So, last week’s “Wellness Wednesday” was about managing stress, and the May Fundamental Foods Dinner was going to be about managing stress, but now I find myself in the position of having to cancel this month’s dinner, mostly due to the stress of family health issues. Funny, right?
A New Way Of Thinking
In the past – maybe as recently as a year ago – I would have let this upset me. Call me driven. Call me a perfectionist. I like things to go according to plan – my plan. But I’ve had to learn the value of letting things go. There are things I can control in life…and then there is the other 99.9999999999% of what happens in my life. Sometimes, doing the best thing is a hard choice.
But it brings up a good point to follow up from last week’s article: even though you can’t control your circumstances, there are things you can do to control your stress in the midst of your circumstances. As I’ve been thinking about last week’s article, I realized there were some additional things I wanted to share.
More Than Biology
Stress is not simply a biological function of neurotransmitters. As I re-read last week’s article, I could see where you might draw that conclusion from it. We are complex beings, which is why my practice is built around the concept of multi-faceted wholeness, not just physical wellness.
Even though you might be experiencing the pressure in your head, gut, or limbs, stress starts with a belief. Beliefs form thoughts. Thoughts trigger emotions, and emotions drive choices. You can destroy a career, a marriage, or an organization in under five minutes if you don’t understand this algorithm: belief – thought – emotion – choice. Feed a negative belief into that system and your choices will be made out of fear, anger, shame, or self-interest.
When you understand that your choices are driven by emotional pressure, you can take control of them and save yourself from shipwrecking your life. This is also how you can control your stress. Think about this: every choice you’ve ever regretted making was driven by emotional pressure based on wrong beliefs. Emotion is always more powerful than logic, so the key to winning at life is to recognize emotional pressure for what it is and shut it down. You can reverse engineer your choices through your emotions, back to your thoughts, and ultimately, your beliefs. If anything in that chain is based on wrong information, you can identify it and correct it. That’s the great thing about being a human with a free will.
If I believe that my boss is out to get me and wants me to lose my one shot at a decent career for which I spent thousands of dollars for a college degree, I will act accordingly, even if it isn’t true. Of course, if those conditions aren’t real, then panicking, quitting my job, or sabotaging my boss would properly be viewed as irrational. Have you ever made an irrational decision based on false information with a high-octane emotional engine? How did that turn out?
Real-life Stress-management Strategies
Let’s look at a couple of mental and emotional strategies we can apply to kill the emotional engine and make better decisions.
Get Real, Get Specific
If you find yourself feeling anxious about an upcoming meeting, ask yourself why. Set aside the emotional drivers of your stress by picturing yourself outside of the situation and imagining you are advising a friend who is going through your situation.
What is it about this meeting or this person you’re about to talk to, that makes you feel anxious? Can they take something away from you? Most fears are rooted in the fear of loss. Can they physically harm you? Are you afraid they are going to embarrass you or make you feel bad about yourself? Try to be as objective about your feelings as possible. Anxious feelings are just feelings, and feelings will lie to you, especially if they are based on wrong information. (I just described the plot of every single episode of “Three’s Company.” Ask your mom.)
Feelings are not rational, logical, or accurate. They can be helpful at times in your life, but they can also cloud a situation. When they are fueling stress, get them out of your thinking.
Be Clear On Priorities
Much of the stress in our lives comes from a place of conflict over priorities and values. You wanted to spend your day off fishing, but your wife wanted you to spend it doing yard work. You planned to leave work early to be at your daughter’s recital, but your boss asked you to finish something before you leave. You really like your new boyfriend, but he does things that make you uncomfortable.
The clearer you are about your identity, your values, and your priorities in life, the better choices you can make to prevent stress. If I were looking for a job, I would not look for one where I would be selling candy and soda to grocery stores. I would not look for a job that kept me away from my family for days or weeks at a time (although my practice did end up that way at one point, due to my own choices).
At the same time, there are situations where the rules change and no one asked you. Sometimes, pressures in a business demand that people put in extra hours to keep the ship afloat. Or you might get a new boss who expects you to engage in behaviors that violate your conscience. At that point, you have a choice to make, and how much stress you are willing to undergo will be your guide. Of course, if you don’t know what your values and priorities are, anything goes – until you find your breaking point. It’s the same thing I told my kids about dating.
If a job or a relationship puts you in a position where you feel like your values, priorities, or identity are compromised, stress is the natural outcome. If you can clearly establish your values, priorities, and identity early on, and evaluate all your decisions based on those criteria, you will save yourself a great deal of stress.
Set Aside 15 Minutes To Be Alone…Or Not
Meditation has been around as long as humans have, and there are countless forms and variations. Whether you like yoga, prayer, stretching, or reading, most forms of meditation involve alignment: alignment of the body and mind, alignment of the spine and limbs, alignment of the mind and spirit, or alignment of the mind with truth. Call it harmony, grounding, centering, or balance, the ultimate goal is to separate yourself from the pressures of the moment and anchor yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually.
My personal preference is to align myself with my God and His Word for a few minutes each morning. Through that relationship, I anchor myself to fundamental truths about myself, the world and my place in it, the past, the future, and wisdom. I can get clarity on my identity, values, and priorities by basing them on God’s.
I suppose I could use that time to empty my mind, as some do, but I’ve found it much more productive to spend it connecting to Someone much wiser than myself. When you see your life and stress points from His perspective, they don’t look as big or feel as daunting. And knowing that I’m not alone in my challenges gives me confidence.
Which brings me to my next point.
Sleep is the body’s daily reset. If the Pixar movie, “Inside Out” is an accurate representation of the cerebral cortex (and I believe it is), sleep is when your mind clears out old information and assimilates new data info existing thought structures. It is also when your nervous system, digestive system, muscular systems, lymphatic system, and endocrine system flush out toxins and unused chemicals.
If you don’t give your body a proper shut-down, the reset is left incomplete and you spend the next day wading through yesterday’s leftovers. Sleep deprivation triggers adrenaline and cortisol bursts, which can inflame your systems. If you were emotional yesterday, you will wake this morning emotionally fatigued and on high-alert (aka, hypersensitive). Small bumps feel like big bumps, and surprises (even good surprises) can feel like trauma. I can hear Billy Joel’s song, “Pressure,” playing in the back of my mind (no snarky comments about my age, please).
Over-reaction should be expected in a case like this, but unless the people around you know what’s going on in your head, your outburst will come as a nasty surprise to them, and they will react accordingly. Their reactions will naturally put you on the defensive, and we enter a vicious cycle of escalating reactions until someone walks away or a cooler head prevails. I wonder how many times I have been in that exact situation. I shudder to think of it.
Get some rest.
There is a biological component here, but there is also an emotional component. Just like your body needs to rest, your mind, will, and emotions need to rest (Spiritual rest comes during the mediation time I described earlier – you rest your spirit by getting it aligned). So much of our stress can be linked to the emotional agitation caused by inadequate rest.
It’s also worth mentioning that rest is not just sleeping. Anything you can do to separate yourself from the stress, pressure, and obligations of life can be considered rest, and you need to do it as often as you can. The more you work under pressure, whether you’re a hostage negotiator, a bomb defuser, an emergency room nurse, or a pastor, you need to step away from it. Firefighters typically get 48 hours off between shifts. Counselors need to leave their conversations at the office. Pastors (should) take a day off each week to recover from the pressures of ministry (although the ones I know typically don’t). You need to separate yourself from the pressures that come against you or they will wear you down over time, and finally, you will crack or give into them. That’s a messy place to spend your life, and it can create conflict between you in the people around you that can play out for a long time.
Decisions You Can Make To Help Relieve Stress
Again, I’m sorry that we decided to cancel this month’s Fundamental Foods Dinner, but I’m not. I was looking forward to a great night of food and discussion over a timely topic, but right now, I need to evaluate my time allocations based on other values. If I’m properly aligned, work is never my first priority.
In the meantime, if this article was helpful to you, I would encourage you to pair it with last week’s article for a more complete view. If it ministers to you, chances are you know someone else who could benefit from it. Please take a few seconds to share it with your friends on social media. You never know whose life you might change. Also, I’ve found that some social media platforms have decided that my articles do not fit their worldview, so they don’t let me promote them to a wider audience. I’m still working with them on that, but in the meantime, every time you share it, it reaches an audience I could never reach any other way. Thank you for partnering with me on this.
I’ll look forward to seeing you here next Wednesday.
“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas