The word “stress” has become synonymous with living in the 21st century. In some ways, it has become a badge of honor. If you’re not constantly stressed by your many activities, are you even living a productive life? The truth, as we all know, is that the feeling of emotional or physical tension that stress brings is not pleasant. In this article, we’ll discuss practical tips for managing stress in a more productive, effective way.
Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge or demand, and while it can be positive in short bursts, to help avoid threats or get an urgent task done, over a prolonged period it wreaks havoc on the body and mind.
As a Christian, if you are feeling frazzled and are not managing stress well, it can feel like you are lacking in spiritual maturity because surely you should be able to follow the call of Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”?
While the state of not being anxious about anything is a worthy goal, you should not feel guilty if you feel stressed as though you are deficient in your Christianity. It is worth delving deeper into why you are feeling the way you do and what you can do to better manage stress. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
What is my habitual pattern for managing stress?
With work, family, health, finances, and myriad other aspects of living in a broken world causing inevitable daily tension, we develop certain habits to manage this stress. Social scientists have studied these patterns for years, as being aware of them can be the starting point for a better approach.
The first style is avoidance. Individuals who have developed this coping pattern try to keep life challenges away from their conscious awareness. They seek to remove unpleasant feelings and thoughts, and, as the tendency to avoid certain situations is repeated, it becomes an unconscious habit.
However, this produces a lack of a sense of control, and people who use avoidance in managing stress are often more pessimistic than optimistic, and experience life’s challenges with a secret sense of helplessness, gravitating towards activities that promise relief and escape. This is an unhealthy coping strategy associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression.
The second style is known as problem-focused coping. People who show this pattern of stress management direct thoughts and behaviors toward directly addressing the underlying cause of the stress. Studies show that individuals who show this approach have a powerful sense of being in control, and have lower levels of anxiety, greater confidence, and more resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
Far from this being a style that ignores God’s sovereignty, it falls very much in line with seeking the opportunity to persevere in all situations, knowing that in Christ we have victory over our stress.
The third style of managing stress is emotion-focused coping, which relies on maintaining a state of mind that will promote positive emotions. Again, this idea of focusing on thoughts that are “true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise” (paraphrased from Philippians 8) is completely Biblical, and a valuable tool for minimizing susceptibility to anxiety and depression.
Have I recognized and assessed the problem?
Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on what type of coping pattern you habitually gravitate towards, and how this can be changed (that is, if avoidance is your default style), admit that you have a problem, and recognize that how you are managing stress is not sustainable. Too often we bury the true state of our psyche from ourselves and others, to prove that we are coping.
Coping well amid life’s stresses and strains has become an idol, and it can be liberating to admit that we are stressed and need help. This also takes an act of humility but is the necessary first step in addressing the issue. You might speak honestly with your spouse or close friends or even enlist the support of a Biblical counselor, depending on the extent of your stress.
Am I taking my stress to God?
As Christians, we have the amazing privilege of being able to take all our stresses, burdens, anxieties, and problems to God. He is a caring Father, who implores us to unload everything that is troubling us on him.
As we practice the habit of obedience by submitting to Philippians 4:6, and present all our requests to Him, through prayer with thanksgiving, we will experience the miracle of Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
It can be tempting to hold onto our stress but talking to God daily and being in His Word is a necessary and critical way in which we’ll better learn the habit of not being anxious. We forget that we are living in the middle of spiritual warfare, and that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Stress can be a positive thing in that it can prompt us to be aware that we are not leaning on God as much as we should be, and need to turn to Him, knowing that He cares about the big and small things in our daily lives.
What are some unhelpful ways I am managing stress?
We “self-medicate” in all kinds of ways when we are stressed. Sometimes, this has become so much a part of our coping strategy that we don’t even recognize it for what it is. Binge-watching series or movies? Reaching for the fridge for whatever food looks like it could provide some comfort? Over exercising?
Our “drug” of choice will vary according to our personal style and preferences, but ignoring a problem, even with what might seem like a harmless activity, takes us further away from addressing the root issue. It can contribute towards the avoidance pattern described above, and is, ultimately, an unhealthy way of managing stress.
How can I improve on my physical care?
The Bible is far from silent on the issue of how we treat our bodies and the effect that this has on our spiritual and mental wellbeing. The account of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 shows a man who is stressed and calls out to God: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
God responds by sending an angel who provides him with baked bread and a jar of water; and after eating and drinking, Elijah falls asleep. What we eat, how much rest we get, how we exercise our bodies and the activities we do to recharge have an immense impact on managing stress.
There are always ways in which we can improve on this aspect of our lives, and it is not an area that should be ignored, particularly if we are not coping with our stress. Caring for our bodies physically requires self-control and discipline, to resist the temptation to succumb to the things that promise short-term relief versus long-term gain.
We are only flesh and blood, and too often we are simply taking on too much. In addition to the questions above about managing stress, we need to ask ourselves where we should put up some boundaries so that the source of our stress is minimized. Often it is just a few minor changes that are needed for us to feel like we are not only coping with our responsibilities but also thriving and living out the lives God has planned for us.
“Up Late”, Courtesy of Victoria Heath, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Stethoscope”, Courtesy of Bill Oxford, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mindfulness”, Courtesy of Lesly Juarez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rock Stack”, Courtesy of Karsten Winegeart, Unsplash.com, CC0 License