How to Deal With Stress and Anxiety

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Photo Credit: Neil. Moralee Flickr via Compfight cc

Americans are stressed. We are a wealthy nation. We have the world’s best military and aren’t worry about invasions. We might have a broken healthcare system, but Americans receive better healthcare than most others in our world. Yet we have high stress levels.

In fact, this does not seem to be improving with millenials. I work with 18-25 year olds, and most of them are stressed. According to the American Psychological Association, millenials are more stressed than other generations. Since I work with millenials, I’ve had many opportunities to help people deal with their stress. In this article, I want to share my main advice.

Before I give my advice, here are some caveats. I typically talk to people who are stressed about interviews, grades, or their relationships (I work with college students, after all). So this advice would work best for similar kinds of stress. And I’m not a psychologist. I did manage to get an ‘A’ in Introduction to Psychology without going to more than two lectures. But that was because the class was easy, not because I have prowess in psychology. So approach my advice with some healthy skepticism. If it clicks with you and manages to work, then good. If not, forget you’ve ever read this.

Where I Developed My Advice

I developed this advice after noticing a two things:

First, I heard countless people try to help others with their stress. I saw the common advice and saw how it worked — or, more accurately, how it didn’t work.

Second, for years I have seen someone close to me successfully deal with immensely stressful situations. I have learned from them how they deal with stress.

So let me begin by telling you the normal advice for how to deal with stress and why it doesn’t work.

The Typical Way to Deal with Stress

Imagine a college student named John. John has graduated college and is looking for a job. He also has managed to get a series of job interviews. He’s worked hard at his degree and is excited about starting his career. But he is nervous that he won’t get a job, especially after his series of interviews. John’s self-doubt is at an all-time high. He isn’t sure he is skilled enough or experienced enough to get a job.

So how do most of John’s friends help him with his stress? They say, “Don’t worry, John! You’ll certainly get a job.”

I understand why most people respond this way. The obvious way to help a friend anxious that he won’t get a job is to assure him that he will get a job. But have you seen what this does to worried people like John, particularly those with lower levels of self-confidence? Their friends’ insistence that they will get a job raises the stakes. Now if they do not get a job, it makes them look even more incompetant.

Think this through with another example. Imagine a person nervous about failing a test. If she doubts that she will pass, assuring her that she’ll pass increases her anxiety. If she fails the test now, she’ll prove herself to be dumber than her friends think.

So the way that people normally try to assuage other’s stress does not work. Or, at least, it does not work in most situations.

How to Deal With Stress

So how can you deal with stress differently? Here is how I advise people to handle their stress. Instead of assuring them that they will succeed, I help them see that the failure they fear is not that frightening. I try to make them comfortable with failure. I don’t want to increase the stakes. I want to lower them.

I learned this from someone who, out of everyone I know, handles stress better than others. This guy’s life has chaos and many potential stressors, but he hardly ever seems stressed. Over the years, I have learned that he normally just lowers the stakes. He convinces himself that failure won’t be that bad. He becomes comfortable with outcomes others would be worrying about.

Take the earlier hypothetical case of John. If I were talking with John, I would make not getting a job from these interviews sound better than John currently envisions. I might stress how little money one initially needs after graduating. Or how a few months without a 9-5 would give him flexibility he would never again have in his life. I would also tell him about my friends who didn’t get jobs on their first round of interviews but ended up in great jobs. As for the student worried about a passing a test, I would tell her that the grade is not as important as she thinks. It usually is not.

I think there are good reasons to minimize one’s fear of failure. First, we tend to overestimate the unhappiness we will feel when something doesn’t go our way. Failure is not typically as traumatic as we think. Second, for those of us with religious beliefs, God still works and blesses our lives, even if we fail at a goal or task. So helping someone get more comfortable with failure can help to reduce that person’s stress levels.

Doesn’t This Encourage Faliure?

You might think I’m encouraging failure by helping stressed-out people become more comfortable with failure. But I’m not. I think this advice actually does the opposite. Stressed-out and worried people are more likely to do poorly on an interview or a test. Anxiety tpyically interferes with good performance. So, oddly, if I can make a person okay with failure, then I can increase his chances of actually succeeding. His stress is no longer holding him back.

So the Next Time…

So the next time you feel stressed about a situation, don’t try to convince yourself that the situation will turn out how you want it. Instead, work hard to convince yourself that everything will be okay even if the situation doesn’t turn out the way you want. I think you’ll find your stress levels decreasing as you come to accept that failure won’t be so bad. And, paradoxically, you will be more likely to succeed.

How a Strict View of the Clarity of Scripture Leads to Christian Division

I grew up in churches which stem from the American Restoration Movement. In our history, we had great concern for the way churches were divided. But many within this movement thought that the centuries of creeds and disputes and theological interpretation were, despite good intentions, accretions that kept us from seeing clear teachings of the Bible. We thought that the way toward doctrinal unity was pushing past the muddled history of creeds and doctrinal disputes and getting to the clarity of the Bible. This can sound condescending, as if we could look at the denominational leaders, tell them they simply needed to read the Bible alone, and these leaders would finally understand Christian truths. It could sound like a couch potato telling their favorite but struggling NBA team that they just need to get back to fundamentals. (Don’t the professional athletes know the fundamentals?) But this was no naive ecumenicalism, which thought that one could brush the disputed doctrines and practices under the rug and pretend like all the churches were united. We thought that true unity would be through an open-minded, fresh reading of the Bible.

But, somehow, this commitment to the Bible led to our group becoming one of the most divided and divisive Christian groups. How did that happen?

Though this issue is complex and involves issues like anti-intellectualism, our Biblical hermeneutics, and social divisions, there is one way of thinking that contributed to this.

The problem was our strong commitment to the Bible’s meaning being very clear.

This might make you uncomfortable. The clarity of the Bible (or, to use the technical terminology, the perspicuity of Scripture) is an important assumption of evangelicalism. Everyone can understand the Bible, we often say. As one preacher told me in the midst of a heated discussion, he thought that even a fairly uneducated man who spends his day riding a tractor on his farm can understand the Bible if he just reads it “without the opinions of men.” He didn’t need any knowledge of biblical scholarship or Greek.

Think about what this teaching means for Christian unity amidst Christian disagreement. If the Bible’s message were difficult to understand on that point, we would just chalk it up to a disagreement on a difficult, complicated, and somewhat confusing topic. We would even try to discuss and dialogue more so that we could collectively come to understand these difficult to understand doctrines. If the Bible’s teachings are clear, though, than you only have two real options for those who disagree with you on any topic: either they are stupid, or they are evil.

Let me explain: if the Bible’s teachings on any subject are simply clear to any normal person who reads and studies the Bible, then what does that say about the person who doesn’t understand it? It says they might be too stupid to understand the Biblical teachings. If the average person can understand the Bible’s teachings on a particular doctrine, then someone who cannot understand the same passage is ignorant. They are simply incapable at thinking at a high enough level to understand this Biblical teaching.

But what if the person isn’t stupid or uninformed? What if you know they have read the right passages and have access to enough resources to be able to understand the passage? What if you know they are intelligent? You would then have someone who looks at the appropriate Scriptures, can understand the passage properly if they so choose, but who is still mistaken about the Bible doctrine in question. The only serious option left is that the person is willfully misunderstanding the Bible and choosing to believe something false about God or some other topic.

Notice, then, what happens. When you think that a certain teaching of the Bible is clear, then you are forced to categorize someone who disagrees with you on that topic as either evil or stupid. That’s dangerous. And destructive. You cannot have unity with others if you think your disagreements with them are due to their stupidity or their sinfulness.

This is one reason that my Christian tradition became so divided. When churches fall into the mindset that everything they teach –– or at least everything they hold near and dear –– is plainly taught in Scriptures, they have already laid the foundation for sectarianism and disunity. There is no room for listening to those with whom we disagree and working toward a shared belief. There is only room for teaching and correcting those with whom we disagree.

Accepting the Bible Isn’t Clear

What if we just accepted that the Bible is not very clear? What if we just accepted that there are some teachings in the Bible that are difficult? That people rightly divide over them, because the evidence (even if it actually tilts in one direction) is within a reasonable, faithful person’s margin of error?

This requires us to be humble. This requires us to go to discussions to learn and not only to teach. But it will keep us from insulting other Christians and dividing from them.

Let me place a caveat here: I am not saying that every sentence of the Bible is opaque, hard to understand and apply. Many, maybe even most, parts of the Bible are clear. But there’s quite a distance between everything in the bible is crystal clear and some parts are not clear.

Some Important Caveats

First, the illumination of the Holy Spirit has to be accounted for. The Holy Spirit helps guide God’s people towards the truth. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t teach us everything little detail. I used to misunderstand that teaching. I remember once hearing someone say that the Holy Spirit guided Christians into truth. I pointed out that this person disagreed on some doctrines with one of his close friends. “Which one of you,” I asked, “isn’t listening to the Holy Spirit?” But that is not how the church has historically conceived of it. We read the Bible and discuss theology. We alter our views when we need to do so. And the church has disagreements. But the Holy Spirit is working within the church (usually in a way beyond our awareness of it) guide us into the truth. Paul said Philippians 3:15, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Paul taught that God was working to make the Philippians Christians aware of the truth. But he also taught that was consistent with the Christians not being fully taught now.

Second, a teaching doesn’t have to be clear for its denial to be considered a heresy. For centuries, Christians have been discerning what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. With some issues, Christian tradition has seen in God’s revelation a certain truth that is so important that its denial is heresy. I have often been tempted toward saying that these doctrines — the ones whose denial is considered a heresy — should be clearly taught in the Bible. I don’t currently hold this position. Instead, I think something is a heresy when it is a denial of a crucial Christian truth, not necessarily a clear Christian truth. Many of the Trinitarian and Christological heresies are not clearly wrong; but they get something critically wrong.

And So…

And so, we have to be more exacting when we discuss the clarity (or perspicuity) of the bible. Can God’s people understand it well enough — is it clear enough? — for them to honor God with their lives? Yes. Is it clear enough for the average person to read and be encouraged by it? Yes. But is it clear enough that anyone who disagrees on any Christian teaching is thereby stupid or evil? No!

We must walk the narrow path between believing the bible is too opaque for the average person and thinking that anyone who disagrees with me is evil or stupid. That’s a tough path to walk in practice, with many questionable cases and much wisdom and grace needed. But narrow is the way.

George Washington’s Secret Six: A Review

For Christmas, my wife gave me a copy of Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. Like thousands of other people, we have been enjoying AMC’s Turn, which is a television series based on the subject-matter of the book. Watching the show sparked a renewed interest in the American Revolution, prompting me to begin reading histories of that time period.

The book is a short read, and I recommend it to anyone who watches the show and wants a history of the spy ring. Even if you don’t watch the show, I think you would find the story of the spy ring interesting. Here were a few people trying to provide information about British troop movements to Washington. Their lives were in danger – Nathan Hale had been killed in Manhattan for spying in the months preceding the formation of this spy ring – and they were amateurs. The pressures they would have been under would have been tremendous. One of the members was forced to provide quarters to the British troops, and other members served soldiers daily during their day job. They had to find ways of smuggling information from under the nose of thousands of British soldiers, and they developed secret codes and used invisible ink to do so. Interestingly, at the end of the book the authors report that they learned that the CIA used the history of the spy ring to introduce people to espionage methods (215). To complicate matters, the British forces set up their own spy ring, partly to discover the American spys around Manhattan.

The most famous part of the American Revolution that the spy ring affected involved Benedict Arnold. The spy ring did not uncover the plot that Arnold was hatching, but their information helped the Americans put the pieces together when they captured the British epionage leader who had letters from Benedict Arnold on him.

What Bothered Me

As I said, I do recommend this book. But there were a few things that bothered me.

First, the way that Turn altered the story. Okay. I know that htis isn’t the authors’ fault. But it did impact my enjoyment of the book. I wasn’t frustrated at Kilmeade and Yaeger. I was simply frustrated that the writers of Turn felt the need to alter the story the way they did. For example, they switched the storylines of Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend. Since I went into the book assuming that Turn was more accurate than it really was (someone told me it was very historically accurate), I didn’t expect this. The cognitive dissonance confused me at first. I did get over this. And, again, this is not the authors’ fault and should not keep you from reading the book. It is something to be aware of, though, before you start the book.

Second, the fictionalized dialogue bothered me. The authors write in the book’s Authors’ Note:

“Much of the dialogue contained in this book is fictional, but it is based on conversations that did take place and, wherever possible, incorporates actual phrases used by the speaker.” (xiii)

I understand why the authors chose to do this. For the average person, it probably makes the book more engaging. But I usually don’t like this in history books. Why? It is simply that I don’t know what was a historical statement and what was fictionalized. Since the authors used “acutal phrases used by the speaker,” this makes it even more difficult. Part of the dialogue is historical; part isn’t. How am I supposed to tell them apart? I would like to know what was really said by those involved. I kept wondering throughout the book if Washington really thought what was being expressed in the dialogue, or was it part of the authors’ imagination. It’s not even that I want to know if he used the exact phrase in the dialogue, but I found myself wondering if Washington even had the sentiment or thought expressed in a particular piece of dialogue.

Third, I would have liked for the book to be more detailed. The authors don’t pretend to give a comprehensive history of the spy ring, so this doesn’t hurt my overall recommendation for the book. Nor do I think they failed in their task. I just have a preference for historical details.

Still Educational

But despite the brevity of the book and the lack of historical detail I prefer, it still informed me about events during the Revolutionary War of which I was previously unaware.

The Danger to Women

For example, I had never thought about the danger to women of the increased number of British soldiers who came to America during the war. But the women of Long Island, which was occupied by British soldiers for most of the American Revolution, faced constant danger. On page 48, the authors write:

“All around the British-occupied areas of New York and New Jersey, reports of attacks upon local women by both individual soldiers and groups of the garrisoned troops were made with startling regularity as early as the summer of 1776. Many cases were hadnled with a casual nonchalance as simply part of the collateral damage of war.”

On the same page, he proceeds to quote from a letter written by a British calvary officer. The letter says:

“”The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, as the fresh meat that our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation, and of consequence we have most entertaining courts-martial every day.”

The war, as most wars are, had to be truly terrifying to the women of the Colonies.

John Champe

I have never heard of John Champe before, but his mission is one of the most interesting of the American Revolution. John Champe volunteered for a secret mission, which he learned about only after being chosen. Benedict Arnold had recently betrayed the Americans, and Washington wanted to punish Arnold. So Champe’s mission was to pose as a deserter and traitor from the American side to the British. The hope was that he would eventually have the chance to meet Arnold. In doing so, he could study his behavior and determine the best time to kidnap, with the help of others, Arnold to take him back to territory controlled by the Americans. Arnold would then be put on trial.

It worked for a while. Champe showed up on the British side and eventually convinced them that he was a traitor. He met Benedict Arnold and was even put under Arnold’s command. He formed a plan to kidnap Arnold, but before he could carry it out, the British force he’d been assigned to was shipped out on a campaign.

I have never heard of Champe’s mission, but it is perhaps the most daring and interesting of the American Revolution.

Closing Recommendation

So I do think the book is worth reading, particularly if you are interested in the American Revolution, or even just enjoy watching Turn. My only complaints against it can be seen as positives: it is a quick read unencumbered by tons of historical detail, and so it holds one’s interest pretty well. Just start reading the book expecting it to be what it’s trying to be, and I think you’ll enjoy it.