It's Not the Stress; It's What You're Telling Yourself about the Stress

It's Not the Stress; It's What You're Telling Yourself about the Stress

How do you handle stress? You open your credit card bill and it’s much higher than you thought. What happens inside you? Your daughter isn’t happy in her marriage. What happens in your spirit? Your husband’s health is slowly but steadily deteriorating and you’re not sure how much longer you can care for him in your home. How do you handle it? Your vision is blurring and narrowing so that you’re not sure you should keep driving. What thoughts loop through your brain?  You thought you could trust your friend, but someone shared what she posted online and now you know your friend has been lying to you. Where do you go mentally?
All of the above scenarios are stressful, but not all of them affect people the same way. Some people spiral into a pit of despair. Some panic and fret. Some abandon hope and give themselves over to destructive behaviors. Some turn bitter and caustic. And some walk through stressful scenarios in peace. How?
Remember this truth: It’s not the stress; it’s what you’re telling yourself about the stress. It’s not the fact that something stressful is happening in your life – everyone experiences stressful things in their life – it’s what you’re choosing to tell yourself about the stress that makes the difference. 
We’ve covered this before in previous newsletters as we have emphasized what you think affects what you feel affects what you do. So, what you believe to be true, the narrative you tell yourself about life and reality, affects the way you feel and this, in turn, directs what you do.
The battle with stress is won or lost at the level of your beliefs about reality. In other words, what you tell yourself is true about reality, about the way the world is, dramatically impacts how you handle stress. If you get reality wrong, if you tell yourself untrue things about the way the world is, you’ll be ill-equipped to handle stress. If you get reality right, you won’t eliminate stress from your life – stress is a part of the way things are (for now) – but you will enable yourself to walk through stress in a healthy way, in a wise way, in a peace-filled way.
This, then, is a key to mental health: accept reality as it is. This is not fatalism. It’s not an empty “What will be will be.” This is about acknowledging that reality is a certain way and then coming to terms with it. The question then becomes, Where and how is reality defined? Appreciate the importance and nature of the question. We’re looking for an authoritative source to define reality and we’re trying to get to the foundation of reality, to the fixed edges of the way things are. What kind of world do we live in? We find the answers to these questions in God’s Word. 
The book of Ecclesiastes specializes in describing reality as it is. The Preacher offers,
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
As we’ve discussed before in these pages, the Preacher isn’t asserting that life is meaningless. The Hebrew word (translated vanity) is hevel and it means vapor or breath. Here’s the idea: go outside on a cold day (plenty to choose from lately!) and exhale. Watch your breath swirl and turn. Now grab it. Hold it. Keep it. When you open your hand what will you find? Nothing! Why? Because you can’t hold breath!       
That is the nature of life “under the sun,” to use the Preacher’s phrase that he repeats throughout Ecclesiastes. The things “under the sun” are vaporous. To return to the Preacher’s Hebrew word (hevel), our health is hevel. Our jobs are hevel. Our vehicles and machinery are hevel. Our relationships are hevel. If we try to close our hands around them we will find ourselves empty-handed.
The Preacher calls it “a striving after wind.” Imagine trying to collect the wind with a butterfly net and you will see the mental image the Preacher is painting. Reality is characterized by hevel. The things of our lives can no more be captured and kept than the wind can be captured and kept in a butterfly net. So the Preacher directs us first, to accept reality as it is and then, second, to move through life with open hands, enjoying what God places there for a time and accepting that it will only be ours for a time until it passes through our fingers (or blows through our butterfly net) and is gone.
We may not like that reality is this way,[1] that reality (for now) is characterized by hevel, but wisdom and mental wellbeing (and peace) can only be found when we accept that we don’t get to define reality. The creature doesn’t get to define reality. We must tell ourselves this truth over and over and over again. Our call is to accept reality and to live in line with it. 
This is a part of what Scripture calls “the fear of the Lord.” Proverbs famously intones, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge… (Proverbs 1:7). The author of Ecclesiastes (who introduces the Preacher) concludes the book with these words:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Fearing the Lord means that the Lord gets to define reality. It also means accepting that we aren’t the Lord. So the Lord has revealed that reality is characterized by hevel. If we are to move through life in wisdom and peace, we must accept this characteristic of reality. 
The Preacher further describes reality with these words:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11). 
He’s saying that we live in a time-and-chance world. No one is exempt. No one. This is the way reality is. People get sick. Sometimes even the healthy get sick. Sometimes the healthy die. People have accidents. Sometimes even the strong have accidents. People make money and lose money. They get jobs and lose jobs. They make relationships and destroy relationships. And if they live long enough, they get old and frail and unsteady. Sometimes they get forgetful and confused. This is life under the sun. No one is exempt.  
Accepting reality as it is doesn’t make experiencing unpleasant events under the sun enjoyable. They still cause stress. This is key to understand: We’re not talking about eliminating stress;[2] we’re talking about rightly contextualizing stress. All people under the sun experience stress. Again, ALL PEOPLE EXPERIENCE STRESS. If you are experiencing stress, then you are experiencing life under the sun. Acting like something foreign to reality is happening to you is acting built on a false belief about reality. And this will make you mentally unwell.   
Accepting the nature of life under the sun doesn’t change life under the sun; it changes the narrative we tell ourselves about stress under the sun. And this makes all the difference in the world because it’s not the stress that does us in; it’s the untrue things we tell ourselves about stress that do us in. Again, it’s not stress that makes people unwell – everybody in this time/chance world experiences stress – it’s what we tell ourselves about stress that either makes us unwell or helps us to move forward in a healthy, peace-filled way. 
This is why it’s SO IMPORTANT to hear and to rehearse the truth about reality, truth that we find in God’s Word and echoed in God’s Church. Sometimes we mentally reduce the Bible and God’s Church to salvation, they’re just about “getting us saved.” It’s true that salvation is the Gospel news announced in Scripture and celebrated in the Church, but it’s not true that we have nothing more to gain from Scripture and the Church. Scripture and the Church are about reality, about rightly situating us in reality (as it is) so that we can live beautiful, wise, and peace-filled lives under the sun. Hearing the Word – especially hearing it in community with the Church – reveals reality to us and equips us to live in reality as it is.
Hearing the Word in community with the Church also brings us into regular contact with the promises of God, promises that we call to mind in the midst of our stressful experiences. Paul writes,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
King David writes,
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me… (Psalm 23:4).
The author of Hebrews, citing Psalm 118, writes,
The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me (Hebrews 13:6)?
Accepting reality as it is and calling to mind the strong promises of God equip us to handle stress in a healthy way. Want to visit more about this? Come talk to me. – Pastor Conner

[1] This discomfort with the vaporous nature of reality should drive us to ask if there is anything that isn’t characterized by hevel, anything we can ultimately hold into eternity. The permanency we yearn for isn’t found in anything under the sun; it is found in the Son, in Jesus Christ. That’s where we find permanency and the promise that all that has passed through our fingers in this life will be amply restored to us in the resurrected life to come.

[2] There are many things we can do to reduce stress in our lives. Without writing another article, these come down to habits. Healthy habits wire the brain into healthy thinking. To put it another way, we habit our way into new thinking. Habits have the ability to rewire our brains and to create new ways of thinking and processing the world. If you want to read more on this (and you should!), check out Atomic Habits by James Clear and You Are What You Love by James Smith. Both communicate wisdom that can and will greatly improve your life.

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