Three Truths About Stress & The Three Things You Can Do Right Now to Manage Stress
Laura Hull, LMFT
Stress. It’s that six letter word that we blame when we feel burned out, “under the gun,” like we’re racing the clock. Life is demanding for most people. The things in life that require our time, our focus, our patience, can usually be labeled and categorized under the heading of “stressors”. Stress usually gets a bad rap. Stress isn’t a bad word. Stress isn’t necessarily even a bad thing. Here are some truths about stress:
· Stress isn’t “all-bad”. In fact, it could be argued that we need a little stress in our lives to give it structure. Stay with me here – think about it. Meeting deadlines for work or for paying bills, arriving at designated times to work or social events, taking on extra activities such as PTA, becoming a coach for our children’s t-ball team…. these commitments certainly add stress to our lives, but it also gives structure to our lives and our time. Sometimes we get ourselves in trouble, or “stressed out” by over-committing. The difference between stresses that are good for us versus bad is often determined by our ability to maintain balance in our lives.
· Some people handle stress better than others. This is a fact of life. Some people thrive under the stress of deadlines, packed kids schedules, and the expectation of a hot meal being on the stove every night when the family finally piles around the kitchen table after a fully packed day of activities. Still, others start the day with debilitating anxiety when they consider the stress of the upcoming day and the daunting task of addressing everything that needs to be done. Whether we are people who thrive under pressure or buckle under the weight does not necessarily mean we are strong or weak people. It does not determine our worth or value to our jobs or our families. But some people process the stresses of life better than others. Acknowledging this fact does not mean that people who function like the energizer bunny are happier people or that people who feel the effects of stress more than others are doomed to be unhappy. Not at all! But understanding where we fall on the spectrum allows us to develop or obtain the skills and/or tools we need in order to manage the stresses in our lives, and perhaps adjust expectations concerning what we can and cannot handle.
· The inability to manage stress will negatively impact us, potentially in physical, mental, emotional or spiritual ways. Some people eat too much when under stress, causing unhealthy weight gain. Some people internalize stress in ways that cause sleep problems, perhaps even high blood pressure and stress headaches. Some people have mental issues that are exacerbated by stress, which causes anxiety and depression. Some people cannot experience peace, joy and happiness because of the stressors in life. Some people forget to turn to God when life becomes overly demanding, and they stumble in their faith, in their walk with God.
So, we can all acknowledge that we experience stress in our lives. And if we were being totally honest, most of us would concede that managing stress is a challenge at times. Now that we’ve acknowledged this, what can we do to make the stresses in our lives work to our advantage or at least be a more neutral factor in our lives? Here are three things that are a must for managing stress:
- Take a hard and honest look at where time is being invested. Jobs and extra activities can take much, if not most, of our physical and mental energy. Is our commitment in this area negatively impacting our marriages or our family unit? Time is our greatest asset in life. Where we put our time is where our heart is, even if we protest differently. I am not speaking to those of us who work two or three jobs just to put a roof over our heads or food on the table for our children. I am speaking to the executive who works 70-80 hours a week, missing birthdays, soccer games, school plays, anniversaries, etc. If we say that family is the priority but we give the family the “leftover time” after the demands of our jobs (or more honestly, our ambitions) are met, we are fooling ourselves if we think we are managing the demands and stresses of life well. If we are working to pay for a Lexus because we don’t want to drive a Hyundai; if we are working insane hours to pay for that luxury cruise instead of working that much out of the need to put food on the table; if the desire to be an executive is more important than being there for our spouses and children, we are missing the mark. We will not have the marriage we could have or the relationship with our children that we could have if we function this way. In the same vein, parents who over-commit their families to activities that continuously drain from quality family time are missing the mark as well. Strained marriages and distant relationships with our children or other family members are just as stressful as having money problems, if not more. We must take an honest look at our lives and ourselves and make changes in areas where we are not managing our stresses well.
- Narrow our world and simplify our lives. Some stresses in our lives are unavoidable, but some totally are. It may be time to eliminate things in our lives that require time or money that we just don’t have. Maybe tightening our belts and adjusting our monthly budget will allow for fewer hours spent on work and the stresses of bills. We also must learn to say “no”. Just because we are offered the opportunity to be a part of something does not mean it’s wise to always say yes, even if it seems like a good opportunity. Maybe it is time to limit our children’s after school activities to one activity or sport per season instead of trying to expose our kids to many different experiences at once. Maybe we need to take a whole season off and “do nothing” for a short while. Our children experience stress in similar ways to adults. When their time is over-committed, when they do not have “down time” built into their schedules, they experience many of the same physical and emotional ailments that adults do. While we are trying to learn to live more balanced lives, we need to teach our children these lessons as well. They will have their whole adult lives to work hard and experience stress. Children certainly need to see and learn about the importance of a good work ethic, but they also need time to just be kids. Life will teach them all about stress soon enough. If they watch Mom and Dad struggling with the stresses of life in negative ways, they will be learning lessons that they will one-day mirror in their own lives. This is probably not a good thing.
- Acceptance. We can never be totally free of stress in our lives. We must accept this fact or we will be continuously banging our heads against the wall in frustration. Some things in life we cannot change. For example, some health issues are outside of our control and bring considerable amounts of stress into our lives. Is it fair that a 40-year-old mother of two young children is diagnosed with breast cancer? No. But the fairness of it is not worth pondering. It is a major stressor in life for her and her family, and dealing with what must be done to address her health and the well-being of the family is the priority. Unforeseen things such as debilitating illnesses or accidents or perhaps a sudden job loss, introduce stresses into life in ways that are unavoidable much of the time. Sometimes situations with our extended families, close friends, or even our children, brings headache, heartache or buckets-full of stress into our lives that we have little control over and little hope of changing. If we are fortunate enough not to contend with these types of things in our own lives, then praise God! But even if we do end up dealing with these types of situations, still, praise God. We always need Him, but it seems like we remember it more in times of trouble, perhaps more than in times of prosperity. It shouldn’t be this way, but often is.
With God’s help, we can learn to apply the serenity prayer to our lives, in this case pertaining to the stresses in life that challenge our ability to live the lives God wants for us. Through Him we have the courage to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things that can’t be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.