It’s probably not surprising to hear that the vast majority of the Western world is susceptible to stress and its subsequent ill effects on health.
The shocker is that Christians—men and women who live with the daily assurance of an all-knowing, all-powerful God who is active in their lives—fall victim to stress at a rate just as high as that of non-Christians.
To Christians who profess faith in a mighty and dynamic God, this creates a strange dichotomy. Indeed, this seeming contradiction leads to a general denial of Christians’ susceptibility to stress, and eventually to broad misconceptions in the Christian community about the incidence and steps that should be taken to remedy stress.
A quick survey among churchgoers in America on the causes of stress yields a variety of answers. Some claim that stress is rooted in a poor relationship with Christ, resulting in a lack of peace within the believer that gnaws away at spirit and body. Others argue that stress is caused by guilt over unconfessed sin or a lack of faith. Still others might attribute stress to demon oppression (or even possession).
In many cases, the attitudes or decisions of the believer who is undergoing stress are viewed as the reason for the stress and highlight perceived deficiencies in the character of the individual. This leads to an attitude of helplessness (not to mention increased anxiety—i.e., stress!) for the believer, as well as feelings of superiority and judging others who may not be struggling with stress at the time.
While some of the above reasons may apply to individual instances of believers struggling with general anxiety and stress, these reasons do not tell the whole story. Conflicting with the “spiritual” assessment of the cause of stress is the explanation given by the mental health field. The confusion over stress can actually be cleared up by simply promoting an accurate understanding of what stress actually is.
The experience of “stress” is actually a physical reaction to pressures that trigger the “fight or flight” sensation, in which the body prepares for decisive physical action by increasing the heart and breathing rate, tensing the muscles of the body and injecting hormones throughout the body. This reaction is normal and healthy and aids people in acting determinedly in pressurized situations. The problem with stress occurs when the individual is unable to release the built-up tension within the body. The hormones course throughout the body of the individual, yet that person has no outlet for working out the tension. This residual tension is what is commonly referred to as “stress,” and it leads to such problems as headaches, backaches and loss of sleep. It has also been shown to contribute to more serious conditions, such as heart disease.
The key to dealing with stress is in managing it when it does rear its pulse-quickening head in your life. And while more “spiritual” solutions such as prayer and Bible reading are frequently offered as antidotes to stress, the physical nature of stress means that the same strategies that non-Christians use to combat stress apply to Christians as well. Such common stress-releasers include exercise, engaging in a creative activity such as writing or painting, simplifying your life commitments and even breathing exercises designed to slow your heart rate. Christians, too, can utilize these and other common stress-relieving strategies with great success to mitigate the effects of stress on their bodies and minds.
However, this is not to say that strategies that are spiritual in nature are useless. In fact, Christians have at their disposal a number of strategies that can aid them in relieving stress. The most obvious is prayer. More than just a way to release pent-up emotions in a constructive way, prayer connects believers to that same all-powerful God that created them and knows their situations intimately. God is able to calm the fears and worries of Christians through His Spirit, further aiding the believer in not succumbing to stress.
Another helpful (if obvious) strategy a Christian can employ is to read the Bible, and in particular passages such as Matthew 11:28–29: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (TNIV). The comfort of such verses can indeed be decisive in relieving the believer of stress. Along with prayer and the studying of the Word, ordering your life along godly principles stands out as a great preventative tool in relieving stress. As the Christian learns to live a life that is ever increasingly Christ-centered, the individual will find himself more at peace as he fulfills his God-ordained purpose in life.
That said, the greatest temptation presented by these strategies is to believe that the closer a person draws to Christ, the less susceptible he is to stress. This is a falsehood that carries with it the potential of addition stress for believers, especially those who are repeatedly subjected to external and internal stressors, due to their workload vocation, etc.
The Christian community as a whole needs to acknowledge that stress is a truly human condition. What Christianity offers is a means of lessening the negative effects of stress in a person’s life through a relationship with a God who promises to give us rest.