You are invited to an elegant banquet, where you will be served a sumptuous meal of several courses.
As you sit down, you are told you have only three minutes to consume your meal. You might feel that what would have been a pleasurable experience had suddenly become stressful. Unlikely though this scene might be, it may serve to illustrate the source of many kinds of stress in our lives. An elegantly set table with equally appealing food simply requires more than three minutes to fully enjoy. Similarly, when circumstances in our life demand more of us than we feel we can give, we can feel overwhelmed.
For some of us, such feelings may arise because we have a house full of growing children, each requiring time and attention. Perhaps we have committed ourselves to too many activities and cannot do them all as well as we would like. Family members may be facing urgent deadlines that create pressures on us, or maybe health problems are causing us to be irritable, impatient, and tired.
The list goes on and on. Some experts like to rank stressful activities by the amount of stress they produce. But the truth is, it is more the way we react to events, rather than the events themselves, that causes stress. It is our ability to adjust to changes in our circumstances that determines the degree of stress we feel. It is for this reason that what is stressful for one person isn’t necessarily stressful for another.
Surprisingly, a certain amount of stress can be good for us. As Lehi pointed out, opposition is essential for personal growth. (See 2 Ne. 2:11–16.) Research has shown that those with a hardy view of stress, for example, will look at a potentially difficult event as a challenge rather than as something to be feared. Even working on a project sixty hours a week can be challenging and exciting as long as we are committed to the undertaking. How we cope with stress, therefore, is more important than what causes the stress. But it does help to identify what those stressors are before we can deal with them.
An engineer will explain that stress is an essential part of any structure. He refers to an excess of stress in a structure as a strain. When the stress-points in a structure are strained, the structure becomes damaged. Likewise, once the normal stress of life builds to a certain level, it no longer serves a productive purpose. Our lives become strained, and we face the potential of emotional and physical damage.
Such strain may occur when parents demand perfection in themselves or in their children’s performance or achievements. The truth is, few achieve perfection in this life. For most of us, the best we can hope for is steady progression toward the goals our Heavenly Father has outlined for us.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said, “When in situations of stress we wonder if there is any more in us to give, we can be comforted to know that God, who knows our capacity perfectly, placed us here to succeed. No one was foreordained to fail or to be wicked. When we have been weighed and found wanting, let us remember that we were measured before and we were found equal to our tasks; and, therefore, let us continue, but with a more determined discipleship. When we feel overwhelmed, let us recall the assurance that God will not overprogram us; he will not press upon us more than we can bear (D&C 50:40).” (“Meeting the Challenges of Today,” in Devotional Speeches of the Year, Provo: Brigham Young University, 1978, p. 156.)
Sometimes, the best way to cope with stress is simply to be realistic about what we expect of ourselves and others. We may be trying to do much more than we are capable of doing. Often, we become upset because we are not perfect in everything we try. Perfection is our ultimate hope, but in the meantime, we should be realistic and kind in our expectations of ourselves and others.
Being realistic is a very important way to handle the strains life places on us. But there are other ways as well. Some of the following may help jog your memory about what works for you. Share your ideas with your family.
Keep Spiritually Fit. Prayer and daily scripture study allow us to keep our spiritual reservoirs of faith, hope, and peace of mind full. These not only give us spiritual strength, but they can help us find answers to our particular problems.
Get Out of Debt. A common cause of family conflict is financial stress. Our Church leaders have consistently counseled us to budget our money and to stay out of debt. If we were to spend less than we earn, this practice alone would substantially reduce much of the financial stress most of us feel.
Keep Physically Fit. To handle stress, our bodies require rest, exercise, and a good diet. Participating in a favorite sport is also an excellent way to let off steam.
Set Priorities and Goals. If we can’t accomplish all we’d like to do, setting priorities at least allows us to do the most important. As individuals and as families, we need to set goals—daily, weekly, monthly, and long-range—and then plan how to accomplish them if we are to keep from spinning our wheels. Planning gives direction and energy to our efforts and helps us avoid crises that result from failing to anticipate needs and remember responsibilities.
Change Habits and Routines. Some people find that getting up an hour earlier gives them much greater control of their lives and uninterrupted time to do many things that otherwise don’t get done. For others, a short nap gives the needed refreshment.
Change Your Pace. A change of pace can bring a feeling of renewal and the serenity to cope with a hectic life-style. A short interlude amid the beauties of nature, a few minutes in quiet thought, reading a good book, doing anything we particularly enjoy (including nothing) for a while—all can help when the pressure intensifies.
Share Your Frustrations. Talking our problems over with family members not only helps relieve stress, but it can enlist the family’s cooperation in finding solutions to stress-producing situations. Writing in our journal can also provide insight as it helps us release tensions and cope with everyday stress. Wise parents will help their children see the value of writing down their feelings in a personal journal or notebook.
One mother of a large family confides, “My notebooks and journals are priceless. Some people are willing to pay professional counselors to listen as they unravel what’s in their head or their heart. For me, writing down my thoughts and feelings has been an unfailing source of revelation about my own inner self. Especially when I feel stressed out, discouraged, or down for any reason, I write what I’m feeling (often just a list of ‘I feel …’ sentences), and I am usually able to clarify what it is that is weighing on me. Then I can deal with it more effectively. Sometimes I fill a whole page with my frustrations before I begin to see what’s really bothering me. I have come to know myself intimately through my own writing.”
Relax and Enjoy Life. Some of us simply need to relax more and enjoy life, our children, and our relationships with spouse and friends. We sometimes forget that the ability to feel joy is one of the primary characteristics of Deity (see 3 Ne. 17:20) and that our mortal experience is meant to bring us a fulness of joy (see 2 Ne. 2:25; D&C 93:33).
Don’t Forget Humor. Serious though life is, there are many moments that would be enriched by a sense of humor. We will greatly reduce stress if at times we can laugh at the incongruity in our lives. Laughter in a family is a wonderful lubricant that can alleviate the friction of too much stress.
Among the most difficult feelings we have to cope with are discouragement, despair, depression, guilt, and anxiety.
President Ezra Taft Benson has said, “We live in an age when, as the Lord foretold, men’s hearts are failing them, not only physically but in spirit. (See D&C 45:26.) Many are giving up heart for the battle of life. Suicide ranks as a major cause of the deaths of college students. As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, p. 65.)
These negative feelings too often cause us to withdraw from the very people who could help us. A vague and undefined problem may seem insurmountable, but with a little talking and sharing of perspectives it can usually be dealt with. Encouraging your children to express their feelings to you from their earliest years will do much to empower them against these potentially devastating feelings of helplessness.
Unfortunately, even loving, communicating parents can’t help some children whose problems have become complicated or have gone on too long. These children need the assistance of professionals. For most of us, though, professional help is not necessary. Our problems and those of our children may cause us to feel discouraged, even depressed at times, but the feelings can usually be relieved by continuing with the everyday activities of keeping the commandments—repenting, praying and fasting, serving, working hard, maintaining health, reading, enduring, and turning to uplifting music, friends, and priesthood blessings for strength and inspiration. (See Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, Nov. 1974, pp. 65–67.)
As parents, our opportunity to be most Christlike may come when our family members or friends are experiencing emotional problems. Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s advice may be helpful: “Certainly the greatest miracles of our day are the lifting and healing of troubled souls. We must take family members by the hand and show our love is real and continuing.” (Ensign, Jan. 1974, pp. 102, 104.)
We can do several things to accomplish what Elder Ashton suggests.
Listen to Them. Encourage them to express their feelings. Reassure them that it is not abnormal to feel upset, confused, and disappointed at times.
Do Not Judge Them. Phrases like “If only you had …” or “I told you this would happen if …” only make people feel worse. Help them see that they are not to blame for events outside their control and that they are not being punished. If they are responsible for their problems, help them forgive themselves and put the past behind them by repenting.
Help Them Gain a Spiritual Perspective. Remind them of the purpose of trials in life. Give them a sense of hope. Pray together, pleading with the Lord aloud for an eternal perspective and the necessary understanding of the problem.
Spend Time with Them. Be available when your child or your spouse needs to discuss problems or express feelings. Sometimes, simply being together without distraction can be a balm to a troubled heart.
Involve Others as Needed. Involve those who are capable of helping. Encourage family members to pray together, work together, and to support the person in need. If necessary, involve professionals whose values are compatible with yours.
Love Them Unconditionally. After all and above all, our greatest means of supporting others is to love them without guile. That means we learn to see them as the Lord sees them, for their eternal worth as children of God. As parents, we must learn to do this especially when our children seem to deserve it least. If we can do this, despite all our personal weaknesses, we can overcome anything together.
The gospel of Jesus Christ does not profess to eliminate stress, and none should think it will, but it will give meaning to the opposition and resistance we meet in this life and enable us to grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52.)