An Introduction to the Problem of Stress
The idea for this study comes from the little book "Stressed Out: Keeping it Together When Life is Falling Apart"(Lyman Coleman). Before we begin discussing the subject of stress, I want you to understand the perspective that I'm taking with this particular problem. As a minister, I'm often asked why Christians, people of faith in God, experience stress and become "burned out?" After all shouldn't their faith be a guard against this type of problem? And so, my approach to this topic is to discuss the problem of stress and how it affects the person of faith, the believer, the Christian. For this reason, I'll be looking at passages and teachings from the Bible that will guide us in our study.
Having said this, I also can say that stress affects believers and non-believers alike and the solutions are similar, whether you are a faithful, church-going Christian, or you are a person that has very little interest in religion. I believe that everyone can benefit from this material, regardless of their level of faith, because everyone is subject to stress.
Which brings me to my first point when it comes to understanding stress. There is this idea that says that stress is associated exclusively with modern times and lifestyles. For example, the businessman/woman busy with their workload, extremely active and very stressed out because of it. Then there are those people who live in the country, or those who operate small shops or boutiques who are naturally relaxed with no stress in their lives.
A good example of how unrealistic this is comes from someone in my own family. I remember when I was a boy, my uncle Maurice Rivard owned a bike shop. He rented bikes and also repaired them. I remember going to his shop as a boy and always being fascinated by all the bikes in the store, and watching him work the repairs in the back. He owned the building where the shop was located and lived in the apartment with his wife and five children upstairs. He would lock up the store, go upstairs for lunch, maybe take a nap and then at about two o'clock in the afternoon, he'd go back downstairs and do some more work. I thought, what an ideal life! There must be no stress involved with that kind of schedule and routine.
As I grew up, I began to realize that my uncle Maurice had five kids to feed. He explained to me how, sometimes, the repairs that he undertook on these bikes took longer and cost more money than he had quoted at the beginning. He talked about angry customers who didn't get their bikes on time, or people who would actually steal merchandise in the store while he was in the back repairing the bikes, and he would tell me that it was a very stressful life. Here I was as a youngster thinking that, "Boy, if you wanted a life with no stress, a relaxed life, all you had to do was open a bike store." My uncle explained that the truth was quite the opposite from what I thought.
Another misconception is the naivety of people in the city, who think that farmers have no stress. Farm people, they think, live close to the earth. When you drive by in the country, it is so peaceful and beautiful with the rolling hills, the farmhouses, the barns with cattle leisurely feeding in the picturesque meadows. We think, "I should give up my stressful life in the city, move to the country and go into farming." People who think this have probably never experienced a random hail storm killing a season's worth of crops or a cow stepping on your foot or perhaps the tractor breaking down at a critical moment or the bank stopping their line of credit without warning.
And so it goes for everyone who is alive:
- Moms stressed out at home
- College students stressed out at school
- Elderly coping with the stress of aging
- The Young dealing with the stress of coming into adulthood
- Men and women feeling the pressure to succeed, to provide, to maintain, to survive or looking for a life partner
Truth #1 for all of us, therefore, is that everybody, regardless of age, gender or social position experiences stress in one way or another.
Facts on Stress
Stress, of course, is not a bad thing in itself. It is merely the body's chemical and psychological response to stimulus enabling the body to deal with various situations in life. It's very natural to get pumped up for the "big" game, or the stress in anticipation and preparation for company you will be hosting in your home for the first time. These are examples of controlled stress helping you rise to the occasion, so to speak. Stress is needed to have mental alertness, when you have exams or complex work and need to focus. It is the body's stress that elevates your attention when you need it to do certain tasks, or require a certain mindset that focuses your energy to get the job done despite obstacles.
We have been designed by God to function under stress, even function more efficiently when stress is brought about by the situation at hand. Stress is the catchword for all of those things that come together within us, mentally, physically and spiritually, in order to "turn up" our level of awareness, efficiency and energy to deal with the various concerns in our everyday lives.
A problem occurs, however, when this level is turned up too high for too long. Then, stress turns into chronic stress and burnout which is harmful to the individual.
Some symptoms of overstress, which leads to burnout:
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- various physical pains
- stomach upsets
- muscle aches
- chest pains
- heart palpitations
- high blood pressure
- Some emotional and spiritual symptoms are:
- anxiety, depression
- excessive anger
- a feeling of isolation, cynicism or bitterness
Based on some national samples in the U.S.A. it is estimated that:
- $50-70 billion a year are lost in businesses due to stress-related illnesses.
- Overstress is one of the major contributors to heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver, Parkinson's disease, and even suicide.
- Two-thirds of office visits to doctors are prompted by stress-related symptoms.
The key, of course, is not to eliminate stress altogether (stress has a very important function) but to reduce the intensity and the frequency of overstress.
Dealing with Stress and Burnout
Stress does not happen all by itself. It is a response or reaction to what is happening to us, a preparatory stimulus to enable us to act and to think.
People who are overstressed for no reason at all are those who suffer from an illness called "anxiety disorder", some call it "panic attacks". Panic attacks have all the symptoms of stress overload (a heart beating faster, various physical and emotional symptoms of overstress and burnout) but there are no co-related reasons for the symptoms.
Most people will work too hard, too long, suffer business ruin and family problems, and begin to show signs of burnout from overstress brought on by the things that are actually happening in their life.
Another person, however, will be going along fine without any particular problems or overstress situation, and suddenly will feel all of the same symptoms of burnout, and feel these even more acutely, to the point where they will be incapacitated by the symptoms for a time. This is a panic attack (anxiety disorder) and is not the same as burnout, and not treated in the same way either.
A panic attack is caused by an imbalance in the chemical composition in the body. It has all of the same symptoms as burnout, but the reason for it is not your lifestyle, but rather the way that you process the chemicals in your body (i.e. the Hypothalamus secretes too much adrenalin, we don't know why, it just does).
Burnout, however, happens when a person is stressed out for too long, or too intensely, over too many things. The stress needle is in the red zone continuously.
There is no change in lifestyle that will help eliminate panic attacks, medication and an understanding how they work help diminish their frequency and intensity.
Burnout from overstress, however, requires several things in order to find rehabilitation.
A person has to understand what they are doing and how it is affecting them emotionally and physically. Usually burnout victims repeat and reinforce their overstressed lifestyle as a means of dealing with their problem. For example:
- Workaholics will work twice as hard to make the extra money they need to take a vacation so that they can relax. Their solution is "I'm burned out, I need to relax, so what am I going to do? Well, I'm just going to work a lot of overtime, as well as work on Saturday and Sunday for a couple of months to save up some vacation money, and then I'll relax." It's easy to smile at that solution but many times this is the answer that burned-out people come up with as a solution and thereby make things worse.
- People who are stressed out because they've suffered the loss of a loved one will often isolate themselves in order to deal with the pain and stress caused by this event, but this type of action usually makes matters worse instead of better. It is a natural human tendency, especially in the loss of a loved one, to pull back. Many people want to go into a corner and hide. They don't want to see or talk to anyone and think that this is the best way to handle the stress and pain they are going through. However, doing this is exactly the opposite of what they actually need to do. They need to come out into the light and be with family or other people to receive comfort, encouragement and strength.
We need to understand ourselves and know how we handle stress.
Understanding what we do that causes stress and burnout and how it affects us is important, but incomplete in the healing process. Unless we change, there is no healing. Knowledge will help diagnose the problem, but change is the medicine that will help the problem go away.
Burnout is the result of overloading our system and pushing it beyond its ability. Many times it is due to a failure to recognize that God has placed some physical, financial or emotional limit on us and we refuse to accept these limits. Each person has a different limit. When we surpass these limits, especially for an extended amount of time, something will give and usually it is our ability to cope and maintain a balanced emotional state.
The change necessary is not a change to become something different but rather returning to a more realistic version of what and who we are. We burn out many times because we try to go beyond the limits of who and what we are. The answer, of course, is to accept what our limits are and where God has stationed us in life.
Insight into the problem and a change to live more within the confines of who we are help those who merely live in and for this world that exists here with some level of satisfaction.
For those who are disciples of Jesus and experience burnout, a faith adjustment is required since the road to burnout has usually been caused by or resulted in a damaged faith.
14When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him. 16And He asked them, "What are you discussing with them?" 17And one of the crowd answered Him, "Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; 18and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it." 19And He answered them and said, "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!" 20They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. 21And He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. 22It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!" 23And Jesus said to him, "'If You can?' All things are possible to him who believes." 24Immediately the boy's father cried out and said, "I do believe; help my unbelief." 25When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again." 26After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, "He is dead!" 27But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up. 28When He came into the house, His disciples began questioning Him privately, "Why could we not drive it out?" 29And He said to them, "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer."
- Mark 9:14-29
In this episode, the father is stressed to the max because of a lifetime of worry, anguish and fear over a son who is, it seems, hopelessly tormented by a demon so he cries out, "I do believe, help my unbelief."
Not only was the boy sick, but the father was burned out as well and one of the signs of this condition was a faith that was beginning to sag.
For the Christian, there is no healing without a renewal of faith. For the unbeliever, there is no total healing without a recognition that Jesus is one's Lord and Savior. In the end, burnout is largely due to man's ongoing effort to save himself or to care for himself without reference to God.
We all experience stress and the key is to manage that stress and be aware of when we are overstressed. When we can pinpoint the times and the occasions for this overstress, we are better equipped to lessen the intensity and frequency of this situation.
In our next chapter, we will be focusing on particular types of stressors in our lives and how we can effectively deal with these. For example, we'll talk about stress from worry, work, failure, loss and finally the story of one Bible character who suffered from burnout and how God personally ministered to him.
For now, I'd like to leave you with a stress vulnerability scale so you can evaluate, in a general way, your own stress level.
Download the Stress Vulnerability Scale: