Stress Management Series
Common Causes of Stress--Part 1”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol.
11 - Stress Management
Objective and Observations:
Article Objective: to examine
common causes of human stress and to identify how stress factors are related
directly to Christian ministry. In your own life experience, stress has at
least four or more elements. See the following graphic and summary descriptions
that become an introduction to the topic:
External stressors: such as weather, social environment,
family members, ministry associates, job expectations; holiday seasons;
these all seek to penetrate your sense of well-being.
Internal stressors: inside your life experiences--such
as self-image, self-expectation, personality type, emotional and mental
energy, level of physical health, etc.
- Coping skills: such as stress awareness, acceptance,
coping responses, positive action, reasonable avoidance, Christian faith
- Stress experience: those stressors that make it all
the way into your emotional/mental/physical center, threatening your sense
As we examine in this article and the next, SL#90, the
seven common causes of human stress, these observations may be beneficial:
A “stressor” is any phenomenon that triggers
a stress response in your experience; internal or external, large or small,
positive or negative. This includes also good stress, known as “eustress.”
Since there are often great differences among us, each
person may have distinct stressors in life and work; what is stressful to
one person may not be to another.
Stress experience may be influenced by a particular occasion
or person; what is stressful to you in a particular situation may not be
so at another time.
You may be able to list quite easily three or four known
stressors in your own life and ministry; that is valuable and is often excellent
to do that at any time you are working through this list of common causes.
However, keep in mind that it is often the hidden stressor,
the one you’re not prepared for or wary of, that may cause you the
most damage. It’s nearly impossible to “manage” stress
that you don’t see coming, or know is there!
So keep an open mind about the need to learn new ways of
understanding possible stressors in your life and in the lives of those
With these few observations before us, the remainder of these two articles
will seek to identify some general stressors, or “common causes,”
that tend to be the source of many of our stressful experiences.
“No matter how old you are, you always think that
there may be something hiding under the bed.” --Monica, age 13,
from a Youth Calendar
1. Common Stressor #1:
That’s right, personality; your personality, but also that
of others around you. Sometimes the stressor component itself is not an outside
entity but is a function of your inner person; that is an internal stressor!
Tests have shown that a significant factor in stress is one’s own personality.
There is no single key personality type that insures a stress-free life, but
by becoming aware of certain personality tendencies in your own life and ministry,
you may be able to manage the danger points more successfully. Also, assessing
the personality of those to whom you are responding may provide insights regarding
your stress experiences.
Type A personalities: “Type A”
personality is known for intense ambition and aggression toward meeting
goals. If you find yourself exhibiting the following traits, you may be
a “Type A” person:
highly competitive nature, often leading to flashes
of temper and hostility
intense obsession with achievement and urgency
defending against criticism
Numerous studies show that the “Type A” person is more likely
to experience heart disease due to chronically inflated blood pressure and
other physical characteristics of extreme responses to a variety of situations
which would not become stressors in non-type-A individuals.
Self-Image: Seemingly on the other end
of the spectrum, though not directly related, is the issue of self-image.
often shy and self-conscious around others?
quick to blame yourself?
uncomfortable around superiors, peers, or members of
the opposite sex?
Persons with extremely low self-image levels--in confidence, sense of self-worth
and helplessness--can also lead to an increase in life stressors and a propensity
for disease, most particularly cancer. Surprising studies have indicated
that traits of a low self-image can both lead to the onset of cancer in
individuals, and can limit one’s ability to fight the disease once
“Flight or Fight:” Of course, there could
be many explanations that make that relationship more indirect than direct,
but either way, fighting against a low self-image may be essential to avoiding
or at least putting off the ravages of cancer. As such, it turns out that
the chronic response to “flight” can be as dangerous as a chronic
response to “fight.”
- Biblical Instruction: The biblical record speaks of stressors
and the responses within the human experience. Consider the example of the
Apostle Paul and the instructions of Christ:
- Paul’s self-portrait reveals both positive and
negative sides of the apostle’s inner personal life, his struggles
1 Corinthians. 9:25-27—
“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get
a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man
running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No,
I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached
to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
- Christ’s instruction: found in Matthew 18:3-4—
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like
little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore,
whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom
Reflection: How would you define your own personality
in your life and leadership? How much of your experience of stress is self-induced?
Do you often exhibit the traits of a Type A personality, or have a chronically
2. Common Stressor #2:
New Reality: Adjusting and adapting to
new realities is one of the most fundamental and common of all stressors.
Even if you are unaware of it being there, a stress response of some kind
accompanies most every significant change in life, work, and circumstance.
You don’t have to fret, worry, or exhibit an active “stressing
out” for these events to wear on your physical and mental equilibrium
in a potentially damaging way. It is more than just an old preacher’s
yarn about the church presented with a new Sunday schedule. The senior member
stood to respond:
“Preacher, I’m not sure our people would be happy about
making that change just now; we’ve never done it that way before.”
Achieving Balance: This balance the body
and mind naturally strive for is called “homeostasis,” and the
lengths we go to internally to achieve it in the face of change can often
wreak havoc on important physical and mental activities. Even if the change
is undeniably positive, this process takes place, and when it is extreme,
can have negative consequences by forcing stress responses.
Good Stress: Moving, getting married,
having a child, getting a new job all can be great, good events, but can
cause stress responses in the healthiest of people. We sometimes refer to
response to those stressors as good stress, or “eustress.” Of
course, negative changes tend to have more damaging, and more prolonged,
Reflection: What are the most profound changes
that have occurred in your life during the last two years--changes for better
or for worse? Did you know that the more you have had, the more susceptible
you are to stress-related illnesses and difficulty, as a result of your resources
for adapting being challenged? When change causes conflict, conflict may back
into stressful experiences. As you monitor your own life and work, and in your
capacity to lead and counsel other, keep in mind the impact change can have
as a life stressor! An ultimate change is provided in a scriptural picture:
Philippians 1:20--“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no
way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ
will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
3. Common Stressor #3: Expectations
Two types of “expectation” can easily become stressors: expectations
you have of yourself, and expectations you have of others. We will not explore
here the expectations others have of you.
Of Yourself: Everyone knows the feeling
of pressure that can arise as a result of high personal expectation to perform
in one’s life and work. Often, the pressure we put on ourselves is
even greater than what we feel from others. When managed correctly, this
pressure can lead to great achievement and a sense of accomplishment and
effort. But when mismanaged, or overburdened, the fear of failed expectation,
or letting down yourself and others, can trigger stress responses that diminish
performance levels in whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Lack of
concentration, loss of sleep or appetite, and other stress responses can
make any already-difficult task even tougher.
This begins a debilitating cycle, as the sense of failed expectations easily
translates to low self-image--you don’t want your stress compounding
like an annual interest rate! Proper management of expectations--not lowering
expectations but managing them!--is a key function of staying healthy enough
to maintain effective leadership in the church or anywhere else!
Of Others: Today’s leadership demands
require delegation and team-building and a reliance on others. This is healthy
and a strong Christian leadership principle. It can also lead to disappointment
in others when they fail to come through. Particularly in the church, we
are often too quick to allow disappointment in the ethical lapses, or various
failures in judgment of others to affect our own leadership capacity. Failed
expectation from others can be a huge and complex stressor for a leader:
“If she can’t do it, can it be done?”
“Was I right to place that responsibility in
“You just can’t trust people in this church/organization.”
Losing faith in team/family members/structure can have a highly negative
stress impact on anyone. Turning that situation into a positive growth opportunity
is not only a great challenge; it is a necessary leadership trait in the
“When your mother is mad and asks you, ‘Do
I look stupid?’ its best not to answer her.”
--Meghann, age 13, from a Youth Calendar
Reflection: What, or who, is the greatest stressor
caused by personal expectations in your life and work? What stress have you
recently experienced caused by failure of another to live or perform up to your
expectations? Are your expectations fair and reasonable? Do your expectations
usually contribute to high performance and satisfaction? Or, do they more often
cause stress and its damaging symptoms?
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© 2009 servantleaderstoday.com; 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