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From burnout to balance - how to handle stress

Author Kate Middleton takes a look at what we can learn from the Bible about how to manage stress better …

Author KATE MIDDLETON takes a look at what we can learn from the Bible about how to manage stress better …

Stress is something we all experience, a physiological reaction that mediates the way your body and brain respond to the demands of life.

The system works well for acute, short-term stress – if a bear jumps out in front of you, say – meaning you are physically ready to run and react. But 21st century life often throws chronic stress at us: situations where we need to be ‘geared up’ for longer periods of time.

Think of stress as a bit like the water level in a pool. Standing in that pool, when the water level is low, you can manage well. Everyday stresses, a bit like waves, are not too much trouble. Chronic stress is like raising the water level – and as it rises, your ability to cope with those waves of daily stress becomes more and more stretched.

We all have a crisis point. If your baseline gets too high you will get to a point where a normal daily challenge might present a real risk of you ‘going under’ and facing what we call burnout.

As Christians, we’re not immune to stress. In fact, many Christians – passionate, committed to their faith, and living with a ministry they know God has placed on their heart – juggle much more than just ‘work’ and ‘life’ and might be at greater risk of stress and burnout.

Called to live a life out of our comfort zones, we push the limits – just like Peter in Matthew 14:28-30. Peter was fine until he stepped ‘out of the boat’. Then he experienced stress, anxiety – even panic. Might this mean then that we who are also called to take leaps of faith might need to get really good at managing stress?

Another great Biblical example of stress and burnout is that of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 we see him, the only one of God’s prophets still alive, courageously standing in front of 450 prophets of Baal and pulling off a spectacular victory. You would expect him to be feeling pretty great!

But suddenly at the start of 1 Kings 19 we see something unexpected – he gets a letter threatening his life – and he crumbles. This great man of God runs for his life and ends up sitting under a bush, asking God to end his life.

What on earth happened to take this man from hero to zero so fast? Stress! When you are up to your neck in it, even small things can push you over the edge.

God’s response to Elijah is significant. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t even respond in words at first. Instead, he sends an angel to help him recover his physical strength. Elijah sleeps, then eats, then sleeps some more. We are not super humans: our bodies and brains have basic needs and burnout is what happens when you run out of reserves. Even then, only after a long journey is Elijah ready to communicate with God.

So if stress is unavoidable, should we aim to stay in our comfort zones so that we experience as little as possible? No! It is our attitude to stress that really matters. Intriguingly, recent research suggests that the people who struggle most with stress are those who expect it to have a negative impact. If we expect stress, but feel confident in how we manage it, we can protect ourselves, and perhaps even use it in a positive way.

So can we push the limits and stay sane?

Our response to stress has to be to get really good at building into our life times where we meet our basic human needs. We must understand more deeply that the most important thing we do each week might well not be about activity but about relaxation.

We must make time to refuel, so that whatever life throws at us, we’re ready to respond, and so that we can be sure we remain ‘on fire’ for God rather than burning out.

  • Kate Middleton is a psychologist, church leader and director of Christian mental health organisation Mind and Soul. Her new book Refuel (Darton, Longman & Todd, £9.99) is out now

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