A Simple Way Leaders (or anybody) Can Reduce Stress

God created our brains to help us survive in our world. Whether it’s a real threat (a bear outside your tent on a camping trip) or a perceived one (a board member or boss who acts like a bear), a part of our nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), engages the stress response. It’s that fight-flight feeling. Essentially, the body prepares to fight or flee the source of danger by shutting down or slowing non-essential body functions to send blood and energy to vital parts of our body. In this post I explain a science-based practice that can help reduce the effects of stress on your body.

Stress Man. Businessman  suffers from a headache

A simple practice that reduces stress

The stress response also activates other body responses. It releases chemicals in your body and brain to provide extra energy and focus if you need to fight or flee, slows digestion and saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our eyes, and sends blood to our muscles.

Aside from running away from the bear or shooting it (you’d need a permit in most places), what can we do to quiet this stress response in our day-to-day experience?

Deep breathing from your diaphragm helps.

It has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, decrease lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes cramping and fatigue), and make us calmer.

From a body perspective, deep breathing activates a nerve called the vagal nerve that travels from the back of your brain to your belly, tongue, heart, lungs and intestines. It’s an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the SNS’s counterpart. In contrast to fight-flight, it’s rest-digest and controls the relaxation response.

Think of the SNS as a car’s accelerator and the PNS as a car’s brake.

When you activate your vagal nerve, it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine and dampens the stress response. So, when you’re stressed, you want your brain to release those chemicals. Here’s how deep breathing can engage your vagal nerve and dampen your stress response.

  1. Know your body. Look for signals that it’s under stress. Some people get a dry mouth. Shoulders tighten for others. For some, their hands shake. Others experience stomach problems. Some breath faster and from their chest. Listen to your body on a regular basis to ‘catch’ your stress.
  2. Remember that breathing from your diaphragm is key. It’s called belly breathing. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to experience the difference. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should move more than your upper chest, although your chest will also expand some.
  3. When you know you are under stress, get away to a quiet private place and sit down if you can. In a pinch, a bathroom stall even works. The Bible often talks about the value of stillness and quietness (see Psalm 46.10).
  4. Breathe in deeply through your nose while you count to 4.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  6. Breath out through your mouth with a whooshing sound as you count to 8.
  7. Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing 4 times. You’ll find that this takes only a minute.
  8. Practice this every day, not just when you feel stressed.

Stress does not have to control you. You can control it with this simple breathing technique. Your body and brain will be glad you did.

What has helped you deal with stress?

Related posts:

Three Kinds of People that Fill Every Church

In Judson Edwards book, The Leadership Labyrinth, he describes 21 paradoxes in ministry. He defines the ‘relationship paradox’ in this way: the people who like you most will be the ones you try least to please. He writes that three kinds of people fill every church. Would you agree with assessment?

two male hands with thumbs up and down on white background

The three kinds of people in every church.

  • The energizers: their presence makes us feel better, buoys our spirits, and fills our tanks.
  • The regular folksthey may not buoy our spirits, but they don’t demoralize us either. They make up the largest group.
  • The drainers: they sap our joy and can ruin our day.

The main difference between the energizers and the drainers are their expectations of us. The energizers don’t place great expectations on us. The drainers do.

We don’t measure up to the drainers expectations. Either our preaching or counseling or leading or availability is not enough. These subtle unmet expectations may not be overt, but when we’re around these people, we feel their unspoken disapproval.

Edwards pens these profound words.

“When our credo becomes ‘I am as you desire me,’ we have lost the very thing that will enable us to minister effectively: our authenticity.”

Edwards rounds out his thoughts with three insights into how Jesus responded to his drainers.

  • First, Jesus retreated from his drainers to refresh himself and seek God. He regularly sought renewal.
  • Second, Jesus balanced his drainers with his energizers.
  • Third, Jesus didn’t allow the drainers to deter him from his plan and purpose.

Although Jesus practiced a rhythm of renewal and time away from his drainers, he never got rid of them. He still had to contend with them, just as we pastors must do in our churches.

Not everyone liked Jesus. Not everyone will like us. But God’s grace gives us what we need to serve even the most draining drainers.

For an in-depth look at people pleasing in the church, consider my third book: People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership.

Related posts:

Why Smart Pastors Fail

Sometimes really smart pastors fail. I think I know some reasons why they do. Recently I read You’re in Charge–Now What by Thomas Neff and James Citrin. The book targets leaders moving into new positions. Whether or not you’re moving into a new ministry role, read this book. It’s a great read. The last chapter is worth the price. The authors give 10 traps for new leaders by playing off the book Why Smart Executives Fail by Sydney Finkelstein whose authors list several destructive behaviors leaders in failing companies show. Below, I’ve tweaked those 10 to make them applicable for ministry leaders.

failure

A smart pastor can can fail if he…

  1. Sets expectations too high (by never meeting them) or too low (and thus disappointing high performing leaders in the church).
  2. Makes rash decisions or suffers from analysis paralysis.
  3. Appears to have all the answers.
  4. Ties his or her identity too closely to ministry success.
  5. Fails to see reality (remember the fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes”).
  6. Squashes dissenting opinions.
  7. Doesn’t keep his role in context (remember, we are not saviors, Jesus is).
  8. Misses who really holds the power (just because power roles are written down somewhere does not mean they reflect who really holds the power).
  9. Tries to win every battle.
  10. Bad-mouths the previous pastor or ministry leader.

What would you add to this list?

Related posts:

 

Saving your Family without Killing Your Ministry

pastors balancing family life and ministryMy wife and I have 3 grown kids. One has survived a brain tumor, one was a straight arrow, and one was a challenge. My oldest daughter Heather (our challenge) even co-wrote a book with me about the experience in our family called Daughters Gone Wild-Dads Gone Crazy.

I’ve excerpted 5 insights from our book about how to keep your family intact in the pressure-cooker of ministry.

1. Resist turning words into weapons.

Heather got me so angry that at times I said some things I wish I had never said. I wish I could have taken back some of those angry words as the Bible tells us. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov. 12.18 (NIV-G/K). One psychologist suggested that we wait 30 seconds before responding in an angry situation.

2. Stoke the relationship fire with your children to keep the relationship alive.

If you’ve ever gone camping, to keep the fire going you must stoke it by stirring the embers. Often when I was hurt so much I had to make a conscious choice to reach out to her in tangible ways to let her know that I loved her. Just small things like simple grace gifts kept the relationship alive. Although I stumbled often, Heather later wrote us a letter that really touched our hearts. Here’s what she said.

“Thank you for never closing your heart to me. I wouldn’t be what I am now if you had…I always felt the love of God from you…through your unrelenting pursuit of me in my times of darkness, through your never giving up on me, through everything you did for me in spite of how horrible I was..that’s how God loves us.”

3. No matter how much your children may hurt you, never close your heart to them.

At times I felt like giving up on her. But by God’s grace, I kept my heart open to her. I’m glad I did because I got to experience the fruit of reconciliation later.

4. Keep a good sense of humor.

Sometimes you simply must laugh between the tears. One night Heather showed up at 4 in the morning as we caught her climbing into the window on the biggest day of the church year, Easter Sunday. I had to keep a sense of humor to keep from killing her.

5. Choose your battles carefully and lose some on purpose.

Some battles with your children are not worth the fight. On biblical/moral/ethical values, stand your ground. On personal preferences, it’s worth losing some of those. Dress, a clean room, and some music choices are personal preferences. I love what one parent advised, “If you can cut it off, wash it out, or grow it out, don’t sweat it.”

What have you learned that has helped you keep your family intact?

Related posts:

5 Non-negotiable Decisions every Leader MUST Make

5 decisions every pastoral leader must makeThe concept of ‘adaptive leadership’ is a new one I learned a few years ago. It’s been incredibly helpful in developing my leadership.  The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Heifets-Linsky-Grashow unpacks the concept well. An article by Susan DeGenring on the subject lists 5 decisions great leaders must make. I’ve summarized them below. You can read the full article here.

5 non-negotiable decisions every leader must make:

  1. Shift focus and reframe your job from that of problem-solver, to that of developer of problem solvers.
  2. Give the work back to the people.
  3. Ask the important, and sometimes, tough questions, and don’t give all the answers.
  4. Know how to help people learn, not by telling, but by understanding the perceptions, beliefs and values that drive their action, and help them plug into alternative, more agile ways of thinking.
  5. Accept that heartache is inevitable and courage is essential when you lead.

What insights about adaptive leadership have enhanced your leadership effectiveness?

Related post: