One of the greatest contributions of psychological science to human understanding is that prolonged stress is toxic. There are some who experience so little stress that they suffer from a lack of motivation to do anything significant with their days. For many people in this culture, though, a more common concern is having too much stress. Research shows that prolonged stress contributes to a variety of problems, including poorer physical and mental health, poorer relationships, and worse job performance.
One of the underlying causes of the amount of stress individuals experience in this culture has to do with toxic and unbalanced busyness. In one study, for example, researchers investigated the effects of an unbalanced lifestyle on individuals’ quality of life. Participants in this study were told to avoid anything non-instrumental or playful from the time they woke up until at least 9:00 p.m. After 48 hours, participants started reporting symptoms consistent with the clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, including restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and muscle tension. After two days, the study actually needed to be called off in order to protect the welfare of the participants.
Obviously, some individuals need to be busy. For instance, some people have to do whatever is necessary to meet their family’s basic needs for adequate food, shelter, safety, and health. However, there is a certain point in every person’s life where busyness can be toxic and unbalanced. In this way, the Chinese characters that represent “busyness” take on a prophetic quality, representing “heart” and “killing.”
Another aspect of our culture that influences busyness is the “American Dream,” which encourages everyone to accomplish as much as possible, in as many domains of life as possible. The American Dream is at least partially predicated on the idea that various external markers of achievement or status determine individuals’ position on a hypothetical social hierarchy. Ironically, a variety of studies suggests that the happiness many individuals ultimately seek through pursuit of the American Dream may elude them. For instance, several studies conducted at the University of Rochester show that the importance individuals ascribe to financial success, power, physical attractiveness, and social recognition predicts psychological symptoms of distress. Other studies show that materialism predicts dissatisfaction. In fact, even though individuals often report they believe they would be happier with more money, research shows that even lottery winners tend to return to previous levels of happiness after the afterglow of their newfound wealth subsides.
To live healthfully in this culture, it therefore seems essential to figure out how to manage stress. For me personally, I have found profound insight in Reinhold Niebuhr’s “serenity prayer” – “grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” In other words, managing stress well often begins with some reflection on what cannot be controlled and what can be controlled.
For those stressful aspects of our lives that we do not control, emotion-focused coping is necessary. However, some ways to deal with difficult emotions are healthier than others. In general, research shows that avoidance-oriented coping responses are less effective and sometimes actually create more stress in the long-term. In other words, any response that avoids or distracts from the difficult emotions being experienced during a stressful time tends to be problematic. Examples include escaping one’s feelings by using drugs and alcohol, technology, sex, self-injury, shopping, overeating, sleeping, and gambling. On the other hand, approach-oriented coping responses are more effective and tend to reduce stress in the long-term. This would entail working directly through difficult emotions. Examples include working through feelings by talking with a friend, writing in a journal, praying, meditating, forgiving, or accepting the situation for what it is without trying to change it. Many people could benefit from transitioning from using avoidance-oriented emotion-focusing coping responses to using approach-oriented responses.
For those stressful aspects of life that we do control, problem-focused coping is important. In his runaway best-seller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey notes that there generally seem to be two kinds of people in this world: Those who primarily react to circumstances and those who primarily respond to, and create, their circumstances.
Reactive types, according to Covey, let circumstances and society dictate their actions. They often remark that there is “nothing that can be done,” that they “have to do” things, and that they “have no time.” In other words, they fail to take responsibility for circumstances that they can control, most notably, with the activities they implement in their schedules. Reactive people typically seem to lead fairly ineffective, stress-filled, lives.
In contrast, consider this quotation from Henry David Thoreau:
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
The older that I get, the more that I agree with Thoreau’s sentiment in this quotation. There is a small percentage of people who seem to be able to be effective and peaceful in almost any domain of life in which they are engaged. If we closely inspected how these individuals approached life, I imagine that we would find that they exercise a great deal of control over circumstances. Rather than thinking that “nothing can be done,” they think they will “do what can be done.” Rather than saying they “have to do” things, they think of their lives as a set of choices and speak about what they “want to do.” Rather than thinking that “they have no time,” they “make time” for what is most important. Furthermore, Thoreau’s quotation suggests that anyone can make progress in stress and life management in these ways; they simply must be intentional about controlling circumstances that can be controlled.
The single most important discipline in my life for taking control over circumstances that I can control has been implementing Covey’s suggestions for time management, spelled out in most detail in his book, “First Things First.” Covey’s approach begins with the realization that everyone has a limited number of roles or domains in life. For example, I am a “Christian;” I need to manage my health; I am a husband; I am a dad; I am a Professor; I am a friend; and, I need to manage my financial resources. Covey suggests that individuals identify long-term goals in each of these roles / domains. Furthermore, in order to promote continual renewal and overcome the tendency to become overly stressed in our culture, he particularly encourages people to consider how they might plan activities that renew them spiritually, physically, relationally, and intellectually (you might notice how these domains are reflected in the roles / domains I listed previously). Then, every week, he suggests that people identify commitments in their schedule and plan to implement activities that would most advance goals in each role / domain at a time that is likely to be most effective during that week.
I have tried to follow these suggestions for approximately the past 20 years. Typically, I spend about 15-30 minutes every Sunday to look at my upcoming week. I note on my calandar commitments already made. I think about what I would like to most accomplish in each role / domain during the week. Finally, I consider whehn I could implement an activity during the week that would help me to accomplish that objective, at a time that seems most likely to be effective. For me, this includes almost daily Bible study and prayer, at least 5 opportunities every week to exercise for at least 30 minutes, time every week to do something outside that I love (like going snowshoeing, biking, or taking some photography), regular times to connect individually with my wife and kids, and a time every week to review my family's finances. Part of this process, in the initial phases, was to review every week how the previous week went, and to correct planning problems. After doing this long enough, I've realized what works and what doesn't work for me, and I have developed certain rhythms to the week that elicit effective habits. In many ways, fostering these habits to me week has made all the difference in the world to me. As Charles Reade once said, "Sow a thought, and you reap an act; sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny."