Less stress, MORE LIVING

Feeling overwhelmed by multiple commitments or responsibilities? Psychologist, church leader and director of Christian mental health organisation Mind and Soul Kate Middleton tells Claire Musters why stress can be a particular problem for busy, passionate Christians – and how we can learn to manage it well

Recognise that stress is a normal part of life

Stress is something that is all around us, especially in our busy 21st century lives, but it is also often misunderstood. Although stress can have a big impact on physical and emotional health, recent research has shown that our attitude is really important, and that those most at risk from negative aspects of stress are those who most expect it to have a negative impact on them. So now, more than ever, it’s important to understand stress.

Stress is our biological response to the demands of the world around us. It is a combination of hormonal, neurological and metabolic changes that set us up to act and react. The triggers for our stress system vary – just like the actions we need to carry out as a result. It might be something as small as the alarm going off, requiring us to wake up and get up. Or perhaps something more unusual has happened – you were walking home and a bear jumped out from behind a lamp post! Whatever life throws at us, we need to be ready to respond; that is what our stress system is there for.

Our bodies and brains are pretty good at dealing with short-term stress demands, but in the 21st century we now have more long-term (chronic) stress. The problem is that we simply were not designed to cope with such long-term high stress. The same physical, physiological and psychological changes that are functional in acute stress, experienced over the long term can actually start to make us unwell.

As volunteers within churches, we can be under increased stress

You might think that the local church should be an example of an environment that is pretty much stress-free. But consider: the church contains perhaps the broadest mix of people from all different backgrounds, ages and life experiences. We shouldn’t be surprised that this sometimes triggers stress!

On top of this, as Christians we can be powerfully driven to spend our ‘spare’ time in church activities, often getting involved in a ministry locally or further afield. This passion is great and comes from a good place – God himself – but we cannot ignore the impact that it can have in terms of stress. If we want to be people who live on the edge, pushing ourselves to the limit, then we need to be really good at managing stress!

In the story of Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:22–33), Peter handled the choppy waves and the sudden appearance of Jesus quite well. He sounded pretty calm and he was definitely up for pushing the limits when Jesus called him. But once he was walking on the water, we see him suddenly struggling with the stress he felt under. When we get out of our comfort zones, we need to expect some stress.

So what do you do if you feel a strong sense of calling to a ministry or role, but then encounter so much stress within it that you are told to give it up? Stress may be inevitable, and isn’t always a reason to step away. Some people may encounter additional stress if they are in a ministry that is not their calling, but for most it is just part of stepping out. We need to learn as much about ourselves, and how we deal with stress, as we do about God and the people around us if we are to continue doing what we do long term.

If we’re caring for others, we need to ensure we care for ourselves too

Caring for others is a particular situation that can lead to us being under increased stress without perhaps expecting to be. We’re called to be people who care deeply, but we have to accept that as humans we do have limits. We must make sure that we take steps to balance the increased stress our caring might produce for us with appropriate measures to deal with it. We must also think carefully about how we care, rather than just responding instinctively.

We can learn from studies looking at the field of compassion training, which suggests that learning to be compassionate – where our response to people’s pain is formed into positive actions in order to try to make things a bit better for them – may decrease the stress load of caring. We must maintain healthy boundaries and preserve the important spaces in our lives for family and friends. And we must be realistic about what our own basic human needs are, and commit to meeting them.

Storms will come, so we need to prepare for them

The best way to prepare for stress is by taking time to think about what we are building our lives on. The story of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7 teaches us an important truth: whoever we are, storms will come. Good stress management is about the ability to be resilient – to come through life’s storms still standing. Some people will be only too aware that they don’t seem to manage stress well. Taking some time to examine our responses provides understanding and we can begin to choose our reactions rather than letting them happen instinctively.

If you struggle with stress, it is always worth taking some time to consider the way you respond to the world around you. Are there things you believe or value that actually are not the most reliable things to place your trust in? Are there rules you live by, or beliefs you have about yourself that might place you at greater risk of stress? Of course, the ultimate base to build our lives on is God. If the core of what we live by is solid, our stress levels will be much reduced, and our strategies to deal with difficult times increased.

Looking after our bodies will enable us to achieve more

The key to managing stress is to remember one important fact: we are human. Even Jesus experienced basic human limitations and took time out to meet his and his disciples’ human needs: to eat (Mark 6:31), pray (eg Luke 5:16, 6:12), rest (Luke 8:23) or just process emotions (Matthew 14:13).

Jesus was only on the earth a short time, and in ministry an even shorter time. We might have expected him to push himself beyond all those limits while he had the chance. The fact that he didn’t demonstrates just how important it is to take these things seriously.

We need to get really good at building into our schedules time to do things that help us manage stress: eat well, take time out and rest, exercise. Far from being time wasted, it refuels us for all the other things we want to do.    
+ Kate Middleton’s book Refuel is published by Darton Longman and Todd, priced at £9.99.

Top tips for managing stress

  • Remember stress is inevitable, it is not a sign of weakness or that you have failed. It is just a sign of being human!
  • If you know you struggle more with stress than others, think about taking some time out to explore why
  • Be alert to the early signs that you might be experiencing a lot of stress and respond to them immediately by stepping up the things you do in order to counteract it
  • If you are having symptoms that you think might be stress-related, do not be tempted to self-diagnose or self-medicate. Take time out to see your doctor and talk it through
  • Do not fear stress or feel it is something you must always try to avoid. Stress can be a good thing and motivate us to achieve our best. But we need to be wise and respect stress
  • Remember that you were never designed to do this life thing on your own. Humans need other humans, so make sure you have time to connect with the people who support you – do not give all your time to caring for others
  • Be sure to practise relaxation and times of quiet to counteract your busy-ness
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and remember that you can learn from every experience. Think: what can I learn from this that will improve how I manage stress next time?
  • Our greatest defence against excessive levels of stress is this: God loves us not for what we do but for who we are. Build your life on him so that, whatever life throws at you, you can come through standing tall