Stress - Friend or Foe

“I feel stressed, I am stressed out, I am under pressure, I just wish this stress would go away. I can’t cope with this stress any longer.” When people talk about stress it invariably comes across as a negative. However, I am well aware that without some stress in my life many things would not get done. When I was at University, and even now at work I need to be given clear timings and deadlines, whether by others or myself, to create the structure, the pressure, the stress to ensure that I have the momentum to produce the work. Without this it is very easy to be distracted, to procrastinate or to delay.

Too much stress is usually more dangerous than too little. A balanced amount of stress gives us the kick to get us moving and the pressure to complete a task. When we are juggling too many tasks, the deadlines are unrealistic, we are ill-equipped to complete the task, or we have competing demands for our time and attention, then stress and pressure build. We begin to feel that we are losing any hope of taking control of the situation. This is like flying an aircraft when all is calm and you feel in total control of the situation but then you hit a period of turbulence where the circumstances are out of your control and yet you have to fly through it with all the demands, risks and fear this creates - the fear of losing control can start to take hold.

When under stress there is a real potential for the plates that we are spinning to cause us to run faster in ever-increasing circles. At this point any thought of healthy stress has flown out of the window and we are highly stressed and under intense pressure. If this continues for a short period of time followed by a relief from the pressure, we as individuals are made in such a way as to be elastic enough to take the pressure and then recover, returning to a more stable state. Once recovered we are ready again for the pressures of life.

However, if the demands on us are maintained at high pressure for a long time, our elasticity is stretched to a point where our resilience is weakened. The result of this on us is distress and even if the pressure is released we will find it hard to return to our pre-stress state. We are like an elastic band which ceases to bounce back after too much pressure has been exerted on it, and has been stretched permanently. Things have already gone too far and our ability to cope with pressure will be increasingly reduced. We are heading for a state of burnout where our bodies and minds have been experiencing the impact of the adrenalin caused by stress for so long that they cannot take any more.

This state of distress leaves us vulnerable and open to the risk that if intense and heightened stress returns, we will have far less ability to cope with the stress than we once had.

If the ever-increasing circles of plate spinning spiral faster to the point where we are physically and emotionally unable to maintain the momentum required to keep them safely spinning, then either the plates will be dropped or we will collapse in a state of exhaustion. Once our elasticity has reached its greatest tolerance level, we will reach the point of snapping with all its potential consequences. This is the point of breakdown.

This is like a donkey loaded with such a heavy weight that there is a significant injury to its back. Reducing some of the load will alleviate the problem in the short term, but the real need is to remove the entire burden and allow the injury to be treated and heal. This way the donkey is restored with wholeness returned so that it can carry things again. Often the owner of the donkey will not recognise their responsibility for the pressure that caused the injury and, rather than allowing for the healing process, they will push the donkey until it has given all it can - to the point where it can do no more. Even then rather than helping the creature, they punish it. Employers can be just like this. They can put pressure on a person until the point of breaking and then deny responsibility for their actions, finding means to off-load the person and move on to their next “donkey”.

So the real question is what can we do about stress?

Each of us is different and our ability to cope with stress will vary one from another. This will depend on our personality, our attitude to life, our life experiences, our faith in someone greater than us, and our current circumstances. These provide the foundation for our response to life.

What is it that gives you a sense of security, stability, worth and confidence? Does this come from Wealth? Health? Status? Relationships? Profession? Fame? Achievement?

If your security depends on what you cannot completely control then how are you going to feel when something happens to bring about change and undermines you? Even if your stability depends on things within your control, there is a risk that you will stack up pressure on yourself with your own 0.expectations of your responsibility. Consider a footstool. If it has one leg then it is hard to maintain one’s balance on it, and if this is undermined by the pressures upon it then how great is the fall! If your footstool relies on a number of legs, each with its own strength, then the reliance is spread and shared. Even so, if one or more of these are challenged at the same time, the stability you have will be shaken.

Many find faith in God is an anchor in the storms of life. This anchor keeps us safe whatever the weather throws at us. In the illustration of the footstool I would illustrate this faith as a threefold-interlinked, permanent, immovable support, keeping some stability for the individual whatever the challenge (threefold based on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit – three yet one).

It is important to look at your life on a practical level: the extent to which you need stress to be productive; how much stress you find is helpful; what the boundary is between manageable stress and too much stress.

Learn what you need to do to take control of your life by finding and using stress limitation techniques. When do you have alarm signals showing the development of distress? Have the willingness to speak up and say “no” to unreasonable demands on your time and situation.

You need to call a period of time-out to allow your elasticity level a chance to recover. It is always optimal to deal with stress as it develops rather than letting it build to a stage where it gets out of control and overwhelming. The most important thing is that as soon as you become aware of the adverse impact of stress on your life, you start to take action to review your circumstances, take stock of your life and take action to reduce the level of stress. This may require saying “no” to people, employers, Churches or even personal plans, but limiting stress in the short term can be enough to enable you to cope with future demands and avoid distress, burnout and breakdown.
Jonathan Clark, 05/12/2008