I recently started playing my guitar again, and I’ve been struck by the importance of proper tuning. If just one or two strings are too tight or too loose, every chord will sound like discord.
Stress works the same way. If our lives had no stress at all, we’d be like a guitar string dangling in the air. That kind of life is boring, purposeless, and unfulfilling.
However, many of us have grown accustomed to far too much tension on our strings. Not only does that create an off-key sound, but it also runs the risk of snapping the string. Before electric guitar tuners were invented, I broke lots of strings that way.
Although entire books have been written on the keys to handling stress, I want to share 5 of the most important and most practical lessons I’ve learned in my personal struggles with this important issue:
- TRIAGE. Perhaps you’ve heard this term associated with sorting out the victims in a battle scene, terrorist attack, or natural disaster. Often it’s not possible for the medical team to save all the victims, so they must prioritize. For example, some of the victims will die even if given medical care, while others will survive whether they are given treatment or not. So often the top priority is to determine where you can truly make a difference—starting with those whose very survival will be determined by whether they receive care.
Of course, this analogy is far from perfect. But like a triage situation, most of us have more problems coming our way than we can possibly handle all at once. We will inevitably be overwhelmed by anxiety unless we determine some kind of prioritization of the needs we face.
To put it rather crudely, most of us feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony: There’s plenty to do, but we just don’t know where to start. That’s why it’s essential to have some kind of grid or criteria to help us decide where to begin.
- FOCUS. This principle follows directly on the heels of triage. After triage helps us sort things out, focus enables us to devote our time and resources in the direction of one thing at a time. This is incredibly hard for most of us, especially in the age of multitasking, but it’s a crucial part of reducing our stress.
As a kid, I loved playing with magnifying glasses. It seemed almost magical to start fires by focusing the rays of the sun. In contrast, I noticed that unfocused sunrays only made things warm—there was little impact and no combustion.
If we truly expect our lives to make an impact, there must be focus, for that’s the only way to set the world on fire! Accordingly, a friend recently sent me this acronym: F.O.C.U.S. = Follow One Course Until Successful. That’s good advice, isn’t it?
- HONESTY. I’ll never forget the time a friend began an internship with a company that had the mistaken impression that he was a computer guru. As a result, the company was expecting him to do all sorts of things he was completely unqualified for. Talk about stressful! It was a very humbling situation, but the only solution was to honestly inform the company of his true competencies. It was a hard conversation to have, but quite a relief when things were out in the open.
While people typically use lies to avoid difficulties, such schemes always backfire. By its very nature, dishonesty is stressful. When we’re disingenuous, we inevitably create all kinds of unnecessary anxiety.
- SELF-AWARENESS. Not long ago, I was introduced to some new friends who specialize in helping people “brand themselves.” They asked me all sorts of probing questions about my mission and vision in life, trying to get me to clarify my true “identity” and purpose.
At my age, you would think I would be pretty good at giving an “elevator speech” about who I am and what I do. However, this was much more difficult than I had hoped. After all, I’ve been an attorney, a pastor, a writer, and a businessman during my varied career, so it’s not really surprising that focus doesn’t come easy for me.
But this is an important issue. Without a deep awareness of our God-given gifts and purpose, we have no way to screen out the distractions in our lives. There’s no grid to help us say “No” to things that are outside our sphere, because we don’t even know what our sphere is.
A lack of self-awareness will also cause us to struggle to know whether to delegate a task or handle it ourselves. Often we end up shouldering things that others should be doing—and this results in a lot more unnecessary stress.
- TRUSTING GOD. Perhaps this sounds like a religious platitude, but it must be much more than that. The Bible repeatedly tells us to cast our burdens on the Lord, because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 55:22).
There’s NOTHING more stressful than trying to play God instead of allowing God to live His life through us. The old hymn correctly observed, “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer!”
So the wisest advice I can give you today is this: Recognize that He’s God, and you’re NOT! It’s no wonder your life is stressful if you’ve inadvertently switched roles with the Almighty.
Take a moment to review these 5 keys once more. What practical changes do you need to make in order to tune the strings of your heart to the proper pitch?
I would love to preach at your church or conference, be a consultant to your leadership team, or help your organization navigate the waters of transition. You can reach me at info@JimBuchan.com.