Stress

W.D. "Dub" Rogers, PhD.

It's really hot and I'm late. Not only that, but I'm stuck here in 5 o'clock traffic in a car with the air conditioner not working. I'm hungry. I have a headache, and the kids just started fighting in the back seat. What we have here is someone experiencing stress.

We can all identify with similar situations, whether it's minor, like this little scenario above, or whether it's major, like the collapse of one's finances or the death of a loved one. Each of us faces stress.

The dictionary defines stress as "a mentally or emotionally disruptive or disquieting influence; distress." Stress is any type of action or situation that places conflicting or heavy demands upon a person. These demands upset the body's equilibrium. Stress is a situation where you feel like you're being pulled apart. One Christian counselor defines it as "when your circumstances seem bigger than your God!"

In coping with stress, we need to be aware of three areas: sources, symptoms and solutions.

Sources of Stress

The sources of stress can be categorized. The first category of stress is situational. Time pressures and deadlines create stress. This stress often is our own doing. We make unrealistic choices concerning the amount of time we have and what we can accomplish within a given period of time. An excessive workload can create stress in one's life. Again, this can be self-induced. A person may feel that he alone is the only one who can accomplish a task, and therefore does not delegate or trust others to do the task. Even boredom, lack of meaning, or a very routine type of job can be a source of stress. Job insecurity or financial problems are sources of stress.

Another category of stress stems from physical sources. There may be small areas of discomfort - such as feeling hot, cold or hungry. Health problems produce stress. Not only is there the fear of what to expect in the future, but the person just doesn't feel well. The physical or emotional resources to cope with daily routine are diminished. Stress can be intensified when one is tired. A good night's sleep may work wonders.

A third category of stress concerns one's interpersonal relationships. Wondering where you stand with your boss, mate, family or friends or sensing that another person is critical of you can cause stress. There is an inherent desire within all of us to be understood. Sometimes, however, even those closest to us fail to understand. This causes stress. Often we can create our own stress in interpersonal relationships by our own value systems. If I have perfectionist tendencies, then I may impose on others the rigid standards I have for myself. When others fail to meet those standards, I become impatient or angry.

Another interpersonal relationship aspect of stress is the tendency to be competitive. Getting into the habit of comparing to and competing with others can induce stress. Competition can be positive; it's fun to compete in games. But, if I have to win, if I have to surpass others, then it can produce stress and work against me. This is especially true of those who tend to be insecure, doubt their self worth, or harbor a low self-concept.

A fourth category of stress is change. The abbreviated chart below attempts to scale the impact of change in various areas.

The Stress of Adjusting to Change
Event Scale of Impact Event Scale of Impact
Death of a spouse 100 Death of close friend 37
Divorce 73 Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Marital separation 65 Change in responsibilities at work 29
Death of close family member 63 Son or daughter leaving home 29
Personal injury 53 Trouble with in-laws 29
Marriage 50 Outstanding personal achievement 28
Fired from a job 47 Wife begins or stops work 26
Marital reconciliation 45 Begin or end school 26
Retirement 45 Change in work hrs/conditions 20
Change in health of family member 44 Change in residence 20
Pregnancy 40 Change in church activities 19
Sex difficulties 39 Change in social activities 18
Gain of new family member 39 Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in financial state 38 Vacation 13

This is a study that was conducted by Dr. Thomas Holmes at the University of Washington in 1967. His thesis is that if a person goes through more that 200 impact units in any twelve-month period, he has experienced enough stress to warn him of danger. That person might move into a high-risk category of either physical or emotional problems. This does not mean, however, that for every person who goes over 200, severe problems are inevitable. We do have mechanisms that we use to cope with stress. For the Christian, a tremendous resource is available to him for dealing with stress.

A final source of stress deals with my personal actions. There are times I make mistakes, and there are other times when I sin. I make wrong choices in both situations although I may not be aware of the consequences of my choices at the time. I may have had a good intention, but made a mistake. I could have backed into sin or even known that I was stepping across God's guidelines, and when I do that, stress is produced in the process. Certainly, all stress cannot be attributed to mistakes or sin. Even when I am seeking God, I can still experience stress. Paul, in II Corinthians 11:24-28, went through some circumstances where he was beaten, shipwrecked and stoned - no doubt stressful. Read II Corinthians 4:8-12 for a good picture of stress. Paul faced stress; not because of his sin or because of a mistake he made. It came as a part of his life and ministry.

Symptoms of Stress

Sometimes we come under stress and don't realize we're there. Norman Wright has listed a number of signals that can be clues to us when we are moving into stress overload. First, decision making becomes difficult in both major and minor matters. Second, there is excessive daydreaming or fantasizing about getting away from it all. Third, there is an increase in the use of stimulants or tranquilizers. Fourth, a person finds that his or her thoughts trail off while speaking or writing. Fifth, there is excess worrying about all areas of life. Sixth, there may be sudden outbursts of temper or hostility. Seventh, there may be paranoid ideas and mistrust of family and friends. Eighth, an individual begins to forget appointments or deadlines or dates. Ninth, there may be frequent spells of brooding or feelings of inadequacy. Tenth, there are reversals in usual behavior. Any of these ten things may serve as an indicator that one has moved into unusual or additional stress.

In the last newsletter we addressed the sources and symptoms of stress. In this article, we will offer some suggestions for dealing with stress.

Solutions for Stress

We must realize we live in a stressful world. That is reality. The perfect environment does not exist in this world. Romans 8:19-23 tells how as a result of the fall of man, even creation itself is experiencing an aspect of stress. Thus, in our lives we constantly have to deal with stress. However, I am not saying there is no hope. Not at all. Stress is part of life, but God has made provision for dealing with it. One provision is our own volition. I must make choices. In Romans 12:2, Paul makes it clear that we have a choice. J.B. Phillips paraphrases it this way, "Don't let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your mind from within." We can use our minds to make choices about our stressful circumstances. In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul talks about directing your mind. I focus my mind on things that are worthwhile. I direct my thinking, not to the what-if's, but to evaluating the negative situation and trying to determine how I can turn the negative into a positive. Rather that making a foolish decision to escape painful emotions produced by situational stress, I use the painful emotion of stress as a stimulus to direct me toward something positive.

For example, I may be experiencing stress from a multitude of causes, such as my weight, my finances, etc. Going out to eat or raiding the refrigerator may provide short term emotional relief, but for the long term, it works against me. I could use the negative emotions to prompt me to work out or walk around the block. Another example might be having so much to do I can't get it all done. I take the negative feeling and try to do something with it. Rather than trying to carry everything around in my mind all day long where it weighs on me, I write down those issues and begin to turn that into a prayer list and pray through each event, saying "God, I'd like some guidance. Which is priority?" I then make some decisions to take action.

Often, when we experience stress, we begin to do foolish things to our physical bodies. I'm always amazed at college students. They come into finals week and begin to feel the pressure and stress of being evaluated on their final exams. So, at a time when they want their minds to perform at peak ability, they miss sleep and don't eat correctly. When in a long-term stressful situation, check your diet. Get adequate rest. Be sure you are getting some exercise. This helps bleed off nervous tension. Make wise choices. Choose some relaxation. Take your mind off circumstances, but choose when you're going to do that and for how long, thereby realizing that your recreation has a purpose. Don't allow your letdown time to be just an escape. Plan your day as best you can, but maintain some flexibility. The stress that develops in the relational area is a bit more difficult. With situational and physical stress, I have greater control; therefore, I am able to set goals and proceed toward them. However, with people, their will is involved and it is foolish to set a goal because I don't have control. The other person can block my goal. I can formulate desires and try to do those things that will promote an atmosphere in which those desires can be realized. For instance, I may have a desire for an open, communicative relationship with my children. That cannot be a goal because they may choose to shut down. I may force them to talk, but that is not a relationship, only external compliance. I could have a goal of being available when they want to talk because I have control over my actions of availability. Space does not permit the development of relational principles other than to mention that we are to serve and honor one another as referred to in Ephesians 5:15 and 6:9. I may need to evaluate the cause of stress within a relationship. Is it really the other person or is the problem poor communication on my part? Identify the problem(s) or sources of stress. Be specific rather than just listing "my mate, my boss, my children, etc." Write down the particulars. Again, turn that list into a prayer list. Pray not only for them to change, but also for change within yourself. Don't just pray about the problem; pray for solutions. Pray for creativity. Brainstorm or write down many possible solutions, even those that may at first seem absurd. I also find that having one other trusted person that will be a faithful sounding board and prayer partner is helpful. Usually a relative is not a wise choice if the tension is within the family. The relative cannot be as objective and you may find that you are spreading poison to the extended family.

Thus far, the approach to stress relief has dealt with the volitional arena and particular actions that follow. This helps to alleviate some of the external pressure and deals primarily with the immediate. Now I want to move the focus to the more important solution for stress, one's beliefs.

What I believe or my belief system is critical to healthy stress management. Correct beliefs affect the immediate and are preventative. In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul directs, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! ...The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present our requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all

Understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Paul starts by using repetition for emphasis. He's saying, "Rejoice! Rejoice!" When I am under stress, that is usually the last thing that I think about doing, I tend to think, "Lord, why me?" I'm angry with God. Then I think, "What's my alternative? To let this consume me? Or, do I begin to step over and choose to rejoice?" Notice I said "choose." We are back to a willful decision. I can't make my emotions bubbly, but I can choose to begin to say, "Lord, I don't understand this, but I know You are the sovereign God. I am going to pray and I am going to praise You." When I begin to find I'm under a lot of stress, I begin to pick choruses and to sing those praise songs, songs of adoration, songs that exalt God and who He is and the fact that He is sovereign and watches over me. This is a faith step. By faith, I move my attention from the problem to the Problem Solver. It begins to work within my spirit to relieve me and refocus my attention and build hope.

When Paul said, "Rejoice," he was not saying it from the comfort of his living room sofa. He was in the thick of battle. Philippians is a prison epistle. His situation was stressful and still he said, "Rejoice." He gives the reason we can do this - because the Lord is near. You may feel He is very distant, but He hasn't forgotten you. He is right here. He is near. He is on top of the situation. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." That is taking all those lists of stressful items - I empty my mind on that sheet of paper and present those to God. I even present the possible solutions to God, and I present them with an attitude of thanks. "Lord, I don't like what I'm seeing, but I'm going to thank you for it, because I know out of this you're going to do something; you're going to build something." There is an important truth from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6:25-34 says that in your worry, you cannot bring security. God is my source of security. Truly knowing Him brings security. This is the preventative part of stress management. I build from the Word. The Word reveals Christ, shows God's character, and builds faith. D.L. Moody said one time that he used to pray for great faith until he read in Romans that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17). I build as I become a student of the Word of God, and that directs me to become a student of Christ. The more I know Him, the more I know that I can rely on Him and the more I can go to Him in stressful times. The circumstances may not change immediately, but in the midst of them I can experience peace because I direct my mind, as Paul says, to think on the good and perfect and noble. As my inner world is in peace and all these changes, pressures, and stresses of the outward world come upon me, I can continue to function in an orderly fashion. Stress management starts there. It starts in my thinking and my understanding of who Christ is and who God the Father is. Do I understand the indwelling, powerful influence, the enabling influence that is mine through the Holy Spirit? That must be a priority.

In summary, we are all going to experience stress. But, as we take the time to focus on the priority issue of ordering our inner, personal lives, we are expanding our reservoir of strength in the Lord. Then we will be capable and enabled, because we understand who He is and His power and how it works through us to meet those stressful circumstances.