Photo by Jack Moreh from Freerange Stock
Stress is a prevalent form of emotional, psychological, and affective tension when we cannot control exterior situations or pressure. Because it comes from the exterior world to our mind, it is hard to reflect on how it formed or predict how it affects our mental health. It is like a car accident, cancer, COVID-19, or even a cold in that we cannot predict how they will come to us. But stress and other mental health issues are considered minor compared to these incidents or other diseases because they are not tangible or visible. This is one reason why individuals, communities, and even religious institutions are not open to creating spaces where people can share their stress, anxiety, and depression. This unwillingness and the systemic stigmatization of mental illness results in an increased level of suicide and substance misuse.
Fortunately, many people are now sharing their internal struggles more freely than in the past. They regard these struggles as a kind of disease that should be intensively cared for like other medical issues. Religious and theological institutions are also beginning to consider mental health as a significant part of their work. We don’t have to hide our struggles anymore. Now, we want others to know more about our inner world, our stress, and our anxiety in order to live better lives, and to survive.
However, I would like to espouse it. We want to survive when we face the uncertainty of modern life that engulfs our existential and spiritual ways of being. Our lifestyle, which is a complicated entanglement of sociocultural, political, and economic systems in this global world, can lead to social stigmatization. When we encounter this complex web, it can cause us to hide our inner vulnerability and shut down emotional reciprocity. We, then, become a subordinate part of this capitalistic society, rather than a spiritually whole person. It is why we seek to survive in this inimical structure of stigmatizing severance and achieve the whole well-being of life through emotional and spiritual growth.
This past November, I co-led two Mindful Monday gatherings for students on Garrett’s campus, an initiative co-sponsored by the Job Institute and the Stead Center. As a PhD student studying clinical counseling and pastoral care, I believe that the two sessions of Mindful Mondays were an intentional attempt at survival and growth. We shared our stress and stressors from our daily routines. We had what some might label as trivial conversations about how we usually recognize our stress and try to cope with it. Those conversations were not different from what we usually do with our family, friends, or a loved partner. However, I observed how sharing our voices allowed us to create a meaningful union of solidarity and emotional bonds.
For example, students’ opened conversations about their financial concerns and other series of problems. They knew it was a sensitive issue and viewed it through many layers, but their courage and willingness to share created a space in which we could discover how these sensitive issues intermingled with other economic and systemic problems.
While our conversation did not go further, because the gathering was for a mindful conversation about individual stress, not an intentional meeting for social justice or a space to solve each other’s problems. But the moment of awareness was meaningful enough to recognize the legitimacy of our spiritual survival and growth, as well as the wholeness and integration of our being: body, mind, spirit, and society. Even though total control of our stress and related neurological response cannot take place autonomically, we can at least be mindful of emotional regulation: What am I feeling now? Why am I feeling this? How can I respond? Likewise, we can also be mindful to trace the route of social injustice that severs our integrity into fragmented ways of living. A mindful practice of mental health not only releases stress, but also provides spiritual growth and awareness. I believe that mindfulness of the interconnection between body, mind, and society can generate a new version of perspectives for change. A perspective that helps us see ourselves as a whole, not fragmented components split into body, mind, and spirit.
We live within the holistic function of our body, mind, and spirit. Not the capitalistic system this world imposes on us. And the three elements cannot be separated. Therefore, all matters, including medical disease and mental health, are a matter of our spirituality. Indeed, mental health care is spiritual care. I hope that our faith communities and theological education pay more attention to it so that we can craft a counternarrative of wholeness against the capitalistic and stigmatizing systems of the world.
Hamin Kwak is a Rueben P. Job Institute Fellow pursuing a Ph.D. in pastoral theology, personality, and culture.