#59: Tips to Skillfully Cope with Life’s Inevitable Stressors
This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com.
We all have an endless “to do” list that we can’t keep up with. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all our responsibilities and tasks, but that cumulative stress is incredibly harmful to our physical and mental wellbeing. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU Chaplain Kyle Sorys about his role in offering emotional and spiritual support to students and faculty. Learn ways to skillfully cope with life’s inevitable stressors like dedicating a day each week “no work” where you just enjoy life, establishing “no screen time” each day, getting more sleep, eating better, and meditating. Also reduce stress by learning how to extend self-compassion and self-kindness to yourself in conscious acknowledgement that you’re doing the best you can. All these tips can improve your overall wellbeing and help you live a fuller, less stressful, life.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Hello, everyone. And welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We are so excited to have you today, because we have a special guest, Chaplain Kyle Sorys. He is going to share a lot of expertise with us today. And as you know, our podcast is geared toward online educators. So you’re living and working online and you have a lot on your plate, and we hope today you’ll find something that makes working online just a little bit easier to manage.
Your life online is something we have covered quite a bit in the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We’ve talked about sleeping more, getting some better exercise and some activity going, there. And we’ve also talked about eating healthy and managing your time. So today we’re going to meet Chaplain Kyle Sorys and I’m really excited to have him here today. So, Kyle, welcome.
Kyle Sorys: Thank you.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thanks for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your path to becoming an online chaplain at APU and AMU?
Kyle Sorys: To me it’s like two questions. It’s like, how did you get here? Where we all can resonate with, since we all work for this organization. And also, what was the path to becoming a chaplain?
And so I’ll just say the chaplaincy, the profession of chaplaincy, I stumbled into it. And I wonder how true that is for most people in their professions versus seeking it out? The truth is when I was in college, when I graduated undergrad and I was looking at master’s programs, I just wanted to take all the classes. I really wanted to be a professional student. I wish they paid me, instead of me paying the school.
But yeah, all the classes, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I want to take that one. I want to take that one.” And it’s like, “This is training you to be a chaplain.” I’m like, “Okay.” I had no idea what a chaplain was, but I’m like, “Okay. I just want to take the classes. If these classes train me to become a chaplain, then I’ll be a chaplain.”
So yeah, graduate. And then learn what chaplaincy really is. And here’s a learning curve that first year when you’re new to something. So I cut my teeth in the hospital for a while. After that, I did church ministry, youth ministry, specifically. That’s where I met Chaplain Cynthia, who is our full-time primary chaplain at APUS.
[Read an article by Chaplain Cynthia: Embracing Change in This Era of Mass Confusion and Fear]
So it’s interesting how our paths course correct or flow. Just interesting to me. Like the whole purpose of that one year at the church, because I never saw myself working at a church, was I think just to meet Cynthia, just to connect with her.
And so after that, I still do it, too. Not as much because of the pandemic, but a hospice chaplaincy. And Cynthia asked to me to help her out and come on online university chaplaincy. There’s such things as university chaplains like on site, but I’m wondering if APUS, Cynthia, myself, and we have another one, Audrey, if we’re the only online university chaplains in the world, which boggles my mind.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow. That is interesting to think about. And I’m wondering what might be different, just to expand that a little bit, about being a chaplain online versus in the live space? What’s the change?
Kyle Sorys: So in hospice, I call it ministry of presence. Being one-on-one with another person, having the physical energy of another person. That gets removed on the online environment. Hence why I really, when I’m working with students or with staff or faculty, mainly it’s students I work with, I really try to talk with them over the phone, at least get the voice. That way I can have a feeling or an understanding. Get that body language, but in the voice. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s like voice language, but under the language, does that make sense?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. It sounds like tone and inflection and mood.
Kyle Sorys: Yeah, exactly. Because I learned, a lot of emails, right? A lot of emails in the online university profession. The written word, it makes it a little challenging to try to really feel what the person’s going through. Really hear what they’re trying to say. And I find myself, well, I hear this in the writing. It’s like, well, I hear it in the word, but I don’t literally hear it in my ear. So that makes it challenging.
But the freedom it gives too, that you can be anywhere in the world and we can connect this whole now Zoom revolution in a way. Everyone’s on a screen. There’s a lot more flexibility versus, “Oh. You have to meet me in my office, or I have to come meet you. And how far, and where are you?” And more localized as well. I can’t go physically visit someone in the East coast when I’m living right in the middle of the country. So pros and cons.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. And just before we jump into some of the things we might want to talk about today, can you give just a brief, “What is a chaplain?” for any of our listeners who are really just not familiar with that role?
Kyle Sorys: I’m still trying to figure it out myself. It’s funny. Was it last week or a couple of weeks ago? Quarterly, we do “Meet the Chaplains,” and that’s where I explain the profession of chaplaincy a little bit. And traditionally, it is clergy members, but in a secular environment, like a hospital, the military, prisons, fire departments, police departments, so secular organizations bring a traditionally religious person in, has a religious background. I think that’s evolving and changing that ritual religious ritual ministry is important, but that’s not the emphasis here on the online university. Maybe that’s one to five percent. I think I’ve prayed once or twice. I don’t know how many students I’ve worked with in the past year that really requested prayer. Most of it is emotional support. And underlying that is spiritual support.
So in brief, chaplaincy is offering spiritual and emotional support. Hence the importance of that ministry of presence, of just being with someone in their struggles and just listening to their story. So another definition I could say as me as a chaplain is someone who hears stories and just appreciates hearing stories.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. It sounds like a really engaging profession and also one with a lot of variety.
Kyle Sorys: Yeah.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: On the idea of the emotional and the spiritual support, it seems that online faculty in particular are very heavily loaded nowadays. They’re doing a lot. It takes a lot of time. As you mentioned, a lot of emails. They experience that too. What would you like to share with listeners about stress management?
Kyle Sorys: First, it really is about an acceptance that stress exists. You can’t escape it. So there’s no need to resist the stress. Because stress can mean a whole lot of things to different people too. So when I contemplate, like what is stress? And for me, stress is whatever disturbs the mind, whatever disturbs the heart. It’s those winds and storms of life.
And sometimes it’s unavoidable, but most often we’re the ones creating that wind and those storms and those disturbances of the mind.
There’s an analogy that you could get hit with a dart or shot with a dart, a really sharp dart. It hurts. And what do you do with it? Well, most often what happens is we take more darts and stab ourselves, instead of just pulling that dart out and going about our life. So stress happens and what do we do? What is our reaction to the stress?
And so to manage stress, there’s skillful coping and unskillful coping. And it’s really cultivating these skillful coping mechanisms where we just pull that first dart out, instead of adding a second dart or a third dart or fourth dart and so on. And then adding more darts because we’re adding darts.
So that’s definitely where I’d say, start with stress management. Just accept and open to the fact that it is unavoidable.
And then investigating, what are we adding onto it? Is it in our benefit or is it making things worse? Because most often stress happens, we react and we don’t even realize how we’re reacting. It’s just so much habit patterns and conditioning. So really learning what’s under that and managing that, then the stress itself. Stress, you can think of it as more as a symptom of an underlying condition going on.
The stress is not personal. I have that, that sometimes we like to think it’s about us. It’s against us. That it’s a personal attack or life’s out to get us, like we did something wrong. All that we add on to it. No, stress is just stress. It’s not personal.
I think if we can really connect with that, at least for me, if I connect with that, that it’s just nature arising, nature unfolding, just stress happening. It’s not personal. There’s a letting go in that. There’s a release and that which helps the stress.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: As you’re describing this, I’m getting this idea. There’s this concept that thoughts just exist and they might float through your mind and float out of your mind. And if you have a negative thought, you could just imagine that and let it go in the same way. Your analogy to the darts makes me think of that same idea, passing through.
Kyle Sorys: Exactly. There’s two common analogies of the mind. One is the sky. Sometimes you get the nice, beautiful fluffy white clouds just slowly rolling by. Other times, there’s dark, stormy clouds filled with water, ready to burst. Sometimes there’s lightning and sometimes there’s tornadoes. But it’s just weather patterns of the mind. It all comes and goes. And exactly, do you want to get involved with the clouds? Are you even able to get involved with the clouds and the storm? Or you just watch it? Yeah, exactly, just take a step back and just watch the clouds pass by.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Thank you, Kyle. So what strategies might our listeners want to try to deal with their stress or manage it?
Kyle Sorys: This is a hard question to answer, honestly, because it’s so individual. Strategies that work for me may not work for another person and vice versa. But when we were talking before, when you invited me and we talked about what this podcast would entail, I remember mentioning a story that popped up called “what’s done is finished.” So for this question, I’m going to read that story. It’s really short, but I just want to share that to hopefully plant this seed. You can come to keep in mind the importance of this phrase, “what’s done is finished.” And this comes out of my probably favorite book, “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?“
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds great.
Kyle Sorys: Oh, it’s awesome. Yes. So what’s done is finished.
“The monsoon in Thailand is from July to October. During this period, the monastics stopped traveling, put aside all work projects and devote themselves to study and meditation. The period is called the Vassa, the rain’s retreat.
“In the South of Thailand some years ago, a famous abbot was building a new hall for his forest monastery. When the rains retreat came, he stopped all work and sent the builders home. This was the time for quiet in his monastery.
“A few days later, a visitor came, saw the half-constructed building and asked the abbot when his hall would be finished? Without hesitation, the old monk said, ‘The hall is finished.’
“‘What do you mean the hall is finished?’ the visitor replied, taken aback. ‘It hasn’t got a roof. There are no doors or windows. There are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the place. Are you going to leave it like this? Are you mad? What do you mean, the hall is finished?’
The old abbot smiled and gently replied, ‘What’s done is finished.’ And then he went away to meditate.” That is the only way to have a retreat or take a break. Otherwise, our work is never finished.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What a way to frame that idea.
Kyle Sorys: Yeah. That to-do list. We all have a to-do list. It’s just part of our adult life and it never ends. I know I get stuck on what’s left. Oh, it just keeps accumulating and I can’t keep up. Versus just set it down and looking at it. Nope. I checked that box off. I checked that box off and having it, it’s good enough. What’s done is finished. And there is a letting go in that.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Kyle, thank you for sharing that story and the great example of how to re-conceptualize or view it differently when we’re feeling like the tasks just never stop. They never go away. And in our online teaching world, it does often feel that way, because we might have classes overlapping. There might be an endless pile of forum discussions to reply to, or essays to grade and more to do. So very nice concept to think about just being finished. I like that.
Kyle Sorys: There’s another philosophy I personally stick to, and I understand I don’t have family. I don’t have children. So it’s really easy for me to implement this into my life. But one day a week, I truly commit to no work-related tasks. Even thoughts about work. I’m like, “Nope. Setting those aside. Today’s not the day.” One day a week to live life as I feel it’s meant to be lived, whatever nourishes me spiritually, emotionally. Because come to this understanding that I guess it’s a bigger view. Again when I was in college, it was in Boulder and we called it the Boulder bubble.
Around Boulder, there’s just these majestic mountains and all this natural, just uncivilized greatness and wonderfulness. But you get so bogged down in the Boulder bubble, the assignments due, the busy-ness of traffic, this where to go, those daily tasks of life that we forget the big picture that these mountains exist. And then the big picture of space and time. When we really contemplate our lifespan in the grand scheme of things, a space in time. We’re a blip, or a blip of a blip. And life is precious.
Our time is precious. And in hospice work, I joke, but I’m serious when I say this, that I have heard nobody, not one person on their death bed ever say, “I wish I worked more.” So what’s really important in life? So at least commit one day to embracing that, what life is really about for you.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful guidance. Thank you for that piece as well, Kyle. Now I hear you are a bit of a connoisseur of meditation.
Kyle Sorys: Yes.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Maybe have some strategies you could suggest for a beginner. How might we try meditation?
Kyle Sorys: You start where you are. That’s first. You just start where you are. It’s funny. Because the instruction to meditate is really simple. But in actual practice, it can be quite challenging. And that’s why we call it practice. But if anyone is interested in meditation I might say, “If you’re really serious, call me, contact me, email me, and I’d love to talk one-on-one more about it.” That way it can be more of a personal and individualized approach, because not everyone is at the same starting point.
No one has the same causes and conditions happening in their life. So that helps. But basically, really you just commit to a practice, and you start very small, and the practice is stopping and resting. You just sit and be. And breathe.
The image that was given is it’s like sitting on a park bench. What do you do? You just sit. You just be, when you sit on a park bench, and you just take in the sensory experience, be it the birds singing or the people around, or if there’s children playing or the firmness of the bench seat. The warmth of the sun, you’re just in that moment. Whatever’s happening, arising, you’re just being with it. Again, another joke, but serious, we’re called human beings, but we’re conditioned as human doings. So really it’s tapping in what does that mean to be a human being? To just be, to learn to set things down? That’s meditation, the essence.
What really helps is when you do sit, you’ll see that the mind just carries these bags of past and future. And if you’ve ever carried heavy luggage, maybe that’s a thing of the past, because everything’s on wheels now. But if you carry these heavy bags, how wonderful it feels to let them go and set them down, right?
So that’s what we’re doing is just not giving into the lure of the nostalgia of the past, or reminiscing about the past. Or planning and worrying and creating an anxiety about the future, which is uncertain. Whatever you think is going to happen, probably rarely ever happens that way.
So, that’s the practice, just at least five minutes a day. Start small. Going to stop. This five minutes in the morning and this five minutes in the afternoon or this five minutes in the evening, this is my time to just stop. Put a force field around me that keeps everything out. Just for these five minutes, I’m taking a mini-vacation and relax to the max.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, I liked the sound of that. In fact, as you were describing it, I was starting to think about the birds chirping and just getting really present in the now, and not worried about the next hour or the next day or when those assignments are coming due and all the grading we’re going to be facing, needing to manage that time. But just thinking about the moment you’re in and letting go of anxiety. Really appreciate you sharing that suggestion and a little bit of a process with us as well. Thank you, Kyle.
Kyle Sorys: You’re welcome.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What else, if anything, might you suggest or share with us that could really help online educators with their stress management or maybe anything else that has to do with their overall wellbeing? What do you think?
Kyle Sorys: You mentioned it in the beginning. You I guess talked about it in the past. That the body and the mind are not separate. So to take care of the mind, as in meditation, you also need to take care of the body. Meditation is rest, but rest is also physical rest. So we are a very sleep-deprived society.
And I had one student. She was going mad. She was really stressing out and that was the one question like, “How’s your sleep?” That’s all I asked and she said, “I don’t sleep. I kind of this and this.” And I checked in with her and she just asked like, “Did you get sleep last night?” And she goes, “Oh.” Like her mind was just reset and how everything just smoothed out for her, just because she got one good night of sleep. I think we forget that. Maybe we forget that because that to-do list, right? Like, “Oh. I got to wake up. I got to do this.”
Move the body. Working with elderly people, that’s their advice. I ask them like, “What’s your nugget of wisdom?” And some of them will say, “Make sure you move that body every day.” Be it stretching, walking. Because just reflect what’s the percentage of your daily time committed to sitting or lying down? It’s too much for me. I’ll admit that’s way too much. And to be conscious of standing more, just even standing and walking, moving, and stretching and being mindful when I’m bending over. And I guess this body communicates that to me. It’s like, “Take care of me. If you don’t, I’m going to make you.”
And then, yeah, the nutrition also. I guess you’ve talked about that in the past. What fuel are you putting in the body? That affects the mind as well. Other well-being tips… Like committing to not having work, but having periods in the day where, “This time, no screens allowed,” because we are definitely becoming a civilization of screens and can get really caught in the screens. And I just know it tires my eyes. It tires my mind just looking at the light. I don’t know. It does funny things to me. Maybe that’s just me, but I have a sense others might experience that as well. But be aware to take time out from the screen. I actually had a friend, that’s a slogan. He goes, “Put yourself in timeout at least once a day.”
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And someone said to me, “Be your own parent.” It sounds a lot like that.
Kyle Sorys: It’s hard. Right?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Exactly.
Kyle Sorys: As adults, we struggle the most feeding ourselves and putting ourselves to bed.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: It’s true.
Kyle Sorys: Yeah. I think of, with stress, another way to think of stress, I like this. That the mind is like a garden. And so everything in life that we consider good or bad, it really is neither. It just is. But it can all be used as fertilizer for the mind. And so when we step in the crap of life, our reaction is to get away from it, to scrape it off the shoe, to be repulsed and disgusted by it. It’s so nasty. But we could just leave it on our shoe and take it home and then scrape it off in our garden and it’ll grow some beautiful flowers.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That is a great, great visualization there.
Kyle Sorys: And the importance of self-kindness and self-compassion. “You are doing the best you can. You have to remember that.” Pretty much everybody is doing the best they can. And if you’re not, if you ask yourself, “Am I doing the best I can?” You say, “No,” then you know like, “Oh, okay. I need to be striving a little bit.”
Most often, you’re going to say, and “Yes, of course I am.” And just, well, have some kindness there. Have some gentleness there. Another slogan or motto that I use often is, “You make peace. You be kind and you be gentle. To yourself, to others, to this moment. Just make peace, be kind and be gentle.”
And I think that can go a long way in helping with the stress and wellbeing. Cultivating lightheartedness, having a sense of humor, the importance of humor and playfulness. This adult mind forgets that skill and its so vital to childhood development. But I do believe it’s still that aspect of play and humor is vital to our adult development as well. And to just cope with the inevitable stressors of life.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. Kyle, thank you for all that you’ve shared today. I can tell that you draw on your expertise from your various background experiences you shared with us earlier. And also, even though this is just online, you and I are looking at each other on video while we’re recording this. And I really feel like I have a sense for your presence. I don’t think that virtual totally prevents that from coming through. It’s just nice to be here with you, and thanks again for all you’ve shared with our listeners today.
Kyle Sorys: Likewise, Bethanie. Thank you very much.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. So as we wrap it up, this is the Online Teaching Lounge podcast and we’ve been here with Chaplain Kyle Sorys and talking about your wellbeing as an online educator. We wish you all the best this coming week in being the best version of you in your online teaching.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.