3 Ways Stress is Actually Good for You

I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.

pastors under stress

First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.

On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.

At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.

Here are the three benefits.

  1. It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40  minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
  2. It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
  3. It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.

So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)

What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?

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Should Pastors Abstain from Drinking Alcohol?

I grew up in the south and in a denomination where drinking alcohol was frowned upon for the average church attender and definitely considered taboo for pastors. I served in the central valley of California where I could drive to several wineries within five minutes and where the church didn’t frown upon social drinking. I served in another part of the country when at my first board meeting the elder host literally provided an open bar. I was offered a choice of about a half dozen alcoholic beverages that night. So, who’s right? Should pastors abstain from drinking alcohol or should pastors not even think about it?

I’ve noticed that in the past few years several leaders in the emerging church movement seem to portray through their teaching, blogs, and twitter profiles an, “I drink and that makes me really cool,” attitude. I heard one well-known teacher play off the popularity of the WWJD craze by changing ‘What Would Jesus Do’ to ‘What Would Jesus Drink.’ He then spent several minutes talking about how much he enjoyed alcohol.

On the other hand, I know a guy who won’t even go into a restaurant if it serves alcohol.

I’ve never preached a message against alcohol and I don’t believe the bible prohibits drinking in moderation. After all, Jesus turned water into wine and Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach.

I even occasionally went to a bar with my improv class friends to hang out after class. I ordered a beer of the non-alcoholic root variety.

However, I’ve chosen to refrain from even social drinking for these reasons.

  1. I want to maximize my health and keep my brain humming at maximum efficiency. A recent meta-study has shown a linkage of even moderate alcohol drinking to a heightened risk of some cancers. And, I hope to keep my ‘senior moments’ down to a minimum as I get older. Alcohol has shown to have negative effects on the brain.
  2. I don’t want to play Russian roulette. A quarter of people who drink are considered problem drinkers and almost 10% are considered alcoholics. I don’t want to risk becoming one of those statistics.
  3. I want to practice the principle of deference as best I can. Based on Paul’s admonition in Romans 14.21, I would not want a behavior such as drinking to potentially cause a weaker brother to stumble.
    • It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. (NLT)
  4. As a leader, I’ve chosen a higher standard for my leadership life. Proverbs 31.4 has influenced my thinking.
    • Kings and leaders should not get drunk or even want to drink. (CEV)

I recognize that pastors and church people hold multiple views on this subject.

  •  If you are a pastor, do you think a pastor should refrain or not?
  •  If you are not a pastor, what do you think about pastors who do drink socially?

Here’s another thoughtful post on this subject.

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What Should Pastors Do with Personal Pain?

Every leader carries personal pain and baggage not only from his or her family of origin, but also from previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. What we do with it affects our personal well being and the well being of our ministries. In this post I suggest ways pastors and ministry leaders can deal with personal pain.

Several factors influence how heavy baggage from your pain feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If in your current ministry you are stressed, you won’t have much internal reserve before you redline. You’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influenced by your genetic makeup. Some people are genetically pre-disposed toward pain which is reflected more in anxiety and depression than in others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. It’s called resilience.
  • Your previous ministry setting. If past ministries were difficult, you’ll need to pay more attention to your ministry pain.

If dealing with personal pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So, Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research tells us that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness suddenly swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted fourteen years earlier.

In a later ministry setting in Chicago I faced significant conflict with two leaders that left deep wounds. During the year and a half between that church and my new church in Canada, I had to process this this pain that I had carried from that church.

So how can we deal with our ministry pain?

First, admit that you probably still carry some leftover baggage from prior ministries. These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially hinder your current ministry.

  1. With whom have you experienced the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  1. How have you dealt with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  1. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise into your awareness? Or are the emotions more akin to mild disappointment and sadness?
  1. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  1. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  1. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve these past issues?

Second, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage. When my pain was most acute prior to my coming to Canada, I sought professional help. I consulted a counselor for several sessions and I hired a coach who helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. I recommend that every ministry leader find a good friend. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe, healthy friend.

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in any prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

During my consulting/writing days prior to my move to Canada, our family joined a local church near the small lake house we had moved into. I immediately bonded with the pastor and I volunteered to serve. Each Sunday I learned something new from his solid preaching. One day his sermon dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to both leaders who had hurt me the most at my prior church. I included a kind note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although I can still feel an occasional tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God used my pain to teach me. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage every pastor to inventory his our her prior ministry experiences and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possibly derail you.

How have you dealt with ministry pain?

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[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.

Energy Drinks for the Busy Pastor: Good or Bad?

Long before Red Bull was introduced to America in 1987 (and the plethora of energy drinks that followed,) caffeine had become the most widely used stimulant in the world. Over 90% of Americans drink coffee and slightly over half average three cups each day. Caffeine is now added to soft drinks, bottled water, gum, and even potato chips. And a busy pastor often uses energy drinks to keep up. But should we? Are they good or bad?

I don’t like coffee or tea and don’t drink them. And Red Bull and similar energy drinks give me the jitters. I’ve found, however, that 5-Hour Energy works well to boost my concentration. For the record, I don’t work for the makers of 5-Hour Energy. Also, when I study McDonalds, I get a caffeinated diet drink that I refill often when I get tired.

Since we pastors are busy people, to what degree should we rely on legal stimulants to give us a mental edge?

As I researched this blog[1], I found these statistics about caffeine quite interesting.

  • Brewed coffee has three times more caffeine than instant.
  • Caffeine in a hot drink is absorbed more quickly than from a cold drink.
  • 15-20 minutes after your drink a caffeinated drink, the caffeine reaches it’s highest peak in your blood stream.
  • Caffeine increases the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine, in our brain. About five minutes after I drink a 5-Hour Energy, I feel a nice motivation and optimism boost. Perhaps this comes from the high levels of B-vitamins more than from the caffeine.
  • Neurologically, caffeine makes us more alert and focused because it blocks a neurotransmitter called adenosine that causes sleepiness.

On the other hand, scientists have discovered that over-use of caffeine causes some negative effects as well.

  • It can impair long-term memory.
  • It can increase anxiety, especially to anxious prone people. I call this the jitters.
  • We can become addicted, especially if we use it more frequently when we feel stressed.

When I was in college I would occasionally pull an all-nighter. Since I didn’t drink coffee, I’d use a caffeine tablet to keep me awake. Each time I did I got some serious jitters and stomach problems. And I usually got a cold as well, probably because I skipped a night’s sleep.

As a pastor, I’m careful not to become legalistic about what I put into my body, unless I know it will clearly harm it. But, with energy drinks becoming so popular, should we give some thought about how we use them?

As you consider your views on legal stimulants found in coffee and energy drinks, I’ve suggested a few thought provoking questions below.

  1. Are you addicted to caffeine? Can you go a day or two without drinking several cups of coffee, a Red Bull, or a 5-Hour Energy?
  2. Are you masking deep tiredness? By drinking an energy drink are you ignoring that your body may be telling you it’s exhausted and needs more rest and sleep?
  3. Do you practice Sabbath keeping by taking a day off each week to rest, relax, and recover?
  4. Have you considered taking a short nap each day to give you an energy boost? Michael Hyatt wrote a great blog on 5 Reasons You Should Take a Nap each Day.
  5. Can you use caffeine/energy drinks to God’s glory? That is, without being legalistic, does your consumption give you those occasional needed bursts of energy/focus so that you can minister more effectively? Or are you relying more on them than His power and good body care habits?
  6. Are you using energy drinks as a replacement for sleep?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198027/

Feeling Overwhelmed in Ministry or Life? Try this.

Ministry burnout, overload, and destructive stress lead to an abysmal survival rate for pastors today.  For 20 years a friend of mine followed 105 pastors and discovered that only half remained in ministry. Many other statistics bear witness to the high fallout rate for pastors. Burnout, moral collapse, and the weight of ministry has shattered many dreams for Kingdom impact. No pastor ever begins ministry with a goal to end up as a casualty of it. Unfortunately, unless some make systemic changes to their hearts and ministry pace, they too will end up a statistic. But, if you feel yourself on the road to burnout and overwhelmed you can change your trajectory through this simple yet life-transforming exercise.

I’ve used a tool that many coaches use to help people regain balance from feeling overwhelmed. It’s called a “Life Balance Wheel.”

It had its origins in the Middle Ages when few could read. Etched on many cathedrals, it visually represented the cycle of daily life: happiness, loss, suffering, and hope. For most people life offered little hope and the carved images instructed the common person about the inevitable change process in life.

Today we use the life balance wheel in a more positive way. It takes many forms, but this example captures its essence. Each piece of the pie represents an area of life. Within that area the scale rates your satisfaction with that part of your life.

Here’s how to use it to help regain balance and deal with life’s pressures in a more intentional way.

  • Google “Life Balance Wheel” and you’ll find many free printable templates.
  • After you print it out, mark your level of satisfaction within in each area of your life.
  • Connect the dots to see how balanced or imbalanced you have described your life.
  • Pick one or two areas in which you feel least satisfied.
  • Describe what life would look like if your satisfaction in those areas increased to an “8”
  • List five specific steps you could take in each area that could help you move to an “8”
  • Give each step a specific date when you will take the step.
  • Make yourself accountable to someone to help you regain balance. A good coach trained in the life balance wheel would be a good investment.

This simple tool could have profound implications for your future, your family, and your ministry. Right now schedule an hour this week to complete the exercise and see how God could use it in your life.

If you’ve used the life balance wheel before, what have you found helpful?

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