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A lot of things in life come down to preference. We become anxious and stressed when we draw negative conclusions about ourselves based on non-moral issues.

Stress isn’t an emotion. It’s a physiological reaction to an emotion, like fear or anxiety. I learned this in therapy last year, when my stress reached a tipping point, manifesting itself in chronic chest pain and shallow breathing.

I had always viewed anxiety like a choice – you can choose to worry … or not! But in the fall of 2022, “anxiety” took on new meaning for me. It didn’t feel like a choice so much as an affliction. No matter what I did – exercise, prayer, meditation – the chest pain persisted.

I started seeing a Grace counselor, and it’s not an exaggeration to say meeting with her changed my life. Here are five of my biggest takeaways you can begin applying today to reduce stress in 2023.

Stop Judging Yourself for Personal Preferences

A lot of things in life come down to preference. We become anxious and stressed when we draw negative conclusions about ourselves based on non-moral issues. For example, if you were raised to value a tidy home, you might be stressed when your house is messy because a tape inside your head says, “I’m such a failure for letting it get this bad!”

Pay attention to your thoughts. Are you pressuring yourself to live up to a standard God never asked you to uphold?

You’re not “undisciplined” because you prefer to read your Bible in the evening instead of waking up at 5a like so-and-so. You’re not “irresponsible” because you have a higher tolerance for messy work spaces, or gas needles that teeter below empty, or phone batteries that are never fully charged. Develop a heightened awareness to matters of preference, and excuse yourself from judgment over them.

Don’t Sweat Your Child’s Performance

Guess what? Performance isn’t a good indicator of a child’s future success. Making “A’s” doesn’t mean your kid is a hard-worker who will have a successful career, just as making “C’s” doesn’t mean they’re destined for poverty. Grades, sports, popularity, keeping a tidy room, all the extracurriculars … it matters very (very) little.

Do you know what IS a good indicator of a child’s future success and wholeness? Interpersonal skills. Does your child know how to give and receive love? Are they kind? Do they know how to share their feelings and communicate their needs? These are much better benchmarks for determining future wellbeing.

If you’re a parent stressed to the max, step back and assess your schedule. Is it overflowing with commitments for the sake of your child’s performance? Which commitments could you drop as you move into 2023?

Look inward – are you anxious about performance-related issues? Are you pressuring your child to excel at everything? Remind yourself that ultimately a 4.0, or a perfect softball pitch, doesn’t really matter. Save emotional energy for the things that DO matter.

Get Curious about “Stuck Points”

You know those little things that bother you throughout the day, but you just kind of ignore? It could be a comment that stings or a negative interaction with a friend. You might find yourself mulling over it before bed, or sense it festering a few days later. That’s a “stuck point,” and it’s worth examining because it’s likely fueling some of the stress and unrest in your life.

This was my favorite analogy in therapy: Imagine you are a closet. There are hangers inside the closet that represent beliefs you’ve acquired about yourself. Things only “stick” if we have somewhere to hang them.

For example, pretend Lucy turns in a project and her boss says, “Thank goodness you finished on time.” Later, he says the same thing to Julie, who doesn’t think twice about it. Julie takes the comment at face value, assuming her boss really needed the project pronto.

But not Lucy. She stews over the comment, wondering why her boss said, “Thank goodness YOU finished on time.”

Why does the comment bother Lucy but not Julie? Because Lucy has somewhere to hang it. She has a little hanger inside her closet that says, “I’m unreliable.” (This hanger probably came from a childhood experience or multiple experiences where she was either told she was unreliable or something happened that made her draw that conclusion.) Now there’s proof to reinforce that belief – “See, my boss thinks so, too.”

We rarely pause to consider the deepest beliefs we harbor about ourselves. But if we can become aware of them by paying attention to our “stuck points,” we can begin to challenge them.

Start with the Facts

You’ve probably seen the popular illustration where someone fills a jar with sand, then demonstrates how big rocks can’t fit inside the jar. However, if you put the rocks in first, the sand fits around the rocks. People often use this analogy to talk about priorities. My counselor used it to talk about the difference between facts and feelings.

Let’s revisit Lucy, who’s still fretting over her boss’s comment. Her feelings are so big, there’s no room for the “rocks,” which are the facts. Imagine she takes a deep breath and chooses to examine the facts. She notes things like, “I’ve never actually missed a deadline. My boss didn’t explicitly say I’m unreliable…”

Once the facts are in place, Lucy can get curious about her feelings. She might ask, “Why did this bother me so much? What emotions did it trigger? What are those emotions telling me?”

It’s good to process feelings, but we must always start with facts. Facts reveal truth, which is crucial because ultimately it’s the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).

Do Something

One of the recurring themes I noticed in therapy was a call to action. After you’ve examined facts, it’s good to listen to your emotions. It’s even better to identify what they’re telling you. But if you never take action based on that knowledge, nothing will ever change.

If sadness is telling you that you feel disconnected, how can you move toward connection? If guilt is telling you that you’ve done something wrong, how can you make it right? If discontentment is telling you that your life doesn’t look the way you want it to look, is there a step you can take toward fulfilling some of your God-honoring desires?

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