How Can I Manage Stress More Effectively?

Near the end of King Benjamin’s life, he gathered his people to teach them about the Savior. After they received a remission of their sins, he gave them a list of things they should do to retain that remission over time: continue to believe in God, pray to Him, repent, teach their children to love one another, give to beggars, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and administer to the spiritual and temporal needs of others (Mosiah 4:4-26).

At this point, he must have sensed a growing level of anxiety among his listeners, so he provided some guidance about how to manage the gap between what they would like to do and what they actually could do:

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order (Mosiah 4:27).

In April of 1829, after Joseph Smith lost the 116 pages known as the Book of Lehi and was unable to translate for many months, the Lord gave him the same advice. After authorizing him to begin translating again, the Lord said:

Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent unto the end (Doctrine and Covenants 10:4).

Note that in both of these passages, dual instructions are given:

  1. Don’t try to do more than you can.
  2. Be diligent.

This pairing suggests to me that there is an optimal level of activity. We shouldn’t do more than we can, and we shouldn’t do less. We are looking for that sweet spot, where we are productive and busy but not overextended and burned out.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf has explained that, when a pilot encounters turbulence during a flight, he or she will search for the “optimum turbulence penetration speed.” They don’t shut down the engines entirely (obviously), and they don’t necessarily speed up. Instead, they try to achieve a speed which minimizes the negative effects of the turbulence while continuing to progress toward their destination. Often, he said, this means slowing down (“Of Things That Matter Most,” General Conference, October 2010).

In 1908, two psychologists—Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson—identified a principle which is now called the Yerkes-Dodson law. It states that, for difficult tasks, our performance improves as our state of mental arousal (our stress level) increases, but only up to a point. After we have reached the peak level of performance, additional arousal actually reduces our effectiveness. The law is often represented by a bell curve, with the point of maximum productivity at the top of the curve:

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 8.59.38 PM
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So zero stress is not the goal, but too much stress can be just as bad.

What should we do when we are overstressed? Elder Uchtdorf provided the following guidance:

  1. Slow down a little.
  2. Simplify your activities. Focus on the most important ones, and let some less important activities go.
  3. Remember that your top priorities are your relationships: with God, with your family, with other people, and with yourself.
  4. Find joy in living the gospel.

(“Of Things That Matter Most,” General Conference, October 2010).

Today I will pay attention to my stress level and try to achieve an “optimum turbulence penetration level.” I will strive to prioritize the things that matter most, let go of less important things, and find joy in doing good.

2 thoughts on “How Can I Manage Stress More Effectively?

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  1. Great one Paul. I like the use of “provided” in your D&C quote (“Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided…”). Seems like a great reminder that our strength & means are provided as a gift to us from a loving heavenly father. As we seek to consecrate our lives and find synergy in our activities, our capacity will grow and we will gain confidence that He is pleased with our best (albeit imperfect) efforts.

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    1. That’s a great point. It should also help us feel less guilty when there are things we can’t do. We didn’t decide which gifts and talents we were given. But we are accountable to use the gifts and talents which have been provided to us by God. Thanks!

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