences a person’s ability to respond to stressors. Intersectionality, a term developed to describe the compounding interlocking systems of oppression that affect black women, can be used to understand the interplay of stress and material reality. Both of which are deeply influenced by socioeconomic status, race, gender and sexual embodiment, and other identity markers such as ableism and migration status.

Stress and its effects on the mind and body are central to my research on black girls and intergenerational trauma. Studies show that the stress levels of mothers’ of black girls and their ability to cope with it significantly impacts their daughter’s development of coping skills. Black girls are often socialized into a structural and cultural identity of “the strong black woman.” even before they reach puberty. It is an ideology that socializes black girls and women to work tireless for others (at home and work) due to the necessity and survival of the black family but at the expense of their health and wellbeing. In addition, mothers of black and brown children are burdened with teaching their children about racism to survive within their schools and communities. Black women have the highest rates of stress and adverse health disparities of any demographic, a phenomenon known as cumulative psychological stress.

As a theological community Garrett, and communities like it, are obligated to teach and advise individuals about responses to chronic stress, and to foster a healthy community response to cumulative stress that is perpetuated through structural institutions. There is a great need to create conditions that reduce or eliminate chronic stress for those most influenced by it. Institutions and communities that value mental and spiritual health should also be spaces of equity, justice, and inclusion for diverse peoples. It takes theological leaders committed to addressing spiritual and material realities to build environments where all persons, regardless of identity, can belong and thrive. An imperative that aligns well with the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth

“But whoever has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God dwell in him?” (1 John 3:17)

As a community ethic, all should be similarly motivated by a desire to create these mindful communities of care for those around us who are most in need. Most importantly, we should seek policy change in our institutions and communities to support the right to a stress-less life, especially for those who are routinely marginalized and excluded.

Mindful Mondays will continue in the 2023 Spring Semester.

Kenya Tuttle is a fourth-year doctoral student at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in the area of Pastoral Theology, Personality and Culture (Clinical Track). She is currently completing a 3rd year clinical fellowship at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago. Her research interest centers black girls’ interpersonal relationships and attachment styles and ask how black girls are affected by intergenerational trauma.

Prior to starting the PhD, Kenya taught middle school English and Social Studies for five years to Black and Hispanic girls, where she was also a girls’ basketball Coach and Audubon Conservation Leader. Before teaching, she was a Theological Editor for youth Sunday school materials for a Baptist denominational publishing house.

Kenya has a Master of Theological Studies degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Master of Arts degree in Religion from Vanderbilt University. She was a student-athlete at Rice University obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Managerial Studies and Psychology. In her free time, Kenya enjoys holistic natural remedies, traveling, hiking, most sports, and anything in nature or by the water. She grew up in Houston, Texas, and spent her summers in Detroit, Michigan.