Sacred Family Circle
At Home Resources
DUELING WITH STRESS
By Linda Bryant Caviness, Ph.D. Roller coasters! Some like them, some don’t. Are you an up-front-rider who thrills with the ups and downs and when the ride is over races back to the line to do it all over again? Or are you a white-knuckler—dreading the next jerk, turn, dip and drop while wishing you had never gotten yourself onto this stress rail in the first place?
How we relate to stress is unique to each of us, and we need to understand our differences. As pastors and pastoral family members, recognizing our vulnerability to stress can help us ward off negative effects brought on too often by stress-producing expectations of pastoral service, family relationships, financial obligations, etc.[i]
What stress can do to us
Research on the ill effects of stress is abundant. According to the American Institute of Stress 2015 statistical studies[ii], 77% of us regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. Alexandra Sifferlin, in a February 7, 2013 Time magazine article, wrote, “35% of adults polled since 2007 reported feeling more stress this year  compared to last year, and 53% said they received little or no support from their health care providers in coping with that heightened stress.”[iii]
Spending hours a day on personal technology—particularly gaming—may be adding still more to our already stressful lives. Stress default levels are rising among children and young adult groups.
In February 2013, Science Daily reported on a correlation between sustained stress and diabetes in men. “Men who reported permanent stress have a significantly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than men who reported no stress. This is the finding of a 35-year prospective follow-up study of 7,500 men in Gothenburg, by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.”[iv]
Stress in the pastor’s home
Though pastors often flourish under the public spotlight, family members may just tolerate it and long for privacy. Some thrive gregariously by reaching out to new constituencies as moves transition and redefine us. Others are happy when their roots grow deeply, preferring to relate more privately in smaller, personal, established contexts.[v]
Regardless of personality differences, the pastor’s family is subject to high stress—perhaps even higher than most other families. Stress common to the pastor’s family can compromise personal, family, and congregational relationships, as well as the quality of our intimacy with and service to God. Ironically, God’s greatest antidote for stress – His Sabbath – often becomes the weekly day of greatest stress for many young ministerial families.
Research data collected by a consortium of individuals at Andrews University, Southern Adventist University, and the General Conference provide a look at typical stressors among Adventist pastors and their families.[i] Some of these include:
- having little protected time free from pastoral duties
- living in a fishbowl and feeling as if everything you do is monitored, judged, and expected to be exemplary
- having to uproot and move frequently at the discretion of others
- guarding against friendships with some parishioners more than others
- dealing with church discipline
- keeping the Sabbath day holy
- finding time for personal devotions
- preparing high quality sermons each week
Add these stressors to those common in everyday life, and the pastor’s family is target for psychological, behavioral, and relational trouble. Surely satanic powers are ready to take advantage of God’s partners under these conditions by creating turmoil, burn out, loss of relationships and health, overeating, depression, etc.
One hundred years ago, Ellen White alerted us to debilitating stress risks.
The relation that exists between the mind and the body is very intimate. When one is affected, the other sympathizes. The condition of the mind affects the health to a far greater degree than many realize. Many of the diseases from which men suffer are the result of mental depression. Grief, anxiety, discontent, remorse, guilt, distrust, all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death. . . . Courage, hope, faith, sympathy, love, promote health and prolong life. A contented mind, a cheerful spirit, is health to the body and strength to the soul. "A merry [rejoicing] heart doeth good like a medicine." Proverbs 17:22.[ii]
In the same book, White indicated that, “Ministers, teachers, students, and other brain workers often suffer from illness as the result of severe mental taxation, unrelieved by physical exercise.”[iii] Stress results not only from strongly negative emotional states. Sitting at a computer for extended periods of time with minimal physical activity is stress-producing as well. When denied whole-person function for long periods of time, cells and systems are taxed, producing stress. Physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual balance not only promotes health and cognition, it is a natural antidote to stress as well.
A distinct advantage
The pastor and his or her family serve the public intimately, relinquishing privacy and personal time as they identify with the needs of the congregation. Though virtuous and Christ-like, this openness to the public often increases vulnerability to stress.
Given this susceptibility, pastors and their families need to know how to effectively ward off stress and maintain resilience in dealing with the unique pressures of ministry.
The dedicated pastor’s family possesses a guardianship more perceptive and powerful than any human security system or agency can provide. With Christ’s call to partnership comes the Source of all Light, Life, and Love. Benefit gained through confidence in this privilege is key to combating stress in ministry.
Scripture reminds us:
- “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6, NASB).
- “For as [a man] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7, NKJV).
- “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you. Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10, NASB).
These counsels contain more than spiritual admonition alone. They are rich with cognitive advantage and physical power, as well. Revelations in science help us better understand the powerful advantage of belief, love, and trust, all of which are antithetical to gnawing stress and anxiety that too often define our world today.
Commutative atmosphere surrounding us
Sustained stressful states profoundly impact our own bodies, but that may not be the extent of stress’s impact. Our individual stress levels have physical impact on others near us also, in ways we are just beginning to understand.
Some may ask what neuroscience has to do with economics. Dr. Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, says, “The stock market is driven by pleasure, choice and trust. We want to understand trust better, so we study oxytocin, the love or trust hormone.”[iv] Dr. Zak’s research reveals how emotional states physically transfer from one person to another.
Oxytocin extrudes from an individual—perhaps through the breath or pores in the skin—creating a scent that others detect subconsciously through the olfactory sense, as in pheromone transfer, Dr. Zak contends. We sense the emotional state of others through our sense of smell.
So, if my trust or oxytocin level is high, others near me are influenced; and if they are receptive, even subconsciously, their oxytocin levels will rise responsively. Increased oxytocin levels can raise immune function and create other beneficial effects.[v]
Ellen White suggested a similar concept, even though she wrote long before oxytocin research was conducted. Here are some of her comments,
The influence of every man’s thoughts and actions surrounds him like an invisible atmosphere, which is unconsciously breathed in by all who come in contact with him. This atmosphere is frequently charged with poisonous influences, and when these are inhaled, moral-degeneracy is the sure result.[vi]
“By the atmosphere surrounding us, every person with whom we come in contact is consciously or unconsciously affected.”[vii]
Science now adds new definition to our understanding of the benefits of love and trust—concepts that Scripture has borne out for centuries. A friend and colleague in research, Dr. Rollin McCraty[viii], illustrates the effect of stress on heart-rate variability[ix] in comparison with the effect of love and appreciation on the same.
The heart and brain communicate dynamically. This can be seen in heart-rate variability. McCraty’s research indicates that benefits such as less stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and higher levels of immunity result when an ordered pattern of synchrony in heart rate variability is present.
Similarly, Ellen White offered,
The love which Christ diffuses through the whole being is a vitalizing power. Every vital part—the brain, the heart, the nerves—it touches with healing. By it the highest energies of the being are roused to activity. It frees the soul from the guilt and sorrow, the anxiety and care, that crush the life forces. With it come serenity and composure. It implants in the soul, joy that nothing earthly can destroy,--joy in the Holy Spirit,--health-giving, life-giving joy. . . . Our Savior . . . will do great things for those who trust in Him.[i]
Many are not aware of the dynamic communication that occurs between the heart and the brain. Dr. McCraty and others provide facts that may help explain:
- The heart contains neuron-like structures—a little brain in the heart—and has memory, as do other bodily organs.
- The heart, unlike all other muscles, generates its own electrical energy. In utero, it develops and begins beating before the brain develops and is functional.
- The heart is a sensory organ, sending more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.
- The heart, brain, and body share dynamic inter- and intra-dependence.
A sustained lack of coherence within the autonomic nervous system —as with fear, apprehension, distrust, etc.—produces things such as greater variations in heart rate/rhythm, frequent bouts with illness and hospitalization, and more stress-related disorders.
Stress sneaks into our being often before we are aware of its presence. Most workdays I drive two hours in Los Angeles traffic. Prone to want to get to the “front of the pack” in the never-ending stream of cars and trucks, before I know it, stress grips me. Here are techniques I use to relax and counteract the clutch of stress:
- Breathe deeply and slowly—5 seconds in, 5 seconds out
- Continue this breathing pattern for a full minute.
- Next, concentrate on returning to the heart (not the brain) a feeling of love, appreciation, joy, and trust while continuing the deep breathing.
- Smile. Doing so helps to diminish stress.
- Sustain this technique for about 5 minutes.
Some in the relatively new field of neurocardiology refer to the brain as a survival organ, and the heart as a thriving organ. The technique above works best when specific focus is given to the area of the heart, not problem-solving cogitation.
It is intriguing to find that more than 830 times the Bible (King James Version) refers to the heart—often as if the heart has thinking power. The mind, on the other hand, is referred to less than 90 times. Consider these texts:
- 1 Samuel 16:7–The Lord looketh on the heart
- Psalm 4:7–Put gladness in my heart
- Psalm 51:10–Create in me a clean heart
- Psalm 119:11–Thy word have I hid in my heart
- Proverbs 12:20–Deceit is in his heart
- Proverbs 23:7–As one thinks in his heart so is he
- Matthew 5:8–Blessed are the pure in heart
- Matthew 12:34–Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks
- John 14:1–Let not your heart be troubled
As we yield to love for and trust in a loving heavenly Father, with practice we can intuitively monitor on our own.
Does prayer yield the same effect?
Prayer certainly is beneficial as we yield our concerns to God and petition His help. Every prayer we breathe is heard by God, and He answers unfailingly. Knowing this brings stress-relieving peace. But often when we pray, the mind goes to areas of concern that we wish to discuss with God. Our problem-solving, survival-oriented brains want to direct the conversation; whereas, the greatest benefit comes from letting go and allowing God to send His Holy Spirit into the heart. When prayer is whole, or holy, it includes prostration, praise, petition, and profiting from both listening to God as well as speaking to Him.
God’s love is unparalleled in dealing with tension and care. Energy flowing from that Divine Source that all of us depend upon is regenerative, peace-yielding, and stress-reducing as nothing else can be. Stress diminishes most rapidly when we open the heart to receive God’s love abundantly.
Daily power in dueling with the devil
Everyone has his or her own daily routine. Below are some tested ways to manage stress proactively.
- Spend at least an hour at the very beginning of each day alone with God:
- Reading scripture (listening to Him)
- Journaling (responding to Him)
- Praying (petitioning Him)
- Singing praise to God and claiming the Holy Spirit’s love
- Plan the day with realistic, prioritized expectations
- Perform an act of kindness daily
- Limit media use
- Spend time with friends and family
- Give the body optimal advantage (sleep, exercise, nutritious food, sunshine, fresh air, water, temperance, trust in God)
- Concentrate on God’s blessings, and not dwelling on failures, mistakes, and shortcomings
- Give cares and concerns to God with confidence
- Clear the mind of stressors as they come—let go and let God
When stressful situations demand your attention, focus on this powerful statement by Ellen White,
Whatever your anxieties and trials, spread out your case before the Lord. Your spirit will be braced for endurance. The way will be opened for you to disentangle yourself from embarrassment and difficulty. The weaker and more helpless you know yourself to be, the stronger will you become in His strength. The heavier your burdens, the more blessed the rest in casting them upon the Burden Bearer.
Worry is blind, and cannot discern the future; but Jesus sees the end from the beginning. In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. Our heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before their feet.[i]
Pastoral ministry will ever be fraught with stressors. But no other profession is as imbued with advantage as is the pastor in partnership with God. Staying close to Him is the best way to duel with and overcome debilitating stress. Remember: a loving heavenly Father has your back. God’s love makes all the difference in dealing with the ups and downs of life.
[i] White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 329, 330.
[i] White, The Ministry of Healing, 115.
[i] David Sedlacek et al, “Pastoral Family Stress: A Report to the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists”
[ii] Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 241.
[iii] Ibid., 238.
[iv] Dr. Paul Zak, Claremont Graduate University, Center for Neuroeconomics Studies (CNS), www.cgu.edu/pages/473.asp, accessed April 28, 2014.
[vi] White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1882), 111.
[vii] White, Reflecting Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), 262.
[ix] Heart rate variability is the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system.
[i] Take the quiz at this website to get an idea of how well you understand stress and its influence: www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/rm-quiz-stress-anxiety.
[iii] Alexandra Sifferlin, “The Most Stressed Out Generation? Young Adults,” Time magazine (February 7, 2013), healthland.time.com/2013/02/07/the-most-stressed-out-generation-young-adults/, accessed April 28, 2014.
[iv] University of Gothenburg, "Permanent stress can cause type 2 diabetes in men, study suggests," ScienceDaily (February 7, 2013). www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130207114418.htm, accessed April 28, 2014).
[v] Susan Cain’s intriguing book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Random House, 2013) will be a validating read for this latter group; and extroverted pastors may find pointers and sermon nuggets there as well.
Linda Bryant Caviness, Ph.D., formerly served as Chair, Curriculum & Instruction, for the School of Education at La Sierra University, Riverside, California. She is now living in Ohio and enjoying her grandchildren.
- DUELING WITH STRESS
- Forgiveness: The Journey
- Hope Beyond Tears: Healing for Depression
- Living Within Your Means
- Moving . . . again? Ways to help your family during a move
- No More Banging Doors: Healthy Communication in the Ministerial Family
- Parenting at the Parsonage
- Social Media Accepted
- Strategies for Freedom from Pornography
- Surviving a Marriage Crisis
- Tax Man Comes
- Teen suicide prevention: Identifying the warning signs and getting help for a suicidal child