Stress reduction

What is it that gives us life and energy and what is it that drains us and leaves us stressed and weary? It’s a an excellent question to ask one’s self, a good tool to tweak our plans for the day so we are taking good care of ourselves. My experience is that our present culture has decreed that all activity is to be weighed equally; if it is activity for another it must be exhausting, if it is for ourselves it must be practicing good self-care. Some of this is helpful and a corrective to an older way of following through on one’s commitments, doing what was duty and hoping it would all work out in the end. People have learned the hard way that simply driving ahead with commitments and expectation laid upon us will eventually catch up with us. In this very busy world unreflective busyness is neither refreshing nor restorative.

So it is good and right that we hit the pause button and ask why we are tired and what we need to have “life in abundance” (John 10:1-10). I like those pauses, these reflective times, when we look over our lives and plans and relationships and goals. In these moments I find it helpful to bracket what we simply must do, our solemn obligations to work, family, community. I call these the “must dos”. The truth is this list is usually shorter than we realize, that if we are very open with ourselves we can see that our true obligations are not as many as we imagined. In an honest overview we will see that some of the items we thought were obligations are in reality us living up to conventional wisdom, things others have told us we must do that has more to do with their expectations than an accepted norm.

For instance I an older couple who lived on a beautiful property were stressed beyond words when I first met them. Over several conversations I learned that one of their biggest stressors was maintaining a large and well-kept property; the garden, the lawn, the appearance of the exterior of their home, seasonal flowers and decorations, a pond, etc… When they were in their 50’s this work was life-giving and satisfying. In their mid-70’s the work was exhausting and when they thought about it they were filled with stress. They could not sleep, they were cranky with each other, they could not figure out how to escape these feelings. When we walked through what they needed to be happy now, what was life-giving at that point in their life, it all had to do with relationships and community. Then came the aha moment, “We could sell the house and move into a condo, a place with a lot of community.” You could see the stress leaving the room.

I also have experienced this with young families burdened by debt and finances. Again as I asked what they needed to be happy some of the expenses that seemed so important when the parents were single now seemed extravagant. Once they named what made them happy as a family and as members of that family the rest was easy. Some of the activities, and thus expenses of time and money, were easy to spot as unnecessary. I did not need to say a word about any of the expenses, these were their values coming into play, but until then they had not filtered the expenses through the lens of their values and criteria for abundant life.

When faced with stress and weariness the solution is not to retreat and stop but rather to pause, re-evaluate, apply your values and need for happiness, and look at what you are doing that satisfies no clear obligation or hunger for joy but rather is a leftover impulse that long ago ceased to be meaningful to you. Cutting those unnecessary things out of our lives creates space for that which feeds our soul.