I hope this isn’t like every other blog about stress management. Rather than practical techniques to reduce stress (which are important nonetheless), I’d like to draw attention to the longer term project that you might say awaits each of us: How do I manage myself when things get difficult? And how can I work on getting a little bit better at that? (…and if you stick with me till the end, I’ll tie this all in to Jesus and to our current socio-political climate).
This is a topic that Dr. Hal DeShong takes up in one of his papers on stress. Dr. DeShong is a psychologist and cites some of the most recent studies on stress and the human person. Among other pieces of wisdom on stress management, he says:
“What is less often looked at, but which may be in some ways more important than any of the previously mentioned suggestions is the development of a series of beliefs to assist with self-direction under pressure. Perhaps one of the best teachers of this in fairly recent times, has been Steven Covey. You may be aware of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. All Covey is basically talking about is the development of a system of beliefs that can help to jump-start oneself in any situation in which one finds oneself. One could probably achieve the same thing with almost any set of beliefs that one adhered to that provided some sort of guidance for someone under pressure. One could use religious beliefs and other kinds of beliefs.”
He continues, saying, “To manage self effectively, under these conditions of stress and pressure, requires the development of a program of discipline and self-regulation, self training and practice. That means discipline, not in the sense of rigid rules or laws, but discipline in the sense of a learning process with clear goals and come clear ways to work on them.”
Dr DeShong invites the reader to take a step back and examine what one thinks and believes. Have you ever had one of those moments of intense stress or emotion when you do something totally out of character? When we’re under duress, our instinctive stress response takes over (and thank goodness, we’ve survived because of how God wired us!). But oftentimes this is can be a good thing gone bad. Faulty, patchy, or stuck-on beliefs simply crumble when interpersonal tensions or stress arises, and we do things that later we aren’t proud of. And not only that, sometimes it’s like the transmission gets jammed in the moment and one can’t think clear enough to see where to step next. And how often do we really step back and examine what we think, what we believe?
“The discipline of mental behavior is the one that is critical. It is the one that most people don’t work on very much. The effort is to work with the fear and negativity in one’s own mental process. The is about working on recognizing and managing your own “glass half empty” thinking when you get into your negative mindset. This also has to do with recognizing and managing your reactive emotional processes of blame and self-pity. Self-pity is a devil for anybody who wants to function in the family or in an organization because once you fall into self-pity, your mouth whines and it drives other people crazy.”
At the same time, Dr. DeShong is not advocating for “always see the glass as half full.” It’s more about paying attention to what you’re paying attention to. What are those repetitive modes of thought you get stuck in? Like when someone “pushes your button” and a 15-minute monologue of frustration or complaining comes out of your mouth unbidden? I’ve done that one for sure!
So what are we do to? Here’s two basic phases of work that I can see:
Phase 1: Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.
We covered this a little bit already. The first phase would be working on our own awareness of our thinking. What’s the quality of my thinking at the moment? Is my thinking driven by fear or by thoughtful reflection? Is it rooted in anxiety or in whom I am in Christ?
St. Paul is often quoted by Christian therapists, counselors, etc when he writes, “…and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Do we let our mind be taken over by fear? It probably happens to us often in a good week, and more than that in difficult times! It is truly a practice to work at harnessing one’s mental activity and submitting it to Christ. And again, I think a great place to start is paying attention to what we’re paying attention to.
This verse also helps me when I get stuck in self-pity, blaming others, or am really stressed out: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
Phase 2: Examine the beliefs and convictions behind your thinking
Dr. DeShong also writes about how if a one really wants to be able to rely on clear thinking when caught in a stressful time, one truly has to work at thinking through one’s beliefs for oneself. No one can do this work for anyone else. It’s kind of like that old adage about taking what you receive from your parents and making it your own. Swallowing a belief whole without thinking and also entirely rejecting a belief just because it comes from one’s parents are both signs of emotional immaturity and lack of a sense of self – and thus, both don’t hold up under stress.
“The difficult mental effort is to construct a coherent set of beliefs and principles to guide your behavior. I can’t emphasize this one enough and it is very difficult. People say, “I have beliefs.” However, most people don’t work on their beliefs. They just pick them out of the air and say “I believe this” without having thought about it very much. It may be because your parents believed it or because your best friend believed it and so own.
What seems to be effective with people is when they have thought through and worked through sets of beliefs about life that they have tested over time and the beliefs are consistent with each other. When you talk to people who haven’t thought about this very much, they will say they believe things that are often contradictory–their beliefs are not consistent one with another. This development of a set of beliefs is hard disciplined work over time.”
I love that Dr DeShong reminds the reader that this takes time! Hence, the long-term project thing. But is this not what St Paul also calls us to in following Christ? He says we are called to continue to build up the body of Christ “...until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching…” (Eph 4:13-14).
You might call this phase 3, but it’s more like a parallel process (actually I think all the phases really happen in an on-going way at the same time): Practice living out your convictions while staying connected to others, especially others who are emotionally significant to you and especially when others disagree.
“Over and over again what you see is that the people who do the best with difficult situations are the ones who are able to manage emotional intensity well enough that they can stay in relationship contact with many, many other people, including people with whom they disagree around the issues.”
Another Christian therapist, Jenny Brown, talks about this same phenomenon over at the blog, A Diary of Everyday Growing Up
“When it comes to beliefs, it’s simple to go along with the viewpoint of your majority group, your parents, your cultural group or your peer group. If you’re carrying unaddressed resentments towards your parents there may be a tendency to take on beliefs that are the opposite of theirs. Whether you adopt beliefs to comply with or to rebel against others, in each scenario there isn’t much thought and effort going into the process. This leads to beliefs that are superficial. They can chop and change according to the emotions of the group you’re in.
Such pseudo beliefs won’t hold much benefit for you in determining how to make a difficult choice when you are under pressure. They won’t help you to take a position on what you believe are important issues if you are easily thrown off course by another’s disapproval.“
I have a hunch you won’t even have to blink to make the association to what I’m talking about and our current social and political climate. As a nation, how are we doing at
- Thinking through what we beleive
- Staying connected to others who think differently
…? Feel free to comment below! And truly, “as a nation” might not be very helpful since a nation is always made up of individuals. But what sort of a nation might we have if we each one of us sat down and reflected with God on questions like these? I know I have a lot left to work on for this long term project – and I plan on asking for lots of grace to keep working on it just a little bit, day by day. Blessings on your day by day journey too, my friend.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. (Phil 4:6)