A friend of mine once remarked, “You are so outgoing. I wish I was more like that.” She considers herself an introvert and wanted to push herself to be more social. She insists I have the advantage in life because of how easily I make friends and talk to people. But I reminded her, there […]
Ann and Jennifer both lost their jobs during the pandemic. But their reactions to this stress were very different. Jennifer went into a downward spiral of anxiety and depression. Ann remained hopeful and optimistic. Two people had similar experiences, but such different reactions. Why is that?
The answer involves a number of factors:
The perception of control: Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl had it right when he said that perception can mediate stress. Perception is often related to a sense of control. When we feel more in control of stress, we do better. One way to take control is in your mind. Your mind can put the brakes on anticipating bad things that might happen. In Ann’s case, she saw the stress of job loss as a consequence of the pandemic and part of life. She didn’t anticipate negative consequences from that loss. Instead, she used the loss to pursue her goals and secure a better position, something she may not have done had the pandemic not hit. Stress was not avoidable during the pandemic and Ann embraced it.
Jennifer, on the other hand, was highly anxious over the stress of her job loss. She felt she had no control over the situation and took a victim position. Her negative perception led to more internal grief, activating her stress response, keeping it high. She felt out of control, as though there was nothing she could do. Rather than harnessing the stress for her own good, she let it get the best of her.
The two women had two very different perceptions of control. Ann embraced the stress as a new challenge and got active. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone and found a new job. Ann talked about her experience like an adventure. Jennifer talked about the job loss experience like a nightmare. She remained stuck in negativity, ruminating on what she could not control.
So how should you handle stress and the perceptions that can accompany it?
Focus on meaning: If you approach stress as a normal part of life, you do better. Stress is inevitable. It is going to happen on a regular basis. When it does, pay attention to where you direct your focus.
Back to Frankl. If you don’t know his story, you should read it. In a German concentration camp he was tortured and starved with no hope of rescue. Yet he survived unimaginable stress. He did so by looking for the meaning and purpose in small everyday things. And he focused on how his family would one day need him again. In other words, he got his eyes off what he could not control. Then he shifted his attention to what he could control. In the process, he found meaning for everyday life. This shift in focus is necessary because it changes our perspective.
Develop a support group. Another key difference between Ann and Jennifer was their support. Jennifer was isolated during the pandemic and struggled with loneliness even before she received the news of her job. Ann had a wide support group and kept in touch by ZOOM and FaceTime. When stress hit, Ann had people who encouraged and prayed for her. Jennifer was alone with her thoughts that grew more and more hopeless. Support is needed when we deal with stress. The impact of stress is reduced significantly when we socially engage with others.
Trust God in the moment. Knowing that God holds all things in His control is an incredibly comforting thought. While God doesn’t always take us out of stressful situations (as was the case in Frankl’s life), He promises His presence to walk us through those “valleys of the shadow of death.” Knowing and believing His many promises of peace and presence calms the mind, body and spirit. Also knowing that God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs will change our perceptions and strip stress of its meaning. Finally, we know that we are not alone in this journey. The Psalmist affirmed his trust in God, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” (Psalm 73;23) Holding on to God’s hand gives a sense of safety and security that cannot be moved by stress.