Why Your Stress Management Definition Needs a Reboot

Job, marriage, kids, money, image, things.

We worry. A lot. Too much.

Sometime around the industrial revolution, we coined a term for our worry. We downgraded it to “stress,” and began to treat it like something you can manage, something that can be controlled. And when we failed to call it what it really is, it became a permanent part of our culture, and our day-to-day lives.

We should have called it fear.

“Stress” has the same effect as fear – adrenaline, the “fight-or-flight” response, an inability to focus on anything else until the threat is mitigated.

The biggest problem with “stress” is that it’s not the kind of fear that you’d get from, say, being chased by a bear. It’s not a temporary, one-off thing. “Stress” is a long-term, ongoing event, often called chronic stress – constantly taxing our nervous system, making us tired, grumpy, discouraged, and not-so-fun to be around.

But because we’re so afraid to call it fear, we try to manage our chronic stress – vacations, drinking, hobbies, drugs (legal and beyond), sex, etc. And while we might get a brief respite, our chronic stress will be waiting when the vacation’s over, or the affair gets old, or the buzz wears off – no matter how many stress management coping strategies we might come up with.

A Better Stress Management Definition

If the goal of “stress” management is a very short break from scary things, I guess you could say it works. The marketing world sure seems to think so.

But there’s no such thing as fear management. Fear is a big thing, much bigger than “stress.” It must be dealt with directly, forcefully, with a view towards permanent annihilation.  When we downgrade our fears to something that’s “manageable,” we’re welcoming them into our lives as permanent guests.

The typical stress management definition needs a reboot. The best first step to take is to say to ourselves, and maybe to a few close friends, “I’m scared. Really scared. So scared that it’s making me tired, hard to get along with. I can’t sleep at night because I’m so scared.”

Our “stress” needs an upgrade.

And that’s something that most of us won’t do. We don’t like saying “I’m scared.”

Fear is weakness. How would it sound if you were hanging out with friends and you said something akin to “I really screwed up at work and I’m scared of what people are saying about me. Really scared. So scared that it’s keeping me up at night.” How awkward would that be? Your friends would have to be super healthy people to respond appropriately.

Far better to say, “Jeeze, I really screwed up at work and it’s stressing me out.” Then everyone can say, “Oh yeah, stress,” and seamlessly move to the next topic.

I think most psychotherapeutic professionals would call that weak. Facing our fears, and taking the very important first step of calling them what they are requires strength, as does any step you might take towards the total obliteration of fears.

I realize that I’m talking a big game here. Can we get rid of our fears? Can we find complete freedom from the things that scare the crap out us?

I can’t. I’ve tried.

I’ve lived most of my life with a debilitating fear of being rejected. I was a nerd in junior high/high school, got picked on, laughed at, etc. and frequently went to bed worried about what would happen at school the next day.

I didn’t know who to talk to, or how to talk about it, so I did my best to plod through the trauma – alone.

Years later I went to seminary and started a career as a pastor. I wasn’t very good at it, but got enough exposure to get a good taste of how mean God’s people can be. If you need everyone to like you, don’t go into ministry.

People talked about me behind my back, some laughed at my mistakes and my awkwardness – not because I was worse than other pastors – it’s simply/unfortunately common to the calling. But I couldn’t focus on all the good things that were going on. I was scared – and my stress management coping strategies were a failure. All the old memories of my teen years came flooding in, the unhealed hurts, the trauma. It was overwhelming. So I quit and started a web business, which was much more “friendly.”

A few years later, I was offered a volunteer position as a pastor in the church we were attending. I was honored, took the position, and jumped back into the world of helping others, making mistakes, delivering bad sermons, and knowing that not everybody was a fan.

All the fears came flooding back in, but in the middle of the sleepless nights something new came to bear. I took an inventory of all my “fans” – the people who I’d helped, mentored, pastored, etc. There were many. In spite of my detractors, I was winning, moving forward. Things were working.

I’d always been afraid that if someone didn’t like me, others would follow suit, and I’d be ruined. That wasn’t the case here. I didn’t actually have anything to be afraid of. I also noticed that people who talk about others aren’t healthy – there’s something broken inside that’s driving them to focus on the mistakes and frailties of other people.

I can’t say that I’m completely free from the fear of rejection, but I’m closer to freedom.

And none of that would have happened if I hadn’t admitted, “I’m scared.”

I still have plenty of sleepless nights, a mountain of fear, but I’ve learned two things. First, telling myself and others, “I’m scared” is the best first step I can take towards getting rid of these fears. Second, while I’ll never totally eradicate my fears, I can take small steps towards a fear-free life.

I know, I just said “set your goals high in life and you will go far,” but it happens to be true in this case.

The point isn’t total annihilation, it’s more freedom, but we won’t get more freedom unless we shoot for total annihilation.

And none of that will happen if we’re too scared to say “I’m scared.”

I see people in my Christian camp frequently looking for Bible verses for stress. There aren’t any, but I can assure you that there are plenty of Bible verses for fear.

Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Pick something that “stresses” you out – Job, marriage, kids, money, image, things, whatever. Take an hour alone and admit how scared you are, and how your fear of this thing is running your life, and stealing from it. Don’t downplay it, don’t say things like “but everybody gets scared,” or, “it’s not really that bad.”

Face it, admit it.

Then take it to the next level. Grab someone close to you, sit down with them and confess what you just admitted to yourself. Make it a big deal, formal. This will be awkward. And scary. You’ll really want to downplay it, make it sound like you’re not that “weak.”

If you do this right, what you’ll find is that there’s something powerful in saying “I’m scared.” I have no idea how it works, maybe it’s a God thing, but it works.

These aren’t the only steps to freedom, there’ll be more work to do. But like most difficult things, especially freedom, the process gets much more clear once we’ve taken first steps.

Fear God? Really?

scared

The Bible seems to teach that we should, on some level, be afraid of God. One passage in particular, one that gets plastered on Sunday Morning church billboards all over the country, literally reads “Fear God.” Some people see this and hear “Don’t screw with God or He’ll screw with you.” Some see another opportunity to forget religion altogether.

If there is a God, ie. something that’s a) capable of creating our world and b) in charge of the whole thing, there should be some level of respect, not just for the work that he does on a day-to-day basis, but for the fact that he a) knows more than we do and b) can do whatever he wants – make it rain, hurl lightning bolts, destroy the cosmos, etc. So maybe there should be some fear, sort of the way we would fear Superman – as nice as he is you don’t want to get on his bad side.

But I don’t think the Bible’s admonition to “Fear God” means “Be afraid of God,” or “Don’t piss him off.”

Take a moment to make a list of all the things you are afraid of – the negative things that fill your mind throughout the day, the things that “stress” you out (let’s be honest about stress, it’s a cutesy, contemporary moniker for fear – plain and simple). We worry about what others think of us, we’re scared of not performing well at work, or losing our job. We’re “stressed” about how our life will turn out – will we get the happy ending that everyone else seems to be living? Money, kids, marriage, money, health, politics, money, economics, terrorism, global warming, guilt, shame, money. Fear. We live with a ton of it.

I think what the Bible is getting at is something more akin to “If you want to be scared of something, if you want to fill your head with “what if?” be scared of God. Be scared of this thing that a) can do whatever it wants and b) loves you without condition – even if you don’t believe in him. “Fear not” or some derivative, occurs so many times in the Old and New Testaments. It’s also one of the many commandments Jesus gave to his disciples. To “Fear God,” is to ultimately be at peace.

Jesus dealt with a ton of fear about God and what happens to people who step out of line. In His world it was believed that suffering was punishment for wrongdoing, and wealth was blessing for right-doing. The “sinners” ran around scared to death, wondering when their punishment would come. The “righteous” lived afraid of stepping out of line and losing their wealth as a result, while looking down on people who weren’t blessed, like they were. Either way – “stress” everywhere.

While Jesus never did anything but honor and uphold the Jewish scriptures, He seemed to believe that this era of focusing on right and wrong was over. Something new had arrived, but you couldn’t be part of it and be scared of God at the same time. Fear had to be removed. It’s no surprise that Jesus’ messages were full of “fear not,” and “trust me”

But Jesus also said “repent,” something that’s typically translated as “stop sinning” – a truly horrible translation (“Repent” in both Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew means “turn”). Typically, when Jesus said “repent” he included the phrase “because the Kingdom of Heaven is here” (which was something his Jewish audience was expecting to arrive any day now). “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here” basically means “Turn from your current agenda, leave it, drop it, there’s something better – right in front of you, and you can have it. Trust me.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think God has his rules (I get alot of complaints from conservative religious folk about how I forget to talk about rules, morality, etc – this is for you). God wants us to live a good life, and there are rules for that, even if you don’t believe in God. But I know people who have done a great job being part of this new thing that Jesus talked about. They’re people who live with courage, respect, great influence and great (non-material) wealth. And yes, there are rules that they follow, but they don’t follow them to stay in God’s good graces, or to avoid lightening bolts, or hell. They follow the rules to live. Really live. They’re not obnoxious, irrelevant, offensive religious people who talk about nothing but morality and what everyone should be doing or not doing. They’re people that other people love being around (we all love being around people who are truly living). They “fear God” but not as you might think.

To “fear God” means to trust Him, to respect what He is, to ultimately believe that He’s got something for us – something that transcends religion, something that’s more akin to the life that we’re all dying to live. If we do it right, our “fear” of Him will replace the scads of other fears that we carry with us all. day. long – the fears that are keeping us from the Good life that God so desperately wants us to live.

If you know the story well, you know that He literally went through hell so we could have it.

Fear God, turn aside from all that other crap you’ve been carrying, for the life you so desperately want has arrived.

The Best Place to Buy Strength and Courage

I have a friend who’s father disowned him. My friend was studying to be a lawyer at the time but (to make a very long story short), decided to go in a very different direction, one that wouldn’t bear much money or prestige. So his father, not knowing what to do, kicked him out of the house.

My friend had recently become acquainted with the teachings of Jesus and decided to apply them to this situation. On one particular occasion he broke into his father’s house, shined every one of his shoes, then left a note, something akin to “I really want to be your friend.” He bombarded his father with this Jesus stuff – no preaching, no “you’re going to hell” – just merciful acts that required a level of strength and courage that few can muster. It took a really long time, but it worked.

Put that in your Bible.

This guy, in many respects, is my hero. Knowing him has changed my life. We have alot in common – lots of past hurts – but we’ve lived different lives. Whenever he runs into something difficult, he tends to chose the path that requires strength and courage. I tend to take the easy way out. It’s no surprise that he’s stronger and more courageous than I am, despite the fact that he’s really, really skinny.

I used to think that strong people were born that way, but knowing him has convinced me otherwise. Strength and courage aren’t inherited, they’re built in moments that really suck, places that are scary. We might not “win” or “prevail” when life dumps something miserable in our lap, but we’re guaranteed to come out the other side a changed person if we can somehow manage to hold fast and engage the suckiness.

We’ll change if we run away too. Weakness and fear are built in those moments when we (understandably) find some reason to excuse ourselves from the hard stuff. Ironically, it’s just as hard to stay put in the difficult moments as it is to live in weakness and fear.

One thing that we all have in common is the hardship that seems to be constantly nipping at our heels. Life isn’t fair, nothing good is easy, there are no good pursuits that don’t require some level of sacrifice, pain, and courage, blah, blah, blah. We’ll never be left wanting for hard times.

But don’t go it alone. I have another friend who recently faced a horribly difficult situation – worst case scenario – but for some reason felt that he had to figure out everything by himself. It didn’t work. To navigate the hard things alone is to fail. Every time. Mentors, therapists, honest friends, strong people, cheerleaders, etc. come part and parcel to a not-miserable life. You won’t make it without them.

If we want to have anything resembling a decent life we’ll have to get used to difficulty – let it in, stay put, give it permission to shape us into the kind of people that know joy, peace, hope, influence, etc, regardless of what’s going on around us. That’s the life we want for our kids. It’s the life that God wants for us.

Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying.
Nelson Mandela

Whatever it is inside that locks us to the ground in hard times has to be challenged, like a muscle. It can’t be worked out in a gym where everything’s safe and predictable, a place where we call the shots – it’s only stretched and shaped in dark places. The more we work it out, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to stay put – to do what’s right when everything goes wrong.

Few things are more fundamental to a great life than staying put when everything inside is telling us to run.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  Winston Churchill

Let’s all be really mad and scared in 2016

When I’m angry I can’t think straight.  I’m like most people – I feel cheated, like everything’s out of control.  What consumes my mind is the person that wronged me and how I might get even. But life goes on and I have to make everyday decisions, sometimes really big ones.  One of the most difficult things to do is to make good decisions when I’m angry. I’m really stupid when I’m mad. We all tend to be.

There are a lot of angry people in the U.S.  A big chunk of our population is angry because marriage, by law, has been redefined.  Another chunk is mad at the people who are mad about marriage being redefined.  Some are upset because we’re not letting refugees into our country, others are angry at the people who think we should.  Racism is still a big deal, and it seems that more people are seeking to arm themselves than ever before.

We’re also scared (fear and anger usually operate in tandem).  Not only are we threatened by each other, there’s this large group of people that want nothing more than the destruction of our country.  They’re not very well organized, at least not as organized as, say, the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, but they’re passionate and some of them live here in the U.S.

Right or wrong, We are a country full of angry, frightened people.

We also have a big decision to make in the coming year regarding our next president.  I won’t offer any opinions about Donald Trump or his ability to lead us, but I will say the main reason he has a voice is because he’s playing into the fear and anger that is so thoroughly shagging our country.

I watch alot of WWII documentaries – it fascinates me how a guy like Hitler could come to power.  Turns out that the allied nations of WWI required Germany to “pay” for all the damages caused in the war.  This left Germany in a horrible economic state – poverty, unemployment, anger, fear.  Hitler came in with an amazing knack for politics and used the dark emotions of the day as his primary platform.  It worked.  The Germans had their hero vindicator and were ready for war.  One of the worst terrorists the world has ever seen came to power, and everyone cheered.

When leaders choose to exploit fear and anger, fear and anger become the leaders, and the places they lead us to are never good.

None of our candidates are addressing the fact that we’re pissed, that these emotions are volatile and if left unchecked will destroy so much of what we value as a country.  What’s far worse is that so many of our presidential hopefuls are using fear and anger as a huge part of their platform.  Even the Evangelical candidates, who are supposed to have peace and love at their life’s core, are exploiting the very things that are tearing us apart.  It’s a sickening irony.  Some Muslims read the Koran and see peace.  Others read it and see war.  It’s the same with Evangelicals and their Bibles.

But, in their defense, if you want to get elected, you have to embrace the strongest emotions of the largest constituency. So get ready for a very fine parade of anger, fear, and stupidity in 2016.