Stress Management Series
“Ways of Understanding Human Stress” (SL#87)
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.” (NIV)

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.

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 restored.

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 attention.

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; 4--often

Emotional Responses to Stress--Self-Assessment

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?”

Close this window 

© 2008; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership