Stress Management Series
“Ways of Understanding
Human Stress”

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

Matthew 5:23-24“Therefore,
if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother
has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First
go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

1. Objective and Introduction:

Article Objective: The purpose of this SL resource is to raise
your stress awareness and to understand its meaning in relationship to your
life and leadership in ministry. You are encouraged to explore where you fit
in. A key biblical text of encouragement is found in 1 Peter 5:7—“Cast
all your anxiety [stress] on him because he cares for you
.” Six centuries
before Christ, Aesop, the Greek fabulist is quoted as saying, “It
is better to bend than to break

We all have some basic ideas of what stress is, even if specific in-depth
definitions are a bit elusive. Common sayings linked to stress are used all
the time: “on edge,” “up tight,” “under pressure,”
even “bad hair day!” Understanding more about stress is a large
step toward managing it.

  • Understandings: But getting under the surface of stress to understand what
    it’s made of reveals a few basic truths about stress that can be counted on.
    Repeated from SL Article #14, the following are significant components of
    any definition as a starting point:

    • Stress always involves both outside stimuli (stressors) affecting us
      and internal responses by us.
    • Stress is your body sending signals that your physical or emotional
      well-being feels threatened.
    • Stress is the body’s “alarm system” activating its
      defense system.
    • Stress is unavoidable in life, and is indeed a necessary sign of life.
    • Stress is not all bad; it can be essential to life.
    • Stress is a fact of life–stimulating, motivating, challenging–or
    • Excess stress can make you unproductive, miserable, unsure, fearful,
      and even ill.
  • Definitions: With those things in mind, consider the following definitions–taken
    from various sources related to stress:

    • “Stress is the build-up of pressure on the outside that makes
      you feel tense on the inside.” (from Scriptographic Booklet on Stress
    • “Stress is a mind-body arousal that, on one hand, can save our
      lives, and on the other hand, can fatigue body systems to the point of
      malfunction and disease.” (from Controlling Stress and Tension,
      p.1 by Daniel Girdano et al)
    • “Stress is a person’s response to overload, the accumulation effect
      of the pressures of life. Daily tasks, job-related duties and volunteer
      projects may not appear staggering when viewed individually, but when
      they begin to layer one upon another, they can reach overwhelming proportions.”
      –Strength for the Journey, by Porowski and Carlisle, p. 110
    • “Stress is the psychological and physiological reaction that takes
      place when you perceive an imbalance in the level of demand placed on
      you and your capacity to meet that demand.” –The Complete Idiot’s
      Guide to Managing Stress, p. 19 (don’t let this title “stress
      you out”)

By any of these accounts, the harrowing effect we typically think of as stress
is the way our body and mind warns us of pressure or perhaps danger to our well-being,
real or imagined. It is also the way we try to prepare ourselves for whatever
challenges that pressure brings: whether that is a fight for survival, performance
of a task at some high level of intensity or endurance, or perhaps the means
of escape.

As you might have guessed, constant or prolonged preparation like that can
have a nasty effect on your body, and your psyche! In fact, as Jeff Davidson
writes, “in many respects, stress is the wear and tear your body endures.”
Reflection: What are your own thoughts, insights, and feelings
about stress that you want to explore while you read this article?

2. Physical Symptoms of Stress

Most often without using the term for trust, the biblical record teaches us
to rebuild trust and to move on in our spiritual and vocational life; let’s
review and apply a few:

One of the first places stress shows itself is in your very own body. The reason
stress is associated with physical “wear and tear” is because of
the involuntary changes that occur in your body as a part of stress. Your body
begins sending you signals and preparing itself for pressure as soon as your
brain is convinced there’s trouble ahead.

As noted in Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness (p. 149) by
Drs. Charlesworth and Nathan, stress causes the following:

• Digestion slows so blood may be directed to the muscles and brain.
• Faster breathing for oxygen.
• Heart speeds up.
• Perspiration increases.
• Muscles tense.
• Chemicals release to clot blood more rapidly.
• Sugars and fats pour into the blood to provide fuel.

While these physical responses do often aid us in confronting a stressor in
the short-term, sometimes they are actually counter-productive: when the energy
we need is for concentration and not activity, or when the response far outpaces
the need. Ultimately, continuous stressors put a tremendous amount of strain
on the body–calling up all of those resources: the muscles, the hormones, the
heart activity will eventually exhaust the system if stress is not managed properly.
A rubber band though flexible breaks when pulled too tightly. Reflection:
When you are under stress in an interpersonal experience, does your voice invariably
move to a higher range–probably registering emotional and physical response?
What are your most noticeable physical responses to stress?

Study Resource: The Physical Nature
of Stress

[From Reaching Out: Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization,
pp. 289-296, by David W. Johnson (6th ed.), Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997]
Dr. David Johnson asserts that “humans, as a species, are stress-seeking.”
Stress has long been linked to human problems such as headaches, ulcers, and
muscle pains. But boredom (low stress) can make us just as sick as high stress.
He goes on to explain concisely the physical responses to “the nature
of stress” (p. 290).

Another important aspect of stress is that the human body
reacts to stress in a stereotyped, physiological way. Briefly, the autonomic
nervous system and the endocrine system combine to speed up cardiovascular
functions and slow down gastrointestinal functions. This equips us to take
physical action to restore the situation and our internal physiological state
to normal. It really does not matter whether we are reacting with great joy
or great fear, our physiological response is the same. To understand stress
fully, homeostatis must first be understood. Homeostasis is the ability to
stay the same. The internal environment of our bodies (our temperature, pulse
rate, blood pressure, and so forth) must stay fairly constant, despite changes
in the external environment, or else we will become sick and may even die.
Stress alerts our bodies that action is needed to adapt to the external environment
by changing our internal environment. The body then strives to restore homeostatis.
Stress, therefore, can be defined as a nonspecific, general response of the
body, signaling a need to perform adaptive functions so homeostatis can be

Reflection: In high stress situations, does this describe
how your body responds?

3. Emotional Manifestations/Symptoms

What we are more familiar with, and can usually spot in ourselves and others,
are the emotional responses to stress. As church leaders, counseling others
who are experiencing emotional distress is often a central function of our duties.
But how often do we neglect our own emotional stress in the process? Either
because we don’t believe “we” should be having such trouble
or because we have not equipped ourselves for that kind of self-knowledge and

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows
faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I
.” –Psalms 61:2

One of the central contentions of this article is that to have the strength
and resources to effectively lead, counsel and mentor others in the church,
we need to develop the skills it takes to manage our own stress–physically
and emotionally. The following topic, #4, explores the various emotional manifestations
of stress–but treated in a self-assessment format.

4. Assessment of Emotional Stress Responses

A cartoon quip may occasionally express your emotional response: “I
feel much better, now that I have given up
.” Now put yourself in
the picture! Various studies have discovered a wide range of emotional responses
to stress–some of them mild, others quite severe. Not all responses are common
to each person or at each experience of stress. Consider your own emotional
responses to stress during the last six weeks or so as you read through the
following list of possibilities. Self-Assessment: place a number beside each
“stress response” that reflects your tendency to experience that
feeling: 1–never; 2–seldom; 3–occasionally;

Emotional Responses to Stress–Self-Assessment

  • ____ Anger–wrath: a strong feeling of displeasure and
    belligerence aroused by real or supposed wrong.

    • Proverbs. 15:1–A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word
      stirs up anger.
    • James 1:19–My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should
      be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry
      . . . .
  • ____ Anxiety–Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by
    fear or misfortune; “a silent invader,” the result of tension–that
    worried, troubled, uptight feeling that something bad or unpleasant is going
    to happen even if there is no real threat. This concept describes specific
    good and bad emotional responses to stress.

    • Proverbs 12:25–An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word
      cheers him up
    • 1 Peter 5:7–Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
  • ____ Compassion–mercy: a feeling of deep sympathy and
    sorrow for someone struck by misfortune; often accompanied by a desire to
    alleviate the suffering.

    • Colossians 3:12–Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and
      dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness
      and patience.
  • ____ Dejection–disheartened; low-spirited; depression
    in spirit.
  • ____ Depression–a common mood disturbance, a condition
    of general emotional dejection–even withdrawal–greater and more prolonged
    than warranted by any objective reason; a low state of functional activity;
    heavy-heartedness; melancholy blues.
  • ____ Determination–the act of coming to a decision or
    of resolving something; a fixed intention to face a challenge.
  • ____ Disgust–a strong distaste, offensive to moral sense,
    loathing, strong aversion.
  • ___ Distress–The dark side of stress; acute anxiety, pain,
    or sorrow; troubled, physical or emotional anguish that disables proper response
    to a situation.

    • Ps. 18:6–In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for
      help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into
      his ears.
  • ____ Dread–to fear greatly, to be reluctant to do, meet,
    or experience; to have fear or great reluctance.
  • ____ Eustress–This is good news: (1) stress that is positive,
    an optimal amount of stress to respond to a particular situation; or, (2)
    stressors normally thought to be pleasant and desirable: new job, promotion,
    personal achievement, vacation, Christmas, marriage, birth of a child, etc.
  • ____ Excitement–an excited state or condition; to experience
    awakened, aroused, or stirred emotions or feelings; stimulated to action.
  • ____ Fear–alarm, dread, a distressing emotion aroused
    by impending danger, evil, pain–whether the threat is real or imagined.

    • Isaiah 41:10–So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed,
      for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you
      with my righteous right hand.
    • 1 John 4:18–There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out
      fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not
      made perfect in love.
  • ____ Guilt–a feeling of responsibility or remorse for
    some offense or wrong, whether real or imagined.

    • Hebrews 10:22– . . . let us draw near to God with a sincere heart
      in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us
      from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
  • ____ Happiness–a quality or state of being happy, good
    fortune, pleasure, contentment; joy.

    • James 5:13–Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone
      happy? Let him sing songs of praise.
  • ____ Jealousy–resentfulness or enviousness–as of another’s
    success, achievements, advantages; inclined to resentment or suspicions.

    • Galatians 5:19-20–The acts of the sinful nature are obvious . .
      . idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish
      ambition, dissensions, factions . . .
    • 2 Corinthians 11:2–I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy.
      I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you
      as a pure virgin to him.
  • ____ Joy–a feeling or state of great delight or gladness,
    as caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure.

    • Psalms. 4:7–You have filled my heart with greater joy than when
      their grain and new wine abound.
    • 2 John. 4–I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are
      walking in the truth.
  • ____ Pride–self-respect, self-esteem–a feeling of gratification
    aroused from association with something good or laudable.

    • Proverbs 16:18–Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit
      before a fall.
  • ____ Sadness–a state of being afflicted by grief or unhappiness,
    of being sorrowful or mournful.
  • ____ Tension–mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed
    suspense, anxiety, or excitement; could be positive or negative.
  • ____ Worry–feeling of uneasiness or anxiousness; to torment
    oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; to fret, to be disturbed,
    to lose peace of mind, to be bothered, or tormented.

    • Mt. 6:25-27– “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your
      life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.
      Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than
      clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store
      away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much
      more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour
      to his life?

5. Behavioral Response: Steps to Burnout

There is perhaps no greater internal threat to the life and leadership of a
church leader than that of “burnout.” The long hours, the dependence
of so many others on your work, the kingdom-level stakes that the ministry takes
on, coupled with the preponderance of financial strain, makes church leadership
the same as all other “helping” and “non-profit” professions:
highly susceptible to burnout.

Burnout is not the same as stress! Burnout is what happens when stress runs
amok, the result of a series of behavioral and attitude changes that gradually
build after the physical and emotional layers of stress have begun to take their
toll under a lack of management. If disease is the ultimate physical threat
of stress, burnout is the ultimate psychological threat.

Elements of burnout specific to ministry are dealt with in SL#91,
with strategies for dealing with and avoiding burnout in SL#94.
But below, read the basic behavioral steps that can accompany the road to burnout.
Have you experienced any of these on a regular basis? You likely are reading
this article because you are already concerned about stress and its effects.
So think seriously and honestly about how far down the road to burnout you might
already be, and prepare to take action as you work through this and other articles
in the Stress Management Series!

Three Stages of Stress: Remember, physical and emotional responses
to stress are in large part preparation to fight and protect. Prolonged exposure
to that level of demand has the same effect as running your car long and hard
day after day. Eventually the machine gives out. Characteristic behavioral/psychological
traits associated with each stage of the road to burnout, described by G.S.
Everly in Occupational Stress Management (p. 186):

Stage 1: Stress Arousal
Stage 2: Energy Conservation
Stage 3: Exhaustion/burnout

Notice that from stage #1 to #2 to #3 is noticeably developmental, so there
is value in acknowledging early when stress is moving toward burnout. This is
examined more thoroughly in SL#93.

Reflection: It’s really up to you as an individual.
Spend a few minutes to review your understandings about stress. Now do some
action planning: “What do I need to know–and what will I do about it?”

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© 2008; 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