“I have so much going on, I feel like I’ve lost control of my life. I can’t sleep at night, I have no appetite, and I feel like I don’t even have time to spend with my friends. I don’t know how I’ve every going to get everything done that I need to do.”
My patient sat in the chair across from me with tears falling down her face as she described the stress she was facing. Feeling overwhelmed by her busy schedule, she experienced relationship difficulties and health issues. Her life was spinning out of control and she wanted to gain a sense of stability in her life again. But she had no idea where to start.
She is not the only one experiencing feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life. A national poll found that more than one in four Americans report experiencing a “great deal” of stress in the previous month and half of all adults polled said that they had experienced a significant stressful event in the past year. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in American survey found that 22% of Americans report experiencing extreme stress and 39% reported that their experience of stress has increased in the last year.
Being Busy to Be Important
In our culture today, having an overloaded schedule and very little time for leisure is very common. Working a 40-hour work week has become a luxury and our culture celebrates busyness as a sign of importance. Being busy has become a primary way of saying “I matter.” If we’re not as busy as our coworkers or friends, we might worry that we’re not doing enough or that we’re somehow worth less as a person.
I personally experienced this the other day when I was talking to someone in my office who asked me what my schedule was that week. As a therapist, I arrive at the office later in the day and work into the evenings. When I told him this, he told me how lucky I was to have such as “easy” schedule. Immediately, I felt the need to explain that I do my writing and volunteer work in the morning before I come to work. I wanted him to know that I was busy. It was only later that I realized I’d fallen victim to the busy lie. I let myself believe that I needed to prove I was busy and therefore, that I mattered.
Being busy has become a primary way of saying “I matter.”
Social media doesn’t help either. While it can be a helpful way to stay connected, it can also contribute to the sense of busyness. We mindlessly scroll through our phones to pass the time (something I have definitely done more than my fair share of). And when we see the perfect photos of our friend’s backyard party or the mommy blogger’s pristine house, those things start to chip away at our sense of self-worth bit by bit. We ask ourselves why we aren’t throwing amazing dinner parties and training for a marathon. We feel pressured to appear busy with very important things to our real life friends as well as our online followers.
This implicit message that we matter only when we are busy is an impossible burden and, if unchecked, quickly comes overwhelming. When we feel overwhelmed, we start to experience the negative effects of stress. A 2015 report by The American Institute of Stress identified the top four sources of stress: job pressure, money, health, and relationships. Worrying about money and finances is the biggest source of stress for Millennials according to the APA’s Stress in America report. These sources of stress start to take a toll on us and you may notice feeling angry or irritable, anxious or nervous, a lack of interest or motivation, fatigued, and depressed or sad when stressed. If left unchecked, stress can make us more likely to engage in unhealthy coping behaviors like surfing the internet, consuming alcohol, smoking, and excessive sleeping.
Need of Only One Thing
We become worried and anxious and wonder how we can manage to cope with it all. In fact, we start to feel a lot like Martha in the story of Martha and Mary. Martha was “burdened by much serving” and resented that her sister, Mary, was not helping her. Frustrated, she asks Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” To which Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was probably feeling overwhelmed by preparing a meal, cleaning up, and making her guests feel comfortable. She may have even been worrying about the work she had to do the next day. Instead of enjoying the present moment, she let herself be overtaken by her worries and anxieties. She felt resentful towards her sister who put everything aside to be with Jesus. Here Martha was worrying about everything she had to do and her sister has the nerve to not have a care in the world! Often we feel like Martha but want to be more like Mary. How do we get there?
Bishop Robert Barron has an excellent reflection, which was featured in a recent issue of the Magnificat, on what takes place in this passage. He writes, “When Jesus remonstrates with Martha, he doesn’t mention her busyness per se but rather that she is ‘anxious and worried about many things’. And when he praises Mary it is not so much her contemplative frame of mind but instead that she had chosen only one thing.” Martha is overwhelmed by the cares of the world but Mary is focused on the source of everything, God.
There is need of only one thing.
How do we stay focused on God and His plan for us instead of being anxious and worried about many things? When a scholar asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-37). This is Jesus’ guide to help us be like Mary: stay focused on God as the source and reason for everything we do.
One way we can prevent becoming overwhelmed and anxious and worried about many things is to consider what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The common way to interpret this commandment is to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as well as be selfless with your time and talents for the good of others. But, have you considered what Jesus means by loving your neighbors “as yourself?” He is saying that you and your well-being matter too. Yes, it is important to be selfless and to minister to those in need, but we also need to take care of ourselves in order to do so.
Importance of Leisure
Think about it: if you saw a friend struggling under the weight of a stressful family situation, you would certainly encourage her to take care of herself by getting enough sleep, eating properly, and staying in touch with friends. But, too often, we let ourselves get carried away by the worries and cares of the world and neglect to take care of our own well-being. We lose sleep, skip meals or turn to food for comfort, isolate ourselves from friends, and feel anxious and hopeless. We believe the lie that to take care of our well-being is to be selfish. But that’s not what God has planned for you. He wants you to be the most authentic version of yourself possible. To be your authentic self means to take care of your well-being. Without enough sleep, without time for relaxation, without time with family and friends, our tank is slowly drained and we start running on fumes. On the other hand, when your tank is full, you are at your best. You live what you are called to do much better than if you are an over-stressed version of yourself.
Pope Francis, when he was a Cardinal, wrote about the importance of leisure in our lives. “Together with a culture of work,” he writes, “there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: People who work must take time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport” (Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words). The pope encourages us to set aside time in our day to enjoy life. This is what Martha forgot to do. She let work overtake her life and she forgot to set aside time to spend with those she loved. Martha let her worries and anxieties prevent her from embracing the present moment. Embracing the “culture of leisure” creates a place in our busy lives for the much-needed time to invest in our well-being and take a break from “being burdened by many things.” Make plans to take part in your favorite hobby, schedule special time with family, friends, or your children. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating nutritious foods. And, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life, consider seeking psychotherapy. A psychotherapist will help you understand your stressors and develop a plan to better cope with them.
The bottom line is that it is good to relax. It is good to spend time with friends and family. It is good to get 7-8 hours of sleep at night. This will help you be the most authentic version of yourself.
So what one small change can you make to help you better live with God as your center and your wellbeing in mind? Go out and do it!