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Stress Management and Serenity

A prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr has helped thousands with a simple idea

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Updated November 21, 2003

Many are familiar with the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but few are aware that he is their author. The “serenity prayer” is taught in AA meetings and other 12-step groups as a model for living life one day at a time. We can all learn from it.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

These words from the opening of the prayer are the most familiar. Even if you don’t believe in God, these words can be a model for effective management of stress in your life. It is critical to understand the difference between things that you can change and things that you can’t. We bring much stress upon ourselves by worrying about and obsessing over things that we cannot change. We also add to our stress if we fail to change stressful things that we can change.

Courage to change the things I can

If you are under a lot of stress, try to identify the sources of the stress - the stressors. Are you volunteering your time working for a number of worthy causes? As worthy as they may be, this is a source of stress that you can change. You are choosing to spend your time this way. You can make different choices. Are you putting in too much time at the office? Is this causing friction in personal relationships, or causing them to drift farther apart? Here again you are making certain choices about how you spend you time. You can make different choices.

Serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Have you suffered through recent losses? Deaths of friends or relatives are clearly not things that we can change. Changes in our own health often fall in the same category. Has your employer asked you to do a different job than the one you were hired for? You might be able to change this, or you can certainly change jobs – but in many cases this is also something that is better to accept and adapt.

Wisdom to know the difference

Take some time to think about those stressors in your life. Apply your wisdom to them – specifically to decide whether the stressor is one that you can change or not. If it is something that you can change, then decide if you want to change it, and make a plan.

Niebuhr continues with these words:

Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.

That approach to life has been found to be helpful in many different traditions. The Buddhist tradition of mindfulness focuses on living one moment at a time. This moment is all that we really have. If we allow it to pass by we will never have it again. How was this moment for you?

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