Unresolved Stress: Calm Behind The Storm

Len McMillan, Ph.D.

Scott had recently turned 45 years of age and was the owner of a prosperous retail business he had spent the past 20 years building. Then, seemingly without warning, Scott sold his retail business and the night before their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary informed his wife that he wanted to live as a single man.

The next day he put his mother into a retirement home and informed his two children in college that they must take out loans if they wanted to complete their education. Angrily Scott informed his family, “The money machine has just gone out of business!”

How could anyone be so selfish? Didn’t he have any sense of responsibility? Why would he treat his own children and mother with such deliberate disregard? Scott defends his decision to quit the game.

“Our marriage had stayed together for almost 25 years because I was always at work. I spent every waking hour trying to carve something out of nothing for my family. We didn’t really have a marriage. In fact, we had little more than a live-in partnership. There was no other woman in my life. In fact, there wasn’t any woman in my life-including my wife.

“One morning I jumped out of bed in a panic. I had so many things to do that day. Twenty-one people were depending on me-my family and 17 employees. The emotional and financial pressures that reality put upon my shoulders was almost unbearable. I knew I couldn’t continue to work the 14- to 16-hour days. Yet my business was at a crucial stage of expanding or folding. I was too big for ‘mom and pop’ but too small to compete with the franchise chains.

“If we expanded, it would involve the largest debt load of my life. I didn’t think I could cope with any more stress. I felt like a squirrel on a treadmill-every year I had to run harder and harder just to stay in place. So many bills. So many responsibilities. I knew I was heading for a heart attack if I didn’t change my life. So I stopped! No warning. I just stopped.

“No one understands why I stopped. I’m not sure I fully understand it myself. However, the feelings of my employees and family were unanimous. I had created unfair stress in their lives by my selfish decision. How could I be so uncaring? Why was I thinking only of myself? Now my family and employees are beginning to feel some of the stress I have carried all these years. Guess what? They don’t like it!

“For the first time in my whole adult life I’m not making any plans. For the first time I’m trying to make each day a precious experience, instead of deferring all the pleasure to some vague date in the future-that may never come.”

Could this have been avoided? Yes. If Scott had learned to identify and cope with stress, he might not have felt so helpless and hopeless. Stress is part of life.

Coping with stress is essential for maintaining a healthy body and caring relationships. Sometimes we become our own worst enemy when under stress.

During his reign as heavyweight champ, Muhammad Ali (always quick with a quip) was seated on a plane about to depart when the flight attendant reminded him to buckle his seat belt. “Superman don’t need no seat belt!” shot the champ sarcastically. Without a moment’s hesitation the flight attendant rejoined, “And Superman don’t need no airplane, either!” Ali buckled his seat belt.

We all need to check our seat belts daily if we want to survive our flight on Stress Airlines. It is important not to review the safety card provided on Stress Airlines. But if you would like to increase the amount of stress in your life, just follow the instructions below.

  • Make little things bother you. Dwell on trivia and make it of major importance. Such thinking patterns will generate lots of stress.
  • Lose your perspective on things. Always do the least important items first every day. Save the most important for that evening when everyone else is asleep.
  • Be a perfectionist. Remind yourself every time you are not perfect. Constantly remind others when their behavior is imperfect.
  • Be right-always be right-and don’t let anyone tell you that you are not right!
  • Be suspicious. If someone performs a kindness, ask yourself Why are they doing it? What is their ulterior motive?
  • Always compare yourself unfavorably with others. Then make excuses as to why they get all the breaks. As someone once lamented to a friend: ” Why is it you never win-and yet you always seem to lose?”
  • Take personally everything that happens to you that is unpleasant.
  • Don’t commit yourself to anyone or anything. They will only take advantage of you anyway.

    It is easy to allow life’s stressful disappointments to ruin your entire day, week, month, or year. The Bible tells a story about King David, who wanted to build a temple for God. He had been dreaming about building this love gift for God most of his life (see Psalm 132:3-5). A worthy goal in anyone’s life. But God told David that he could not build the temple (1 Kings 8:17-19). Can you sense the stress David must have experienced? Can you feel his frustration? Can you identify with his indignation? How could God refuse his love gift?

    Although deeply disappointed, David did not allow his disappointment to control his actions and emotions. Even though he would never see the temple completed, David determined to make it easier for his son to build. He contracted with expert craftsmen to make the priceless decorations. He arranged for cedar beams to be fashioned in Lebanon and perfect-fitting stones to be carved at the local rock quarry. In other words, David dealt with his disappointment by working diligently to accomplish a task he would never see completed.

    When the magnificent temple was finally built, it would be referred to as Solomon’s Temple. Actually, it was David’s Dream. His ability to cope with disappointment and stress made his love gift a reality even though he would never see the finished product. It was called Solomon’s Temple, but it was really David’s achievement. An old adage reminds us that there is no limit to how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.

    Sometimes my wife asks me why I plant fruit trees whenever we move, because we have seldom stayed long enough to enjoy their bounty. My reply: “Someone will enjoy them. That is reason enough.” Removing personal pride and need for recognition from the disappointments of life is an important first step in stress reduction. Scott, the disappointed, disillusioned, stressed-out 45-year-old could have learned a lot from David.

    Dreams become disappointments. Plans are washed away with the incoming tide of daily problems. Eventually the disappointments, disillusionments, and failures become a norm in life that creates tremendous inner stress.

    My wife and I had lost everything except each other. Our son was only a few months old and we were so financially challenged we couldn’t file for bankruptcy. No attorney would help us with the paperwork, because we couldn’t pay their fee. We had lost everything in a poor business venture.

    We were disappointed and obviously stressed, but too young to be disillusioned. We both found jobs. However, since our car had been repossessed, we did not have transportation. I purchased a well-used pickup truck, about 20 years old, for $5. We drove that truck for a year back and forth to work (before it became fashionable to drive a truck). It looked so terrible that the bank at which my wife worked asked her to park it several blocks away. We saved our money during that year and eventually purchased a car for $50. It too was 20 years old, but it rode a little better. Disappointed? Yes. Disillusioned? No. Did we pay off our debts? Yes.

    When coping with stress, admit your disappointment. Be honest with yourself. Then move on to the next challenge in life. Begin to view your circumstances as challenges that can be overcome, acknowledged, or accepted. Learn to accept your best as exactly that-your best!

    In the comic strip Peanuts, Charlie Brown is working on a woodworking project. “How’s the birdhouse coming along, Charlie Brown?” inquires Lucy.

    “Well,” replies Charlie thoughtfully, “I’m a lousy carpenter. I can’t saw straight. I can’t nail straight and I always split the wood. I’m nervous. I lack confidence, I’m stupid, I have poor taste and absolutely no sense of design. So, all things considered, it’s coming along OK!”

    Most of our daily stress can be solved with David’s attitude adjustment. Be disappointed-but not disillusioned.

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