Stress affects us all. Whether its source is work, family, health or our marriage, stress undermines our capacity to operate at our best. This month we feature an article from Gregory Popcak with some practical tips on managing it better.
Francine & Byron
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By Dr Gregory Popcak
Seeking Sanity when the World Goes Nuts
“It’s like a mystery novel around here.” George explained, frustrated with the corporate restructuring his company was going through. “…And Then There Were None.”
George’s company was facing layoffs. Every day, he came into work to find that yet another colleague had gotten the axe. “It’s hard not to freak out when the cubicles around you are emptying out. It’s like management is playing Battleship and I’m just waiting for them to call my number. How do I make plans for anything when everything is up in the air? The stress is affecting my marriage, my sleep. I’m snapping at my kids. I don’t like what all the pressure is doing to me, but I’m not sure what I can do about it. ”
George isn’t alone. Turn on any television news program and most likely you’ll see dozens of stories about economic crisis, downsizing, looming personal debt, and an epidemic of foreclosures have become standard features. Not surprisingly, anxiety is at an all time high.
According to studies, about 20% of the population will suffer anxiety that is troubling enough to require professional help. In fact, 1 out of every five visitors to the doctor’s office is seeking help for an anxiety related problem. Anxiety is a common and serious concern and never is this truer than when our personal or family’s financial security is threatened. In the present economic climate, worry has quickly become the national pastime.
But while some degree of stress is normal when you’re facing the prospect of job loss or financial insecurity, it doesn’t have to take over your life. In Lk 12:25, Jesus reminds us, “Has any of you added a single day to your life by worrying?” We hear the priest says at Mass, we place our trust in God to “free us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope…” While this can seem like an impossible dream when things around us are falling apart, here are some tips that can help you be a victor in the war against worry.
Keep it in Perspective
Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve seen many troubles in my time, only half of which ever came true.” When we are going through hardship, often the anxiety we put ourselves through is far worse than the actual problems we are encountering. This can be true even in the worst of circumstances.
Janice recently took a new job after being unemployed for a little over a year. Unfortunately, it didn’t come in time to save her home from foreclosure. Still, she’s philosophical about her experience over the last 14 mos. “I don’t ever want to go through something like that again, but when I look back on it, I have to admit that I put myself through a whole lot more than I needed to.” She says that she used to lay awake at night thinking of the nightmare scenarios that were just around the corner. “I was sure I was going to be living in a box. I kept scaring myself with a million doomsday scenarios. It’s been awful, but the things I was most terrified about—that I’d never work again, that I’d starve, or be living on the street—turned out to be horrible fantasies.”
Life can be very hard and very scary, but most of the things we worry about, even in the worst of circumstances, never come true. Psychologists refer to this tendency to amplify anxiety as “catastrophizing.” A key to remaining focused and hopeful, if not completely calm, in the face of stressful times is to stay focused on the problems immediately in front of you and not on the things you are “sure” are going to happen ten steps down the road. Jesus challenged this tendency to borrow trouble when he said, “Do not be anxious for tomorrow. Let each day’s troubles suffice” (Mt 6:34).
Break It Down
Following closely on the heels of “letting each day’s trouble’s suffice” is the importance of breaking down big problems into smaller ones that you can do something about today.
Eric and his wife, Gina, needed answers. They had never been very good at financial planning and each month they ended up putting little extras on their credit card. Over time, these “extras” added up to over $10,000 in credit card debt. “We were overwhelmed. It just seemed too much to ever pay off” says Gina. For a long time, the most they could do was argue about their finances. “Eventually we decided to sit down with a debt counselor to help us come up with a plan for digging out of our hole.” They decided on a budget, cancelled credit cards, and with the help of the credit counselor, began negotiating a payment schedule with their largest creditors. “As long as we just kept looking at the big numbers, we couldn’t think straight. The counselor taught us to focus on the process so that we could take small steps to resolve our debt crisis.” They have some work to do, but they have a plan that is letting them sleep nights while they pursue a final resolution.
When facing an actual or potential crisis, one of greatest contributors to a sense of powerlessness and anxiety is the feeling that one must find the answer to the big problem right now. Often this isn’t possible, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. For instance, you might not be able to do anything about the big problem of getting someone to hire you, but you can do something about the smaller, related problems of a) needing an up-to-date résumé b) searching classifieds and websites for possible openings and c) putting out feelers among friends, relations, and colleagues who might be aware of new opportunities d) begin reviewing your budget e) pray. Any one of these activities alone will not solve “the big problem” but they will help you take the small steps that are necessary to both retain your sanity and move you toward the ultimate answers you are seeking.
Be Patient with Yourself
Martin had been laid off from his job after 10 years. He knew it was coming, but it didn’t diminish the shock. “I had no patience with anyone for the first couple of weeks. I was angry with my wife, snapping at my kids, I was so angry with myself. I was tormenting myself. Maybe I should have been trying to look for a job before this happened. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that vacation last year and saved better.” Martin was most angry at himself for being angry. “I just felt like I was letting God and everybody else down. Where was my faith?”
While it is important to be careful not to let your frustration cause you to alienate the people who love and support you, remember to be patient with yourself. Job loss is often attended by all the feelings common to grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, eventually, even acceptance. You should expect to experience all of these things, sometimes all at once. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad Christian. It just means that you’re hurting. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to get your bearings and find your equilibrium. As St Francis de Sales once wrote, “the most important kind of patience one can practice is patience with oneself.”
Draw Closer to Those Who Love You
“After I lost my job,” says Charles, “I wanted to withdraw from everyone. I felt like I was a downer to my friends. I would spend hours on the computer in the spare room. I told my wife I was on job websites, but mostly, I would just stare at the screen and surf. I just couldn’t bear to be around anyone. I was just so ashamed.”
When you are experiencing financial strain or job loss, it can be tempting to pull into yourself and withdraw from the ones closest to you. In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” This scripture is never truer than when we are going through pain and loss. While the temptation can be strong to separate yourself from the support of those who love you, that’s exactly what it is; temptation. God never leads us to isolation, but to communion and intimacy. Answers are never found in self-pity and estrangement. Refuse to give into the pride that holds you back from the support you need to rise above the difficulties you are facing.
Pray: Alone and with Others
Karen stopped answering the phone because she was tired of making excuses to creditors. She didn’t know how they were going to get through this. She was praying. Hard. But she didn’t feel anything. That night, she decided to ask her husband to pray with her.
Prayer, alone or especially with those you love is an incredibly important part of discerning God’s plan for your life. In my book, Life Shouldn’t Look Like This: Dealing with Disappointment in the Light of Faith, I observe that too many people, when faced with hardship, ask the question, “Why?” But there is rarely an obvious or easy answer to this question. A better question to ask is, “Lord, what would you have me make of this?” In other words, “How can I respond to this in a way that will glorify God and make me a better, stronger person?” Answering this question in little ways (like, “be kinder to my spouse and children today, “ or “remain hopeful and reach out to my friends who might have a lead or at least could offer support” ) and in big ways (like, “pursue the options that really do help me leave behind an unsatisfying, soul-draining career”) can help us remain hopeful and enable us to learn God’s plan for helping us grow into the people he wants us to be.
Even so, it can be difficult to find those answers without prayer, and often even when you are praying by yourself, that prayer often sounds like, “OH-God-PLEASE-help-me-I’m-so-scared-angry-depressed-and-I-Don’t-know-what-to-do-but-I’m-sure-I’m-going-to-DIE!-Amen.” Having a spouse and/or close circle of friends to join you in prayer can help you focus your mind on God’s love and providence (instead of your panic and misery), and give you an important spiritual sounding board off of which you can bounce the various ideas and feelings.
Trust in God’s Providence
Bill shared with me that even though he’s been struggling financially lately, he’s had to marvel at how God has been taking care of his family. “The other day, the car broke down and I had no idea how we were going to get it fixed. There just isn’t any margin in the budget right now. I have to admit that I really couldn’t think straight, I was so upset. But later on that day, my buddy came by who happens to have a garage. I told him what was going on and he offered to take a look at it. We were able to fix it that night by cannibalizing the parts off a junk car that someone ‘just happened’ to give him for that purpose the week before. I think it’s a miracle how it all just fell into place, and it helped me remember who’s really in charge.
We have a tendency to assume that we are our own (or our family’s) provider. This is really not true at all and both job loss and financial hardship do a wonderful job clarifying for us that God is really in charge and is the source of whatever blessings we have. If you can, despite your feelings, keep up the suggestion you’ve read in this article, you will be able to stay focused on the fact that God is your provider and will meet your needs both in the short term and in the long term.
BreakThrough – Overcoming Relationship Gridlock
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