The Anatomy of Stress

Stress. For most of us, that word sends a shudder down our spine, and why wouldn’t it? Who wants to be under stress all the time? And that’s what it feels like for a lot of us, so what is it? Well, it’s a state of mental or emotional strain or tension, and my dictionary adds, ‘Resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’, although I’m not sure that’s always the case. We’ll explore some of the main causes of stress in this series, but first, what sort of impact is stress having on our world?

A recent study conducted in Australia by the Psychological Institute (and by the way, I’m sure you’d probably find the same results no matter where you live) – the study found some interesting things about the reach and impact of stress. Here are the headline findings. 12% of people reported experiencing levels of stress in the severe range, with young adults experiencing significantly higher levels of stress and significantly lower levels of wellbeing than the general population. One in three reported experiencing depressive symptoms, with 10% of these being in the severe range. One in four reported experiencing anxiety, with 9% of these in the severe range. Young adults, 18 to 25, reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than the general population.

Although women reported significantly higher levels of perceived stress than did men, this didn’t lead to differences in their reported levels of anxiety, depression, or wellbeing. Those people experiencing family or recent relationship-breakdown and those separated reported much higher levels of stress and distress on all measures. If the relationship-breakdown had occurred more than one year earlier, reported stress levels were about the same as the general population.

In the US, things appear to be more extreme. 73% of people regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. Almost half say that stress has a negative impact on their personal or professional lives, and the cost to employers in stress-related healthcare and missed work is estimated in the US to be about $300 billion a year.

No wonder we want a stress-free life: That idyllic life by the beach is looking pretty good to a few of us at this point, right? But that’s just not realistic, and in fact the reality is that a bit of stress in our lives isn’t a bad thing. We enjoy a challenge for instance, and working under a bit of pressure sometimes produces really good results. It’s like a guitar or a violin. If the strings aren’t under the right amount of tension and stress, it just doesn’t work the way it was meant to.

I know for instance after a long-ish holiday, say three weeks off over Christmas, I’m really looking forward to getting back into the cut and thrust of work. If we had no pressure, no deadlines, life would be missing something, and in any case, sometimes we’re hit by circumstances that put us under a lot of stress, whether we like it or not. Take Jesus. He experienced huge stress. Luke 22:39-46:

He came out and went, as was His custom, to the Mount of Olives and the disciples followed Him. When He reached that place, He said to them, ‘Pray, that you may not come into a time of trial.’ Then He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw away, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me, yet not My will but Yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him and gave Him strength. In His anguish He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling down on the ground. When He got up from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and He said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray, that you may not come into a time of trial’.

The fact that Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood tells us just how severe His suffering was. This was stress, and it only got worse from here, as He was beaten and nailed to a cross.

No, that completely stress-free life isn’t a reality for any of us, even the rich and famous; in fact sometimes, especially those people suffer enormous amounts of stress. How many superstars have died from drug-overdoses? What were they doing there in the first place? What drove them to drugs? The pressure and the stress of fame.

So, sometimes stress is desirable; sometimes it’s unavoidable, and sometimes we experience it because of our reaction to a particular person or a set of circumstances, and yet the Bible says don’t be anxious about anything (Philippians 4:6).

So what sort of stress are you under right now? Is it the normal cut and thrust of life which, at the end of the day, you kind of enjoy anyhow? Then that’s probably not such a bad thing, is it? It’s manageable, and you know that with a few adjustments to your life, you could easily get things right under control. Then you’re probably in a good balance, but if the stresses that you’re under feel like a huge burden – like a heavy load that you’re carrying around 24/7, well that’s not such a good thing. We’re not made to be under that sort of constant pressure and stress, and yet many people live their lives like that.

That’s why we’re kicking the year off with this series called ‘Stress Busters’ – because God has a lot of things to say about how to alleviate the stress that you’re under. Lots of practical, powerful things to say. Hey, why should that be a surprise to any of us? God cares so deeply about you, what you’re going through, what stress you’re under, and the stepping-off point for that is what Jesus said. We see it in Matthew 11:28-30:

‘Come to Me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’

Jesus wants to lighten your load, so over these coming weeks, we’re going to discover what He has to say about your stress, because Jesus didn’t say this lightly. Jesus didn’t say this flippantly, Jesus meant it. ‘Come to Me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest – come on! Take My yoke upon you; learn from Me. I’m gentle. I’m humble of heart, and with Me, you’re going to find rest for your souls.’ Hey, that’s a powerful thing, and that’s why we’re doing a series over these next few weeks called ‘Stress Busters’ – because God wants to deal with the stress in your life.

Stress We Put Ourselves Under

You and I have this habit of putting ourselves under pressure and stress needlessly. Don’t believe me? Well right now, we’re going to chat about how we do that exactly, and what we can do about changing our habits, because there are more than enough things out there that are going to cause you and me stress (whether we like it or not).

There are going to be situations and circumstances completely beyond our control that cause us stress – the loss of a loved one; a difficult boss at work; financial problems; health issues. There are plenty of things out there that are going to come our way (whether we like it or not) that are going to cause us stress, so why would we possibly want to needlessly cause ourselves stress? Well, right now, we’re going to chat about the main three reasons that we cause ourselves stress. I’ll be surprised if you don’t recognise at least one of them in your life.

The first one is physical. Sometimes we think of stress as an emotional thing, even a spiritual thing, and of course it is those things, but the physical reality is that God has given you and me a body, and there are three main things that we do to abuse this amazing body that God has gifted us. We eat too much of the wrong stuff, we don’t get enough sleep, and we don’t get enough exercise.

How many times have you heard someone, including me, banging on about our diet and exercise and sleep, and yet still the first and most obvious thing that we can get wrong when it comes to managing our stress is how we treat our body, so come on. If the hat fits wear it. Are you sick of feeling tired? Are you sick of feeling bloated and stressed and exhausted? Then do something about it.

Last year, we had a whole series on the programme called ‘Healthy Living to a Ripe Old Age’ and all of those messages in that series are available in the resources section of the Christianityworks.com website under the heading of Health. Grab them; listen to them; read the transcripts and please, if you’re struggling because you’re not treating your body properly, do something about it. 1 Corinthians 6:19:

Or don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?

God expects you and He expects me to look after this amazing body that He’s given us, and when we do, let me tell you, our stress levels drop dramatically.

The second thing that we do to put ourselves under stress needlessly is constantly second-guessing ourselves; constantly telling ourselves, ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not fast enough. I’m not smart enough’. You know what that’s called? Low self-esteem. And it might surprise you to know that this is a trap that I too find quite easy to fall into. Shocked? Here’s how it works for me. I’m something of an achiever. I drive hard at things; I work hard; I try and deliver on-time – that’s just who I am, and when you’re that kind of person, you can see not only all the things that you have achieved, but all the things that you haven’t yet achieved. And so you start telling yourself, ‘Come on! You’re not working hard enough for God. You should be doing better for God. You should be getting up earlier and working longer and delivering sooner. You need to get more done! Look at all the things you haven’t done yet. Oh, Berni, you’re failing God’. You see how easy it is to do?

Or at the other end of the scale, perhaps you only ever see your inadequacies, because you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people. You might recognise that? It’s like that song by Casey Chambers. ‘Am I not pretty enough or smart enough or liked enough or strong enough or articulate enough or’ … So we find all these ways to put ourselves under enormous pressure, and cause ourselves huge stress by believing this nonsense that we’re just not good enough. Have you been there? Then I have a word from God for you today. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7:

Now there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are a variety of services, but the same Lord. And there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each one, He has given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Did you get that? Each one of us has been given a particular set of gifts and abilities. They’re all different, but they’re given by the one God, and the gifts He’s given you, He’s given you by His sovereign will and choice. You are who you are because He made you that way. He didn’t make a mistake. You’re exactly who God purposed you and made you to be. Get your heart around that, and you’re set free from this nonsense of: ‘Am I not pretty enough? Am I not good enough for God?’

Hello, is anyone listening to this? I for one need constant reminding of this stuff, because I can end up stressing out by having a wrong view of who I am. It’s about trading your self-image for a faith-image from God, and this God says you’re beautiful, and that you’re just who you’re meant to be, so you’ve been given gifts by God now to be that person and to use those gifts. Hallelujah!

And finally the third thing that causes us needlessly to put ourselves under stress is not letting go of the past. How many people are still holding on to the failures and the hurts and the regrets of the past? How many people are living under the reproach of the past? Come on, the past is the past. You and I can’t change it, and God is in the business of setting us free from it. Before Israel was able to cross over the Jordan river and enter into the promised land, God dealt with their past. Joshua 5:9:

The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the reproach of the past, the disgrace of Egypt’, and so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

You’ve heard that saying don’t cry over spilt milk, right? Yes wipe it up; yes clean up the mess; yes learn from your mistakes so that you won’t spill the milk again, but don’t just stand there and wish you hadn’t spilt the milk, and spend the rest of your life living in that one moment of failure, because you can’t un-spill the milk, and it just doesn’t make sense.

This Jesus came to set you free from the past, to bind up your broken heart, to give you a vision for the future: A new set of eyes to see, a new set of ears to hear, and a new life to live. Jesus came to lift the reproach of the past off your shoulders, so that it won’t cause you any more stress. Come on, there are enough things out there for you to stress out over without your health, without these false feelings of inadequacy, and without your hurts from the past doing it all for you. Do you think?

The Stress of “Not Enough”

It seems to me that there are three basic resources that you and I need to get by each day: Time, money, and expertise, and when we’re short of any of those three basic resources (time, money, or expertise), that can cause us enormous amounts of stress.

Let’s start by looking at time. I don’t know when the term time poor started to fall into common usage, but these days, you hear it a lot. People are time poor. In fact, once you have enough money to cover the basics in your life, time becomes an even more valuable commodity than money, and for many people, time is way too short. ‘Ah, if only I had a few extra hours in every day’, I’ve heard people say. Really?

The more affluent we become, the more options we have for spending our time. Take social media. Right at the moment, 11% of the world’s population are active Facebook-users (just think about that for a minute) and they are collectively spending 700 billion minutes on Facebook each month. That’s 1.33 million person-years every month on Facebook, and that doesn’t count watching TV and all the other entertainment options available to us. No wonder we’re time poor!

So what’s changed? Why have we all of a sudden become time poor? Because we’re trying to cram too much into our day. We’re always connected; we’re always working and chatting and we’ve forgotten how to have disconnected, quiet down-time. If that’s you, if you’re burning the candle at both ends, something has to give, otherwise the stress is going to kill you. Really. And in case you’re one of these workaholics, who just has to work 18 hours a day otherwise civilisation as we know it is going to come to an end, here’s a different perspective – God’s perspective. Psalm 127:1-2:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guards keep watch in vain. It’s in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for God gives sleep to His beloved.

It’s simply not God’s plan for you to live like that, and I’ve recorded a whole series of messages on that called ‘It’s Time to Stop Labouring in Vain’. You’ll find it in the resources section of our website, Christianityworks.com.

Now the second thing that causes us stress is a lack of money. Sometimes that’s because people simply don’t have enough money to get by, but sometimes it’s because we squander the money that we do have on impulse buys; on things we don’t need; on food that we bought, and then because of our bad management, it goes off in the fridge, so we throw it out.

I want to deal with wastage first because that’s criminal. With people starving in the world, wasting money on stuff that we just don’t need is criminal, but the problem is that advertisers have it down to a fine art. They seem to be able to get us to part with our money like nothing else, so the question you have to ask yourself, the thing that’s going to get you to change your mind, is whether the stress of this is worth it – whether having all those things makes you happy, or at the end of the day, makes you stressed. 1 Timothy 6:9-10:

Those who want to be rich end up falling into temptation and they’re trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction, for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from their faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

So ask yourself, is it really worth it – I mean really, or is it time to get your house in order? Is it time to get money-wise? And again I’ve recorded a whole series called ‘How to be Money-Wise’ that you will find in the Living in Victory section of the resources library of Christianityworks.com. Sort that out, and the stress goes away. Believe you me, it’s worth it, and for those who are poor (desperately poor), let me say this to you – in fact not me, but Jesus. Matthew 6:31-34:

Don’t worry saying, ‘What am I going to eat?’ or ‘What am I going to drink?’ or ‘What am I going to wear?’ For it’s the Gentiles who strive after all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father already knows that you need them all. But strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

God knows what you need, and He will provide it for you. Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.

Your God will surely provide for you, and once you learn to trust Him to do the things you can’t do, and provide the things that you need that you can’t acquire for yourself, the stress will be replaced by the most amazing peace and assurance.

Finally, the other thing that causes us stress when we’re without it is expertise. When I look at the ministry of Christianityworks that produces these radio-programs, ok, I’m the front guy; you hear my voice, but without Max on the opposite side of the glass here in the studio and our dedicated team around the world, there simply wouldn’t be any radio-programs.

One of the biggest things that you and I can do to cause ourselves stress is not to value and recognise the different abilities and capabilities of the people around us, because when we don’t cherish them they desert us. I see this all the time. Leaders who think everybody should be exactly like them, so they drive their people hard and all of a sudden, there’s no one left to lead.

A true leader recognises other people’s gifts and abilities. A true leader encourages and empowers people to be all that they can be, and whether we’re leaders or not, we need other people around us who will co-operate in getting things done because without them, we are going to be under stress with a capital ‘S’. Because without them, we have to do the things that they’re good at, and those things are invariably things that we’re not good at.

There’s something incredibly stressful about being a square peg in a round hole. If I had to do Max’s job here in the studio, I couldn’t do it, and I try to get Max on the other side of the glass in front of the microphone and he’s not real keen on that either because that’s not his gig, just as much as what he does is not my gig.

It’s easy to be stressed by not having enough: Enough time, enough money, or enough expertise, but when we lean on God, I mean when we really trust in Him, come on – really, the stress starts to go away because what we discover is that God provides richly for those whom He loves. He just does, so if you’re struggling under the stress of not enough, listen again please to this passage from Proverbs 3:5-6:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart. Do not lean on your own understanding.

In other words, don’t look at the problem and keep turning the problem over in your mind, and just seeing the problem (which then appears to be bigger than your God). Instead, trust in the LORD with all your heart. Don’t lean on your own understanding, and in all your ways acknowledge Him, and God will straighten out your paths. God will make it happen; God loves you. Do you get that? God absolutely loves you, and often we are going to be confronted with things that are much bigger than us. Pressure is different from stress. Pressure is out there; stress is our reaction to it, and God doesn’t want you stressing out.

Bernie Dymet
Listen to the full podcast here

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