Alex is 39 years old, has a demanding job and a young family, and is a passionate member of his church. Keen to make a difference in his local community, he helps out with a youth group once a week and plays in the band for Sunday services and events. He describes himself as full of energy and jokes that ‘sleep is for wimps’.
But recently the joke has started to wear a bit thin. A promotion at work has meant more pressure, and a few challenging teenagers in the youth group have meant some draining evenings. Extra meetings to think about how to respond to this have led to him dashing to church straight from work.
Struggling with recurring headaches, Alex’s GP says the most likely cause is stress. He has advised Alex to cut back on what he is doing, but he can’t give up work or his family, and he feels called to the things he does at church. Meanwhile, his wife says she would just like to see him at home every once in a while, within waking hours…
This is a fictional story, but chances are it struck a chord with you. Stress is a big 21st-century issue, and although you might expect people in the Church to struggle less or have found the answer to a stress-free life, the truth is that many are just as stressed as those outside the Church. In fact, it could be that some Christians are more prone to stress instead of less; struggling to balance not just work and life, but work, life, family and church/volunteering/ministry – and finding that there simply aren’t enough hours in the week.
IS STRESS A WEAKNESS?
We like to think of stress as something ‘in our heads’ but, in physiological terms, stress is any change in our environment that requires our bodies or brains to respond or adapt. This necessary adaption may be behavioural, hormonal, neurological or – and this is usually the reality – a combination of the above. But too often stress is seen as a weakness, and while our personalities might moderate our responses, much stress is about essential, automatic processes that help us adapt to our ever-changing environments.
DEEP DOWN, MANY OF US WANT TO BE SUPER-PEOPLE
Even though we might want to, it is impossible to avoid all stress. In our complex, 24/7 social world, we can be exposed to stress without even leaving our armchairs. Stress isn’t even restricted to what is actually happening right now. Often what we experience is anticipatory stress: anxiety about future things that may never happen. And we all hit high stress phases when work, family or relationship issues place us under additional pressure. But we should not fear stress; research shows that worrying about stress and trying to avoid it might actually place us at greater risk of negative health consequences. Instead, we need to develop our skills for managing stress, understand it better, and minimise its impact.
CAN A PASSION FOR GOD LEAD TO STRESS?
The reason why so many Christians struggle with stress is about much more than overloaded schedules. There is something else about many Christians that can make them more at risk of struggling with stress, and that crucially can make them more likely to overlook or ignore early warning signs that their stress levels are too high: their passion for God.
It’s hard to think of passion as anything but good. After all, how can it ever be bad to be enthusiastic? We are called to be passionate people: to love God ‘with all [our] passion’ (Matthew 22:37, The Message). Our passion is driven by two things: the love we have for God and the impact of what God has done for us. Paul speaks of both these drives in his letter to the Philippians, encouraging and inspiring them to ‘not only love much but well’ (Philippians 1:9, The Message).
As Christians, this passion motivates us and has a God-given power. The Song of Solomon speaks almost in awe of this strength, describing how ‘The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave’ (8:6, CEV). Throughout history, a passion that grows from the Holy Spirit working within God’s people has empowered them to do amazing things because of their faith.
BROKEN HEARTS ARE RISKY
With passion comes risk, where stress is concerned. Some of that risk is inherent in the strength of our emotion. One look at how Christians describe their passion reveals something that isn’t an entirely positive emotional experience. ‘May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in’, prayed Mother Teresa, and a recent worship song has had many of us singing ‘break my heart for what breaks yours’. The English word ‘passion’ stems from an old Latin verb meaning ‘to suffer’. And the Bible accepts that passion can sometimes trigger difficult or unpleasant feelings – grief or sorrow, for example – referring to this as ‘godly sorrow’ (2 Corinthians 7:10). Being deeply passionate about something can also make us more likely to struggle with other difficult emotions, such as frustration, particularly if not everyone shares the force of our conviction for a ministry.
Perhaps the biggest risk associated with passion is that the more passionate you are, the more driven you are. The passage in 2 Corinthians carries on to observe the impact of godly sorrow: ‘You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible’ (2 Corinthians 7:11, The Message). There is a very real risk that such passion might drive us beyond sensible limits; to take on more than we should. And all because we are so fervently dedicated to our cause.
Many Christians find themselves passionate in their care for others. Interestingly, empathy – our ability to understand the emotions of other people – is thought by many experts to involve what are called ‘mirror’ neurons: cells in the brain that fire when we witness another’s pain and mirror the effect. This means that some very empathetic people are not only observing someone’s emotional reaction but actually experiencing something of it themselves.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about experiencing this: ‘The thing that has me so upset is that I care about you so much – this is the passion of God burning inside me!’ (2 Corinthians 11:2, The Message). We must not underestimate the impact this can have. It is no coincidence that those found to be highly empathetic are also those statistically most at risk of struggling with stress-related issues.
What is burnout?
Burnout is what happens when, as a result of a period of sustained or high stress, our physical and emotional reserves run out and we no longer have the capacity to continue to respond at that level. Burnout hits people in different ways but is a real, physiological reaction to unsustainable demands. It is your body and brain’s way of making sure you step out of things for a while in order to recover.
SYMPTOMS MIGHT INCLUDE:
Physical: headaches, digestive problems, exhaustion, insomnia, frequent infections, worsening of chronic/long-term conditions such as eczema.
Emotional: feeling tearful, irritable, low or depressed, loss of enjoyment of things usually enjoyed, feeling you no longer care.
But be assured: having a passionate love for God and people is not somehow bad news. Particularly when directly God-given, perhaps as part of a call to ministry, we are told that passion is a gift. ‘Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you’, urges Paul in his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:6). So our aim should not be to lessen this reaction or the motivation it brings. But we must be aware of the increased risk of stress that accompanies it. If we fail to take appropriate care, the risk is that rather than being all out for God, we end up stressed out, and even at risk of ending up burnt out.
Sarah is a teacher, and part of a team that planted a church in her town several years ago. Two years ago, her stress levels hit crisis point.
‘I’d known for a while I was running on empty,’ she admits, ‘but there wasn’t ever any time to think about it, or any choice, as I had to keep going. It came to a head one day when I just knew I was going to snap, and started crying. Then I couldn’t stop. I felt dreadful, like I had a bad dose of flu, but lasting much longer.Every time I even thought about trying to go to work I felt worse again. In the end, my GP signed me off with stress and referred me to a counsellor. I was shocked. I thought burnout was something that happened to other people, not someone like me. It took months before I was able to return to work and to church. I had to take things slowly, accept I was human and learn to make time for myself and to take care of my own needs.’
WE SHOULD NEVER BE ASHAMED OR RETICENT TO ADMIT THAT WE HAVE LIMITS
Burnout is not a fun place to be. Physically and emotionally, burnout is when your body and brain are exhausted by stress. Just like a car, you cannot run on high revs all the time without it damaging your engine. Too often I have heard well-meaning preachers cry, ‘I want to burn out for God!’ While this might be an understandable response, it is not a biblical one. In fact, writing as part of his letter to the Romans, Paul addressed this very tension between our passion and the desire to do the most we can for God, and our human limits. In Romans 12:11 he writes: ‘Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.’
The Message translates it slightly more starkly: ‘Don’t burn out: keep yourself fueled and aflame.’ The key Greek words used in this verse refer to two contrasting concepts: losing your energy, feeling lethargic and demotivated; and being aflame, burning with the heat of your passion. Paul contrasts these two and beautifully describes the balance we need to keep between them. His message is emphatically not one of holding back or avoiding stress. No, we are to strive to be on fire for God, fuelled by a love for God that burns hot and strong. However, in ministry we must aim not just to start, but also to finish the race (Acts 20:24).
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR LIMITS
Deep down, many of us want to be super-people. We want to run beyond human limits, achieve the impossible, and have and do it all. But this is an area in which we are called to challenge our culture. We should never be ashamed to admit that as humans we have limits. Sarah has had to become much more aware of her stress levels after her experience of burnout. ‘Now I am much more aware of my stress levels, I don’t let it creep up on me, no matter how busy I am. I make sure I take regular time to relax and recover from the challenges of the day. I know I can’t do everything, so I don’t feel guilty that sometimes I have to say no.’
With a limited time on the earth, and an even shorter time in full-time ministry, you might have expected Jesus to have a jam-packed approach to his work. But instead he regularly took time out in order to meet his own and his disciples’ needs, whether physical or spiritual. He slept at times when the disciples would have preferred him to be working with them (Matthew 8:24) and reminded them of their need to rest (Mark 6:31). Jesus even walked away from others’ needs at times. Would you allow yourself to do the same?
Passion is a wonderful, God-given gift that drives and motivates us. But we must be aware that the more passionate we are, the more important it is that we value, plan and protect time out to meet our physical, spiritual and emotional needs. If we fail to do this we may find that our time – and effectiveness – in ministry is limited or even ended by the stress it inevitably brings. We shouldn’t look down on those who struggle with stress, nor should we idolise those who seem to be able to push themselves beyond our own limits. Being stressed is not a sin, but taking regular time out to rest and seek God is one of the Ten Commandments, and arguably the one that is most often neglected today.
In a culture where people so often seek to push themselves to the limits, we must aim to become as zealous about managing stress as we are about the causes we work for, accepting our human needs and valuing ourselves enough to look after them.
9 ways to manage stress for the long term
1. Recognise your limits and accept them. It is ok not to be super (wo)man!
2. Do not wait until you are on the edge of burnout. Learn to recognise early warning signs that you might need to de-stress.
3. In calm times, work on good practices and techniques that help you manage stress so that when things get crazy you are prepared.
4. Mark regular days off/time out in your diary. Do this before you add in other commitments. Remember these might be the most important days in your schedule because they fuel your other work.
5. When you are taking time off, really take time off. Don’t cheat by checking emails or taking work calls.
6. Value sleep and protect it as much as you can. While some things that interrupt sleep cannot be controlled (such as children), other things can, so go to bed (the most common cause of lack of sleep is that people just don’t go to bed early enough!). Leave your phone downstairs, get some decent blinds and invest in some earplugs if you need to.
7. Eat well. When under stress your body releases cortisol, which can cause you to crave sugary/fatty food. Research shows that these things don’t just make you less healthy; they could also impact your ability to regulate emotion.
8. Watch out for caffeine. The World Health Organization now recognises that too much caffeine can be dangerous, and it can increase stress by making us more anxious and interfering with sleep. Stick to one or two cups of coffee per day.
9. Make sure you spend enough time with people whose company you enjoy (including your family), as well as the ones who drain you. It is good to give to others, but if you give all the time you will end up empty (or even overdrawn) yourself.
DR KATE MIDDLETON is a psychologist, a leader in her local church and a director of Christian mental health charity Mind and Soul. Her latest book, Refuel (DLT) is out now