How to Stress Best
Last month, my husband and I adopted an infant. She’s beautiful and cuddly and so much fun. The story of how we received her into our family is full of God’s provision, and we know that she is the child we are meant to have. She makes us laugh and brings us joy, and we are so happy to have her in our home. We (and many others) already love her in ridiculously large amounts.
Yet, even though we love her dearly, adding her into our household has also brought some less than desirable changes. Nothing we have experienced is outside the norm for a new parent, but the life we live now is very different than the life we had grown accustomed to living pre-baby. We don’t really sleep anymore, the dishes don’t get done as frequently or as completely, and we often feel like we are scrambling against the clock to get to appointments on time. We sometimes get frustrated when she cries – especially when it’s 3am – and diaper blowouts always seem to occur at the most inopportune moments. Our monthly health insurance, water bill, electric bill, and grocery bill have all increased dramatically.
I’d never take back our decision to adopt. Our daughter is an answer to prayer and so sweet. But that doesn’t mean that the changes to our lifestyle aren’t stressful in their own way – sleep deprivation is real, and adding a little bundle to the family takes a lot of energy and patience. Yet, even so, the stress seems worth it. At the end of the tunnel of exhaustion is hope for a brighter day and a greater good.
Stress viewed as necessary for greater life satisfaction is termed eustress. Eustress differs from distress in one key way: the mindset and perception of the person experiencing it. If the event causing the stress is seen as positive or helpful, the stress is eustress. If the opposite is true and the event causing the stress is seen as overwhelming or defeating, the stress is distress.
Besides having a child, other examples of eustress include purchasing a home, planning a wedding, getting married, riding a roller coaster, and playing sports. Of course, different people will experience each of those events in different ways depending on their preferences and life situation. Since I don’t like to be watched, playing competitive sports in front of an audience is terribly distressful; others, though, thrive on the adrenaline and drama that sport provides.
A quick lesson in science
Interestingly, the body can’t physically tell the difference between “good” eustress and “bad” distress. To the body, stress is stress and the response of the nervous system is the same whether we are anxious about giving a speech or coming face-to-face with a bear while hiking in the woods. No matter the precursor, if the body senses a threat, it kicks into fight or flight mode and begins to produce chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Our amygdala (where impulsive decisions are made) begins to lead our bodies, and our prefrontal cortex (where the rational mind resides) takes a backseat. These processes are meant to be protective and help us overcome immediate danger by acting on instinct. However, prolonged time in fight or flight mode can cause cumulative problems such as disorders of the immune or hormonal systems. This is why people that experience chronic stress often have more issues with their health.
While our bodies can’t tell the difference between “good” and “bad” stress, given a little time, our brains can. When we choose to calm ourselves and use our rational mind, or when we see our overall situation as positive, different levels of chemicals are released from our neuroendocrine system that help balance us out and keep harmful stress at bay.
Keeping good stress, good
Not all eustress is derived from major life events, but that is the kind of eustress I am focusing on here. New adventures bring new challenges, often accompanied by mixed emotions. To help yourself adjust well, consider the following pointers:
- Grieve the losses
Any life change inevitably involves sacrifice. Getting married means letting go of the single lifestyle where your time was your own. Having a baby means giving up a certain level of sleep, mobility, and productivity. Buying a house means being tethered to a mortgage and the whims of the housing industry, and getting a promotion may mean less time with your family and added pressure to perform. Change in itself can be hard, and letting go of a particular type of freedom doesn’t make changing any easier. Allowing yourself permission to remember the good times your old lifestyle allowed you is fair. Each stage of life has its own sweetness, and saying goodbye to happy times can be difficult. You’re not alone! Many others have experienced sadness after getting married or having a child, graduating college or getting a job. Human nature doesn’t generally prefer sacrificing what is known for that which is unknown. It’s okay to grieve.
- Think positively about your situation
While grieving what has been lost can be helpful for a time, it is important to think positively about your current situation, too. Positive thinking can help banish some of the fears that may come in tandem with major life changes. Thoughts we may have include:
- Am I a good enough spouse?
- Do I have what it takes to be a mom?
- This is too hard.
- I’m SO tired. Is this really what I want?
- I can’t do this.
- All my new responsibilities are driving me crazy – what have I gotten myself into?
Rather than focusing on the fears and vulnerabilities of your present situation, instead remember the reason you chose to make the change in the first place, and focus on what can be gained by continuing on your current path. Replacement thoughts could include:
- This will be worth it in the end.
- I’m giving the most I’m able with the energy and time I have.
- I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, but I can’t wait to see how this all plays out.
- Even though this is hard, it’s good.
- God is working in this.
- What can I learn from this situation?
Thinking in this way helps put your situation in perspective and focuses your energy outward to a greater purpose rather than inward to only yourself.
- Have confidence in yourself
Similar to thinking positively, having confidence in yourself makes the difficulties that life changes present seem surmountable. Our fears get in our way so often! Rather than believing that you are not good enough, don’t have what it takes, or will fail, choose to believe that you can follow through with the plans you make and you do have strengths that can help you through difficult times. As Hanoch McCarty is quoted as saying, “It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.” And as Vincent Van Gogh said, “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Act like you have what it takes, and you might be surprised at what you can accomplish.
As Christians, we have an everlasting confidence-booster at our disposal – Jesus! When we are weak, He is strong. When we are poor in spirit, He is rich in mercy and love. We humans we are fallen and broken, but we gain supernatural strength through Christ. As the apostle Paul relates in Philippians 4, no matter our circumstances, through Christ we can do all things.
- Commune with others
Inescapably – in difficult times or in smooth – you will find that you can’t do everything all on your own. In fact, you were never created to handle everything by yourself. We live in community for a reason, especially within the universal Church as a whole. The body of Christ is meant to serve, encourage, and sustain one another; as one of its members, this includes you! Others that have experienced a similar life change may be able to offer you advice, assist you with the difficulties you are having, or simply be there to listen and understand what you’re going through. When the going gets tough, you may be surprised to learn that others take joy in walking alongside you to a place of health. You don’t have to carry your burdens alone.
Eustress and You
The way our bodies process stress depends on how we view it. Major life changes usually pan out a little differently than we expected – all wild roses have a thorn here and there. However, if we are able to grieve our losses, think positively about the long-term outcome of our situation, have confidence that we can with Christ’s help have strength to do all things, and commune with others in good times and in bad, we have a much better chance of synthesizing our stress in beneficial ways. Then perhaps we will understand the meaning of Jesus’ words in John 10:10 – “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”