Stress is a Choice

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington

Stress is quite an issue today. At my high school, we have stress surveys, stress-reduction workshops, and even "Stress Free Fridays" and "Stress Free Weeks" when teachers are asked not to give tests, and there are games in the rally court. But these activities, however fun they are, don't really solve the problem; they just help people manage or reduce stress. The ultimate goal would be to eliminate stress, not just reduce it. The fact that we can control or reduce stress indicates that it can be eliminated. You might ask: "Can this be done? If so, how?"

I was driving over one of the seven worst bridges in the U.S. (which they have now destroyed) on a very foggy day. I could barely see to the front end of the car. My hands were clutched tightly on the steering wheel. My shoulders and arms were tense. My brother, who was providing an extra set of eyes to help me drive safely across the bridge, made a statement that has had a lasting impact on me: "You know, you can't drive any better tense than you can relaxed." We laughed. I hadn't realized how tense I really was. I consciously breathed, loosened my grip, and relaxed. I let go of tension, worry, and stress. It was easier to see and to focus on the task ahead, and much easier to control the car.

My brother's statement, which helped me to relax and loosen my grip on the wheel of the car, was both a practical and a spiritual solution. When we are willing to "let go and let God" direct everything we do, we can stop worrying. We can then handle even the most stressful challenges with grace and ease.

Stress is a choice.
That's what I learned from this incident. Yes, stress is a choice, a decision.

  • We all know each and every person reacts differently to very similar situations. What stresses out one person may not affect another at all.
  • This fact reveals that stress is not inherent in the situation; the event does not of itself cause stress. It is our perception of and reaction to it that determines our stress level.
  • Joshua understood the power of choice when he told the children of Israel to make a choice. They were wavering between trusting in the one God or trusting in the many gods of the neighboring nations:

    [C]hoose you this day whom ye will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Josh. 24:15)

  • We can decide to "serve" stress by giving into it and allowing pressure to control and manipulate us, or we can decide to serve God by confidently trusting in Him and allowing God to provide for and take care of us.
  • Individuals who use their God-given tools and listen to Him respond effectively to circumstances and minimize or eradicate stress.
  • Individuals who choose not to use their God-given tools allow events or other people to control them and thereby welcome stress into their lives with open arms. Unfortunately, the guest they are welcoming will cause them pain and suffering.

But it's tempting to think that we don't have a choice...
…that the things we confront cause us stress -- the homework we have to do, parents pressuring us to get good grades, having to work, deadlines, problems in friendships and relationships, arguing at home, college applications, sports activities, our social calendar, play productions, all-nighters. But that's a false assumption. This false assumption creates more problems for us:

  • When we put the blame on an outside force for making us stressed, we give up our own control.
  • When we refuse to take responsibility for our actions and feelings, we lose touch with who we really are.
  • As a result, we allow stress to affect us both physically and mentally.
  • Stress hurts our bodies, weight, health, relationships, creativity, academics, and ability to function. Many studies have catalogued the ill effects of stress.

So what does cause stress, if it's not a person or situation?
The answer is simple: our reactions to a given situation or person cause stress.

  • Our reactions are determined by our thoughts and feelings.
  • Negative thoughts and feelings really arise from fear -- fear of not having enough time, knowledge, skill, control…you name it.
  • When we are afraid, we are operating from the standpoint of believing that we are limited, that God is limited and not able to help us.

Choose to get rid of stress!

  • Simplify. Cut out an activity or two. Maybe we don't need to be members of five clubs, participate in after school sports, and have the lead in the play. Let's ask the question: "Why am I doing this? To glorify God or me?" We want to be good at what we do, not stretch ourselves so thin that we can't possibly give fully of ourselves to anything.
  • Respond, don't react. We can't control what happens to us all the time, but we can control our reactions. We don't need to take on the burden of stress. This skill will help us for the rest of our lives.
  • Keep the right focus. Don't give power to that "thing" that seems to be "causing" the stress. Remember that health, sanity, peace, and joy are more important than the "thing."
  • Rely on Love not time. We usually want more time to finish our tasks. One of my dear friends shares a healing perspective:
    • "The point is not do we have enough time, but do we have enough love!"
    • Time is always limited. If we're looking for more time, we won't be able to find it. There are only so many hours in a day, regardless of how many we wish we had. Time is finite.
    • Love, however, is always unlimited, infinite. There is no shortage of love because "God is love" (I John 4:8). God who "is love" is always loving us.
    • Placing greater limits on ourselves will only make us feel more stressed, whereas relying on a never-ending source of love will give us freedom and peace.
  • Change how we deal with problems, challenges, issues, daily tasks, and activities. If we have enough love to take care of something, we'll find the most effective or efficient solution.
    • We can love our siblings, parents, and friends enough to help meet their needs.
    • We have enough love to help our family create a beautiful and harmonious home.
    • We have the love of learning to want to understand and do our homework to the best of our ability.
    • We love God enough to put God first in our day.
  • Express gratitude. Recent studies show that the positive and healing effects of gratitude are immediate and powerful. Gratitude transforms lives. (See previous hot topic article, The Power of Gratitude.)
    • Be grateful for what we are able to do.
    • Be grateful for everything we have.
    • Be grateful that the tasks that have come to us to do or the challenges we face are actually opportunities for us to turn to God and learn more about God's constant love and care for us, His children.
    • Gratitude changes our perspective from one of burden to one of joy, which eliminates stress.
  • Rely on Principle, not personality. Accomplishing things doesn't need to take time. It takes a lot less time to do a math problem when we already know the principle behind the solution. Let's be confident that we can solve problems in life even if they are "new" to us because we already know the principles. Here's why:
    • God provides the principles and gives us the answers every time. His solutions are fool-proof. He loves us that much! We just have to open ourselves up to God's answers, which provide peace, not stress.
    • When we are following God's directions, problems that seem unsolvable will suddenly have solutions: "for with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27).
    • Relying on other people is often a mistake. Their advice, however well-intentioned, is still just human advice. It can be wrong. Their advice can also unfortunately be deliberately misleading. God, however, never gives bad advice.
    • When we are relying on God's principles, we don't have to get caught up in personalities -- what other people say about us or do to us, what they demand or require from us. We can relax in the knowledge that "what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8).
    • When we don't take things personally, issues dissolve more readily. Think about it. We get upset and stressed because we feel that someone has hurt, ignored, attacked, interrupted us on purpose. But what the person has just said or done is a reflection on him or her, not on us. Their anger or demands reveal that they have an issue to resolve. It is their issue, not ours.
    • Remember what Jesus said: "your joy no man taketh from you" (John 16:22).

This last statement is not only a promise, but a fact. No one can take our joy from us or make us feel stressed -- unless we give them the power to do so. But why would we invite a thief to come into our home and steal that which is most valuable to us? Yet, we allow stress to come in to our homes all the time. Now it's time to claim our God-given dominion. We must refuse to open our mental door to stress. We may have to push on the door really hard when stress knocks. We may even have to kick stress out if it's gotten in without our realizing it. But we can do it, especially when we rely on God. God's hands are pretty powerful!