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I was in a Facebook conversation with a friend about the stress she was under. Her husband had helpfully suggested that perhaps she should “just not feel it.” Sensing that this was probably not the best advice he’d given her in their marriage, she was crowd sourcing ideas about how to deal with the emotional pressure she was feeling.
That led me to think about my own experience with stress. Stress, as a word, is just too vague to do anything about. Most of us think of stress as mental or emotional pressure. But how do you do anything about pressure? You can’t unless you’re thinking clearly about where the pressure is coming from.
Any solution for stress that tries to reduce the level of stress in general is a short-term bandaid. Somebody gets a massage, someone else goes to a emotional worship service, someone else gets drunk to forget their problems. All of these make the stress feel less present for a while, but none of them address the causes. So, how can you really reduce your stress?
It’s Not Stress that Matters, It’s Stressors
When I am under a great deal of stress, I’m actually experiencing a number of different things, all blurring together into an incoherent cloud of pressure. Living under that cloud for too long is crushing–and it very often leads to making bad decisions.
Instead, I’ve begun to learn how to identify the different contributing factors that add to my stress load. When I look at the stressors rather than the stress, it often turns out that I can do something about them. When I do that, I start to feel less stress. (What do you know?!)
So, what lies hidden in that cluttered cloud of pressure? For me the stressors often include:
1) Unmet commitments to others.
I have a hard time saying no to people because I want them to like and value me. In the past that meant that I constantly over-committed my time and emotional resources. I always had a stack of unresolved commitments floating around out there.
This is one of the easiest stressors to deal with. First, resolve the commitments. Either do the thing you promised to do or choose to get out of it. Apologize for overcommitting. It will be painful, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly your stress diminishes as you take care of those unresolved commitments.
The second step is harder. Start being careful about what you say yes to. Having clear personal core values helps with this. Any commitment you make will have a certain payoff for you, but it will also have a certain cost. Remember that you have a limited amount of time, energy and emotional bandwidth available to you. Spend it intentionally and wisely.
2) Irrational self-imposed commitments.
It turns out that I have committed myself to being responsible for some crazy things. I’ve spent a lot of my life acting like I was responsible for how other people felt and whether they were successful or not. As a pastor, I felt I was entirely responsible for how effective my church was being.
This is called hyper-responsibility. It’s an enormous cause of stress for two reasons: First, because it’s an unresolved commitment (See #1). Second, because it’s a commitment that is impossible to succeed at. Apparently I am not in charge of how other people feel! I am not in charge of making sure that everything works out perfectly. When I started to realize this (with good coaching from my counselor), I started to feel less of the associated fear, anxiety, and pressure. Honestly, this category was responsible for the largest portion of my stress and unhappiness. God’s been fixing this up in me, and I’m a lot happier.
Resolving this is more complicated because you’re the one who set those obligations to begin with, and you have very good reasons for doing so. That means it’s going to take someone outside your head–a trusted friend, probably even a counselor–to help you see where you are doing this. Then it takes practice and reminders to keep track of what commitments you actually can do something about, and which ones you should let go of.
3) Fear of circumstances that are out of my control.
Because of my hyper-responsibility and need to hold it all together, circumstances that are out of my control can drive me over the edge. My father died traumatically when I was a child. This event led me to a very controlled life on the basis of flawed childhood logic: “If I can control everything in my life, then painful unexpected things can’t happen to me.”
As an adult I was not aware of this motive in me, not rationally. All I knew is that I felt a powerful and painful twist in my gut whenever things started happening that were out of my control. I’d act and take on commitments based on that feeling. But that feeling was leading me astray. This is why the well-known serenity prayer is so wise: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Resolving this stressor involves getting clear about what I cannot control, and actively practicing trust. For me, this has been an important part of my spiritual growth. The more I come to understand God’s character and heart for me, the more I can trust.
4) Unprocessed Emotional Debris.
Finally my cloud of stress is thick with unprocessed emotional debris. Each unresolved painful conversation, each painful loss that’s gone without grieving, each broken expectation–these all leave a residue in our spirits. Time doesn’t heal this wound; It blinds us to it. This emotional residue leaks out of us all the time. It shows up when you get too angry at someone for something that should have only been irritating. It shows up when you hear a certain tone of voice from your spouse, and you assume they are being accusatory. Until you’ve processed the root pain or loss, it stays in you slowly leaking out, manifesting itself as a vague sense of emotional heaviness, anxiety or unease.
Resolving this stressor requires emotional and spiritual growth. For me it continues to involved counseling, a great deal of journaling, and actively thinking about my emotions every day. The more I’ve done this work–cried over my losses, written angry journal entries at God, reflected on my gratitude–the less stressed I feel. I have less emotional clutter floating around me. That’s positively impacted my relationships, my work and my energy level.
A wholehearted life is a life with more peace. More peace means less stress. But stress doesn’t go away just because you want it to. Understanding why you feel this mental and emotional pressure is a step you can take that will make an enormous difference.
How do you manage stress in your life?