Much like learning to walk with a sprained ankle, living with physical and emotional health challenges takes balance and practice. I’m convinced that our own mental and emotional health has an immeasurable impact on our physical health. This may work in reverse as well. By God’s design our bodies and minds are one working organism, so to separate the physical body from its mental and spiritual connections greatly limits our understanding of both. Although it makes sense that doctors and health practitioners adopt specialized knowledge and skills, the intricate nature of the brain, the body, and the psyche in relation with each other requires integrated study across specialties and practices. In the present, we can only work with what we know, and when you live with health conditions you cannot change by your own efforts, what we know now is never quite enough.
This is where balance comes in. Whenever something new confronts us, whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual, factual, or fanciful, we have an initial reaction – we pull our hand away when we brush against something hot, we pull the car over when we become drowsy and supplement ourselves with either a nap or a whole lot of coffee. Since pulling our hand away from something hot is a physical response, providing that that portion of your nervous system is functioning the right way, it will happen automatically. Getting sleepy on a long car drive, however, requires a thoughtful response, and a decision must be made based on a set of options that may each lead to a slightly different unknown outcome. So, it’s harder.
Decision fatigue is a real thing, and I think that the very fact that “decision fatigue” is a relatively recent term for what it describes says a lot about how the world has changed over the last twenty or so years. I am visiting my childhood hometown right now, and the balance of what is new and what remained the same is striking. Centuries-old homes still stand, some of them still lived in and cared for, but many have lost whatever front yard they may have once had as increased traffic demanded wider, safer roadways. Just as the progress of the town has limited the physical space each home and yard takes up, the relentless progress of growth and development in communications and connectivity seems to take up more and more energy and cognitive space in our minds. For example, in 2002 when I graduated from college, I had a Nokia cell phone that I used to make calls. Making calls was all I used it for, and even then it was only for short communications like “I’m on my way home,” or “where do you want me to meet you?” Today I have a Samsung cell phone that I use to make calls, read and send emails, buy things from online stores, read and send text messages that often include screenshots or photos that were also taken with my phone, check my email, send emails, receive emails, listen to music, listen to podcasts, keep track of the family Google calendar, track the moment-to-moment progress of packages of stuff I ordered from the online stores, post messages on social media, take videos and do live video calls and updates…..
Our technology and the number of things we can do with it is astounding, making things that were once completely impossible not only achievable, but convenient. Yet, while these advancements vastly expand our human capabilities and reduce our limitations, it seems that our advanced capabilities have, in turn, increased our expectations of ourselves and others. Decision fatigue is only a part of it; our rapid advancement has decreased our patience, our time for sleep, eating, exercise, and recreation, our quality time with people we love, etc. Changing communication technology has altered existing friendships. I find myself much more comfortable talking with someone through email, text messaging, and social media than I do over the telephone or in person. I am increasingly avoiding phone calls and in-person connections. Writing, by blog, social media, texting, messaging apps, etc. Is increasingly my main form of communication. You know that dream that most everyone has at some point in life, where you find yourself back in high school or at work, but somehow naked? I feel that way now when I meet with people in person, and sometimes even over a telephone call.
Phone calls are really uncomfortable for me for some reason. Business-related items, like making appointments, getting information about a product or hiring someone to do a home repair are easier, but still awkward. Frankly, I avoid person-to-person calls any time I can, but I’m not proud of that, and I do need to make them. I am involved in a support group for people with eating disorders, and part of my involvement and my recovery includes speaking with other members on the phone every day, and while I’ve been doing this consistently for years, it has never become comfortable. There are certain people who I am much more comfortable calling than others and there are times when a call I made only because of my commitment ends up being fun and even uplifting, but it still takes me a few deep breaths to hit the green “send” button, even with someone I talk to several times a week. It’s always uncomfortable.
I offer this as an example because we all make decisions to follow through with things we don’t want to do. The degree to which we want to avoid certain things varies – I would rather make a phone call than endure a lumbar puncture procedure – but ultimately we can expect to confront a few things every day that we must or should do, but we don’t want to.
Our increased connectivity, I think, has produced a pandemic of decision fatigue. Because we have more options, we need to make more decisions, there are more factors present to complicate our decisions, and we’re more aware of their impact. Added to that, technology and general advancement are now happening so rapidly that our expectations have increased exponentially too. In 2019 I had attended less than a handful of Zoom-style video meetings, and found them sort of neat and great for business and industries that needed to communicate with people around the world in real-time, but I did not expect them to become a regular part of my life. But then we got to March 2020 and COVID, and Zooming became a regular part of life.
The technology around me and the expectations others have of me grow faster now because of these possibilities, and while new gadgets and greater access to new things was once exciting, the amount of time between the advent of new capabilities and the expectation that we can use them productively and interactively has become much, much smaller. And that, I think, is a recipe for a lot of chronic stress.
A few months ago I wrote a series of posts on relationship boundaries, ie. limitations we can set for ourselves that provide guideposts for what sort of behaviors we are willing to accept or tolerate from others, and what behaviors we won’t tolerate. However, we also need to establish and maintain boundaries in our own lives. We set limits for ourselves with the goal of living in and maintaining a lifestyle and routine that maintains or enhances our faith, our self-care, our relationships, and our goals. We can give ourselves a formula for self-discipline and self-care that nurtures our well-being while also gently moving us out of our comfort zone in the direction we want to go. I’m sure that taking the time to consider and study yourself during a season that is stressful and loaded with unrealistic expectations will offer you ways to fully take in the gifts of God’s offer of peace, reconciliation, and redemption.