I subscribe to a fascinating (free) newsletter called “The Masculinist.” It’s put out by a man named Aaron Renn, and it is broadly about “the intersection between Christianity and Masculinity.” This month’s edition is about anxiety and what practically we can do about it. Mr. Renn writes:
“In my experience today, far too many people are way too saturated with stress (cortisol) on a persistent basis. The culprit is pretty simple to identify in many cases – national politics – but there are many other possible sources.
It’s natural to be anxious about election results, but even prior to Trump, the news cycle and social media were increasingly keeping people in a perpetual state of agitation.
I see so many people today who regularly post rants on Facebook about the outrage du jour. Even when I agree with them, I can’t help but think that some of these folks have damaged their mental and even physical health by working themselves up like this daily.
Most of the things that get me upset fall into two categories: 1) minor indignities of daily life that quickly pass, such as getting cut off in traffic, or 2) macro events that I cannot plausibly effect. The former tend to be self-correcting. The latter will turn me into a cortisol factory if I let them.”
He’s so right: so many of us are worked up about things over which we have no immediate control. But what can we do about it? How do we break this harmful habit? Mr. Renn continues:
“So I actively take steps to try to ensure I’m raising my “testosterone” and lowering my “cortisol.” For example, while I did personally vote, I didn’t even watch the midterm election results roll in. I kept my computer shut and just woke up the next morning to see who had won. Similarly, I tuned out the news and social media the final week of the Kavanaugh confirmation process.
When there is something in the news that I consider “bad,” I try to tune things out. Conversely, when something happens that I see as a “win,” I spend a lot of time on Twitter….
The point is to avoid getting perpetually stressed out over things I can’t do anything about. It’s not that I don’t care, but I try to focus my engagement where I do think I can make something of a difference, even if small scale….
Another way to think about this comes from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I’ve actually never read the book, but a mentor used an illustration from it to kick me in the butt one time. This model involves two circles, one nested inside the other. The smaller, inner circle is our “circle of influence” (or control). This is what we are responsible for or can affect in some way. The larger outside circle is our “circle of concern,” which is everything we are worried about or can affect us.
Our circle of concern should be bigger than our circle of influence, because that’s how we grow. We expand our influence into new areas this way. But if our circle of concern is too much bigger than our circle of influence, then we end up distracted from focusing on the things we can do something about or the things we are actually primarily responsible for. What’s worse, because we can’t do anything about the things that are inside our circle of concern but outside of our circle of influence, we get eaten up with useless worry, etc. This is the zone of negative energy where our cortisol levels spike up and our effectiveness decreases and our health can even be jeopardized.
This mentor told me my circle of concern was way too big – far larger than my circle of influence – and it was only going to get me in trouble. And he was right.
Because of social media and other things, our circles of concern today tend to be gigantic. We are worried about all sorts of macro things, especially national politics, far removed from our sphere of influence in our daily lives. Again, this only causes us mental and even physical health problems, and takes our focus and energy away from where it should be.” [emphasis added]
There are lots of bad things in the world, and lots of reason to be outraged. I’m just not sure, however, if our constant anxiety is really helping anything. Forgive me for quoting myself, but I think the advice Jesus gives is the best antidote I know to anxiety. Just do it every morning, and see what happens:
Try it tomorrow.