Can You Really Reduce Stress?
By Joni Hilton
I recently heard someone say, “Stress is what you feel when you do something you don’t want to.” Other things can bring us stress as well, many of them outside our control. But doing something against our will is certainly one cause of stress. Whenever we do something we’d rather not, we’re uncomfortable. We’re unenthusiastic, we wish we didn’t “have to” tackle that task. The boss asks you to call a difficult client. You get stuck babysitting your sister’s unruly child. You have to make 72 cookies for a church gathering. You have to attend a funeral on your birthday. Your kids are quarreling and you have to be the conflict manager. To be a decent person, to not get fired, to shoulder your share of the work—we often find ourselves caving in—sometimes with a grand sigh—and toughing it out.
So what can we do about these unwanted obligations and duties that fill our lives? Not every activity, all day long, can be what we’d most like to do. Not only do we have to follow through with big commitments like organizing the garage, or heading up a task force at our workplace, but little things we don’t enjoy, as well: Trash has to be taken out, laundry has to be done, homework has to be checked, bills must be paid. How can we reframe even these mundane tasks, so we can stop disliking them, stop mentally whining, and lower our stress levels? Is that even possible? How can we approach our other commitments with more energy and optimism, as well?
I think it starts with a close look at what motivates us. Nobody likes feeling forced to do something, no matter what your age. Force is the least pleasant motive there is, and feels innately wrong. It includes the element of fear, because we know that unless we comply, there will unpleasant consequences to pay (like getting fired). But what if we stop and ask ourselves about the up side? What if we see this burden as an opportunity to show how hard-working and dependable we are, how willing to sacrifice, how relentlessly cheerful we can remain in the face of a challenge? It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but that girl was onto something.
Let’s say you’ve been changing diapers, folding laundry, and cleaning up messes all day and you’re burned out. You need to pile the kids in the car and go to the grocery store again, because this morning you forgot something, because your toddler threw a tantrum and you just wanted to get out of there. It has truly been one of those days. You don’t want to do any of this, but you “have to.” What if, instead of resenting the daily hassles of life, you stopped and realized the tremendous role you have? Every action of yours, today, has been to help others. You are fulfilling duties no one else can, and providing fresh clothes, food to eat, and a clean home. You have children. You have the money to purchase food. You have a car. You have a home. You are likely doing exactly what God would have you do today. Now, instead of feeling forced, you feel blessed. You are choosing to do these things, not “having to.” And you’ve added the much better motivations of Faith and Love. You can literally consecrate your actions to God. Suddenly the day makes sense and feels fulfilling. The knots in your shoulders melt away. The eyebrows relax. The patience and kindness returns. You can manage the day, and even feel a wave of tranquility that night, as you realize how much your efforts mattered today.
Let me give you another example. An elderly woman in my church fell and hurt her shoulder. After surgery she needed several weeks of rehabilitation at home. Many would have grumbled, given the exercises half-hearted effort, and felt sorry for themselves. But this woman made it fun. Another woman sent around a sign-up sheet, and we all volunteered to “spot” her twice a day, and give light assistance with the exercises. It became a social call, a chance to sign the PVC pipe she used for the rehab, and something both the givers and the receiver could look forward to— it wasn’t a burden, but an opportunity. Being a cheerful person makes people want to visit, and today her doctors say she’s ahead of schedule in healing, something she’s credits to the women who merely caught her contagious, upbeat attitude.
It’s the same with taking on a task at work, teaching a task to our kids, or offering service to a neighbor. If we stop looking at it as a negative “have to,” and re-label it as a “get to,” our entire attitude changes. If stress results from doing things we don’t want to do, let’s turn them into things we do want to do. Let’s make it a game and see if we can do it without once complaining. Or do it faster than we ever have. Or better. Or give ourselves a simple reward when we’ve reached our goal. And let’s teach our kids to approach challenges with the same optimism. Change your motivation and you’ll reduce your stress.
Not only that, but we execute the assignment better. That side of the house gets a better paint job than the side we painted against our will. Our boss notices. Our spouse notices. Our friends notice. Finally, we notice. Our work shines and our outlook matches. Contentment replaces stress and everyone around us benefits.
Be sure to read Joni’s humor blog at jonihilton.blogspot.com. She’s also “Your YouTube Mom” and shares short videos that teach easy household tips and life skills at http://bit.ly/YourYouTubeMom. And her books can be found on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Joni-Hilton/e/B001IXU7A6.