Lois has served in member care with ReachGlobal since 2000, and her husband David has served as a pastor with the EFCA since 1979. Both are semi-retired now, but continue to serve part-time in member care and pastoral ministries.
Chronic Stress Meets the Good Shepherd
How stress builds, what it does to you and how Jesus can help control it
“When Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36
Whether it’s harassed and helpless or exhausted and stressed, do those feelings sound all-too-familiar to you? Do they describe the person you see in the mirror every morning?
Last year, we left every semblance of normalcy. We were thrown into completely uncharted territory: a global pandemic, a divided country, riots, anger and family conflicts. Stress levels skyrocketed off the charts.
Most of us recognize that stress is a normal part of life. Stress can even be positive. Positive stress is what gets us out of bed in the morning and helps us meet our goals for the day. If there is no stress in our life, there is no productivity.
For the most part we have learned how to manage normal life stress – things like appliances breaking down, illnesses and irritations between co-workers. Occasionally a critical incident will occur such as death of a loved one, a personal assault or a house fire. Those are abrupt incidents which throw our world into chaos and we are plunged into grief.
But this is not just normal life stress or critical incident stress (although those may have been present, too). The type of stress we are dealing with is chronic stress, or as I like to describe it, the “pileup effect.” It is not just the broken appliance. It is the broken appliance, plus losing your job, plus an illness, plus personal conflicts.
Chronic stress is insidious because it can build gradually and never go away. Because of this gradual build-up we may not always be aware of its impact on us.
If you are a ministry leader, you are familiar with the normal stresses of ministry life. But 2020 introduced you to a new level of chronic stress. You had the normal challenges of ministry life, plus you had to learn new technology like Zoom, plus you were concerned for your own health as well as the health of your loved ones, plus you were removed from the face-to-face interactions which give you energy, plus you were pressured to take a political stand, plus you were criticized for the way you have chosen to handle the pandemic – masks, no masks, meetings, no meetings – and on it went.
It was a lot. It is a lot. But you are not alone.
What is really causing your stress?
Although it may seem obvious to you, there might be some deeper reasons you are feeling immense exhaustion and stress. Here are some examples:
1. You are trying to meet everyone’s expectations.
People are constantly making suggestions for how to manage church services, demands to take a political position and acknowledging that they would rather listen to the “big name” speaker online rather than you.
2. You have placed expectations on yourself.
As your awareness of other people’s expectations grows, your own expectations for yourself follow suit.
3. It is difficult to discern priorities.
It is always a challenge to choose the best thing over the good thing, but now we are asking new questions: how do I do my job now? How do I nurture relationships? How do I minister effectively to the needs of people during a pandemic?
4. You have no healthy rhythms.
We are creatures of habit. As the usual events which mark our lives were absent, some other daily disciplines may have fallen by the wayside too.
5. You are making constant adjustments.
Decision fatigue sets in as you work with an ever-changing set of realities: will we meet in person, outside, over Zoom, masks, no-masks, pre-recorded services only?
All of this can lead us to feel overwhelmed by the circumstances and somewhat hopeless about the future, and it can manifest in various ways.
The effects of stress
So, if you are feeling harassed, stressed and exhausted, it is not surprising and you are not alone. Though you may feel abandoned and tempted to quit, I encourage you to stand fast. What you are experiencing is common to almost everyone.
Did you know your intelligence literally drops during times of stress? Your brain receives its information first in the amygdala – the reactive, emotional part of the brain. When you feel stress or anxiety, the amygdala jumps to attention and becomes active as more blood and oxygen flow to it. Its job is to protect you from danger and threat.
But this drains resources away from the prefrontal cortex, which is the thinking part of the brain. When you are upset or stressed, you can’t think straight. You may forget even the most basic of tasks.
Additionally, your brain is working harder to find categories for new things coming its way. Any time you encounter a stress which you have not encountered before, it takes extra energy to sort it out.
Think of your brain as a filing cabinet. When it encounters a situation, it files it away: “I’ve experienced this before, and I know what to do with this.” But when you encounter a new situation, the brain has to work extremely hard to find a category for it. This takes a lot of energy and leads you to feel tired. We have all encountered new things recently, whether it is the new COVID-19 rules at the local grocery store or figuring out the best technologies to use for ministry. It’s no wonder we’re so exhausted.
On top of forgetfulness and exhaustion, stress can exacerbate our negative thinking. H. Norman Wright, a licensed therapist and trauma specialist, says, “As much as 75% of what we think is negative, counterproductive and works against us.” It all starts with one toxic misbelief or untruth. Believing that lie can lead you on a downward spiral. Our thoughts have a direct impact on our mental and physical well-being and shape our behaviors – we quite literally become what we think.
The good news is the brain has plasticity. It can be trained and molded. Anytime we find our thoughts getting out of control, we have a choice: we can direct our thinking to the negative cycle, or we can focus our attention on what we know is true. In biblical terms, we can take “every thought captive” and turn it around (2 Cor 10:5).
There is a simple, four-step process to train our brains. The first step to turning our thoughts around is to recognize them. Say your thoughts out loud or write them down. Become aware of what you are thinking. Next, re-examine them. Ask yourself, is this thought based on facts? Is it true? Is it good? Is it admirable? How does it line up with what Scripture says?
Once you have recognized and re-examined your thoughts, you can replace them. For example, if you find yourself thinking “God has forsaken me,” and you realize that is not true, you can instead tell yourself, “God says He will never leave me.” Turn those thoughts around by speaking truth to yourself. Finally, refocus your thoughts. Meditate on truth. You can turn around the runaway train of negative thinking. The result is peace.
Controlling your thoughts
The way we think about our stress determines its impact on us. You cannot always control your circumstances, but you can control the way you think about or react to them. When we deliberately choose to change our focus and tell ourselves the truth about our circumstance, we will find our stress’ impact is greatly lessened.
You may be feeling harassed, helpless, exhausted, unable to find your footing but you have a Good Shepherd who stands ready to set you upright, to restore you and to renew your strength. Just ask Him. Keep turning your eyes back to your Shepherd.
“He lets me rest in green meadows, He leads me beside peaceful streams, He renews my strength” (Psalm 23:2).