Stress Management Series
“Managing Stress and
Preventing Burnout”

by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
Vol. 11 – Stress Management

Five steps toward stress management: Now, let us begin to focus more on positive steps that may be taken to get on top of stress in life and ministry. Hopefully, if you weren’t convinced already, the previous articles have underscored that unmanaged stress over a prolonged period of time is damaging to your own health, and the health of your relationships. It also makes your work terribly inefficient and ineffective.

We like to think that great sacrifice is needed to achieve great things, but piling on burden after burden does not translate into piles of accomplishment and contribution. What it does is make you unhappy and unproductive (in work, in ministry, in family . . .). So why do it that way? Patterns of mismanaged stress can become habit and routine. But these habits can and must be broken!
In the next article, SL#95, we will deal with steps for managing stress particular to the ministry. Following
are five steps for anyone to follow in managing stress:

Step One: Know and Love Yourself

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) That’s right, love yourself! Already in this course you have taken some of the important steps to know and understand your tendencies and stress points. Sometimes, being
aware of and on the lookout for your own symptoms of stress response and the situations that cause it make up half of the battle of stress management!

  • Care enough about your ministry and yourself to want to maintain total health–spiritually, mentally and physically. Do whatever it takes to reaffirm your self-esteem (counseling, prayer, meditation, study) and your pride as a participant in God’s Kingdom, beloved by your Creator.
  • Become cognizant of those personal danger areas you’ve identified and act accordingly. Sometimes the perspective of knowing what can cause you stress before you get there can neutralize its negative effects,
    especially “the little things.” Many times a particular stressor is not worth the damage it is causing! Once you realize this, that alone may reduce the level of stress involved. For example, if you know that the quirk
    of your office-mate, or the morning traffic, or some other small bothersome thing, is actually causing you to get “worked up,” then do something about it.

    • Make a list of the little things externally that bother you, but that aren’t truly significant hindrances to your important tasks. Look it over–and throw it away.
    • Do the same in your own life with the little things. Toss them aside and get on with your day! You and your work and your family are too important to get sidetracked by many of the things we let get under our skin.
    • Learn to laugh at those little things, rather than becoming miffed.  Sweating “the small stuff” is needless, fruitless stress.
  • Know your limitations: If disappointment in yourself is one of your stressors, set goals and schedules–both short and long-term–that are challenging but reasonably attainable–goals that acknowledge the “real you.” You are not Superman or Wonder Woman. Remember the things that are in your control, and the things that are not. Of course, set high standards and be ambitious, but give yourself and your team a chance to succeed. The Serenity Prayer, often attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, has been widely circulated by Alcoholic Anonymous as:

    “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.”

  • Follow a schedule that organizes your time in a way that acknowledges your stressors. Do you have a specific, regular deadline that causes weekly anxiety? How about giving it more time, or, earlier in the week!
    Is there a recurring “difficult person” in your life or work?  Devote the time that’s due that person, and then move on. It’s not just effective time management, it’s having a conscious awareness that stress spreads like an infection from one area of your life to another; and you will no longer let your stressors run your life in a negative way.
  • Coping Strategies: What coping strategies do you most often use when confronted with stress? We may differ from person to person and situation to situation, but research has indicated some few common coping responses.  One such study published by Psychology, (by Benjamin, p 490: incomplete citation) indicates the following responses and the % of times they were noted in the survey:
    • Direct Action——-46%
    • Acceptance———30%
    • Distraction———-27%
    • Redefinition——–25%
    • Catharsis————25%
    • Relaxation———-17%
    • Social support——15%
    • Religious support—-6%

    It may seem surprising to see how seldom religious and social support have an impact in the coping process. Perhaps the profile would be quite different today, and from a different research basis. However, this list of coping responses may allow you to create your own and more helpful survey.

Step Two: Take Care of Your Body

As we said at the beginning of this course, stress is as much a physical response to conditions as it is a mental/emotional one. Regular exercise will keep your body prepared to handle negative stress when it happens. It also helps you work off the effects of ongoing stressors. Some standard-care activities are really very simple! Such as:

  • Breathing: The Complete Stress Management Workbook, pp. 229-30, describes the correct way (about a dozen breaths per minute, expanding your lower rib cage, not lifting your chest) to breathe healthily. Incorrect breathing during every day life can compound other stress responses. Improved breathing may serve well as a short- and long-term coping habit. The lack of oxygen coming in can leave you exhausted, with headaches and poor circulation.
  • Exercising: Regular and reasonable exercise will improve your overall wellness; even just some extended walking and stretching. Do not overextend, of course, and set moderate goals. Try to do exercise you enjoy, and make it a regular part of your schedule, not an after-thought “when you have time.”
  • Relaxation: Too often we underestimate the impact on our ability to cope with stressors that invade and penetrate our lives. Make a study of relaxing your body: from head to toe, on regular occasions; before
    stressful engagements or experiences; and in balance with proper exercise.
  • Nutrition: Take care of what you put into your body! Nutrition goes hand-in-hand with exercise in keeping you well. Antioxidants–found in fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, almonds, and other foods containing
    vitamins A and C, beta-carotene and other nutrients–help protect your body. Caffeine, sugar in high doses, excess salt, and smoking are all making your body’s job harder.
  • Reflection: In Romans 12:1 the Apostle Paul calls for a total and radical commitment to God as the test of His approval. However, what application would you make of this text to the care of your physical
    body as a stress-coping strategy?

    “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”

Step Three: Be a Person, Not a Function

Galatians 6:2–“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Philippians 2:4–“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

  • Don’t try to go it alone: We are all “tied together in the bundle of life.” You contribute to the lives of
    others and them to you. But, you are not defined solely by the roles you play in life! There, I said it! Do you have to wear so many hats that you lose track of the person that’s underneath them? Parent, spouse, boss, carpool driver, cook, mediator, counselor . . . and the list goes on and on. Are you in there somewhere?Remember, you are a person who needs honest relationships of integrity. Disclosing your true feelings, enjoying a moment, pursuing a hobby, getting to really know those in your life and letting them really know you–these are all ways to stay in touch with your true self, underneath all of your external functions.  Of course, we hope to integrate our true selves into those roles we play.  That is the most complete way to be. So don’t let yourself get lost in all the hats you must wear, and make sure that you spend some time just being yourself, not actively performing a function of responsibility.

Reflection: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The second great commandment of our Lord (Matt. 22:39) does center on others, but it also commands a healthy love for yourself. Will intentional obedience to that command help you as you cope with stress?

Step Four: Let God Help and Guide You

Coping with our stress is not the primary reason for our relationship to God.  Salvation is not essentially utilitarian–what we can get from God. Rather, we are redeemed to enjoy God and serve Him forever. Neither is our family bond to Him only to avoid hell and attain heaven. But for those inside the faith relation to a loving Father, there is help for every part of the earthly journey, including coping with stress, such as:

  • Allow gathered worship to purify and prepare your mind for each week; personal worship should be preparation for each new day.
  • Allow prayer to open your ears daily to God’s message for you, and yours to God; the text in 1 Peter 5:7 encourages us, “Cast all your anxiety on him [God] because he cares for you.”
  • Allow your priorities as a Christian to keep you focused on your truest goals, and looking past those less important things that can become stressors if you let them.

Step Five: Don’t Be Afraid of Stress

  • Use It If You Can! Stress can be a good thing. Recent research into stress has begun to highlight all the ways in which stressors can actually be good for you, can propel you into your best performance, the most focused concentration, and the most successful outcomes of your life. In Stress for Success (p.4), James Loehr remarks that, “Stress exposure is the most powerful stimulus for growth in life. People invariably grow the most in areas in which they’ve been pushed the most. Stress exposure expands stress capacity.” This view of stress emphasizes the opportunity for a challenge and thegreat rewards that can come from demands for high productivity in life and work. Overcoming the potentially negative effects of stressors by being preparedto turn that energy into positive output is the heart of stress management.

    And like high-level exercise, the more you work through your stressors in a positive way, the more stress you will be able to take on ably.

  • Managing Stress: Still another approach to managing stress is presented in a small but trusted volume, published as a Scriptographic booklet, Managing Stress (p. 13). We have already touched on many of these six approaches:
    • Be realistic
    • Limit changes
    • Talk it over
    • Learn to relax
    • Improve your environment
    • Seek help
  • Embracing Stress: Gary Parker describes biblical insights demonstrating the value of embracing stress. (from Gary E. Parker, Creative Tensions: Personal Growth Through Stress, p. 17)

    “Instead of trying to avoid tension or tranquilizing it, we will be better served if we embrace it, if we jump into it, if we accept it for what it is (or can be). Stress can serve us well as a teacher, as a sharpener, as a whittling knife for life, if we willingly see it as an ally in the maturing process. Stress can kill us, to be sure, but it can also birth us. . . .God’s greatest servants were people who survived tough moments of stress. I wonder. Would Joseph have become the savior of his brothers and his nation if he had not suffered the stresses caused by the years of slavery and the allurement of Potiphar’s wife? Would Moses have felt the kinship he did for his own  people if he had not experienced the deadly fight with the Egyptian slave master? .
    . . Would Jesus have been able to so fully empathize with us in our struggles, if He had not endured the pressure of Gethsemane.”

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© 2009; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership