Stress Management Series

Common Causes of Stress–Part 1


by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol.
11 – Stress Management

Objective and Observations:

Article Objective: to examine
common causes of human stress and to identify how stress factors are related directly to Christian ministry. In your own life experience, stress has at least four or more elements. See the following graphic and summary descriptions that become an introduction to the topic:

11 Stress graph

  • External stressors: such as weather, social environment, family members, ministry associates, job expectations; holiday seasons; these all seek to penetrate your sense of well-being.
  • Internal stressors: inside your life experiences–such as self-image, self-expectation, personality type, emotional and mental energy, level of physical health, etc.
  • Coping skills: such as stress awareness, acceptance, coping responses, positive action, reasonable avoidance, Christian faith
    resources, etc.
  • Stress experience: those stressors that make it all the way into your emotional/mental/physical center, threatening your sense of well-being.

Introductory Observations:
As we examine in this article and the next, SL#90, the seven common causes of human stress, these observations may be beneficial:

  • A “stressor” is any phenomenon that triggers a stress response in your experience; internal or external, large or small, positive or negative. This includes also good stress, known as “eustress.”
  • Since there are often great differences among us, each person may have distinct stressors in life and work; what is stressful to one person may not be to another.
  • Stress experience may be influenced by a particular occasion or person; what is stressful to you in a particular situation may not be so at another time.
  • You may be able to list quite easily three or four known stressors in your own life and ministry; that is valuable and is often excellent to do that at any time you are working through this list of common causes.
  • However, keep in mind that it is often the hidden stressor, the one you’re not prepared for or wary of, that may cause you the most damage. It’s nearly impossible to “manage” stress that you don’t see coming, or know is there!
  • So keep an open mind about the need to learn new ways of understanding possible stressors in your life and in the lives of those around you.

With these few observations before us, the remainder of these two articles will seek to identify some general stressors, or “common causes,” that tend to be the source of many of our stressful experiences.

“No matter how old you are, you always think that there may be something hiding under the bed.” –Monica, age 13, from a Youth Calendar

1. Common Stressor #1: Personality

That’s right, personality; your personality, but also that of others around you. Sometimes the stressor component itself is not an outside entity but is a function of your inner person; that is an internal stressor!   Tests have shown that a significant factor in stress is one’s own personality.
There is no single key personality type that insures a stress-free life, but by becoming aware of certain personality tendencies in your own life and ministry, you may be able to manage the danger points more successfully. Also, assessing the personality of those to whom you are responding may provide insights regarding
your stress experiences.

  • Type A personalities: “Type A” personality is known for intense ambition and aggression toward meeting
    goals. If you find yourself exhibiting the following traits, you may be a “Type A” person:
    • highly competitive nature, often leading to flashes of temper and hostility
    • intense obsession with achievement and urgency
    • extreme “multi-tasking”
    • obsessive perfectionism
    • defending against criticism

    Numerous studies show that the “Type A” person is more likely to experience heart disease due to chronically inflated blood pressure and other physical characteristics of extreme responses to a variety of situations which would not become stressors in non-type-A individuals.

  • Self-Image: Seemingly on the other end of the spectrum, though not directly related, is the issue of self-image.
    Are you:
    • often shy and self-conscious around others?
    • quick to blame yourself?
    • uncomfortable around superiors, peers, or members of the opposite sex?

    Persons with extremely low self-image levels–in confidence, sense of self-worth and helplessness–can also lead to an increase in life stressors and a propensity for disease, most particularly cancer. Surprising studies have indicated that traits of a low self-image can both lead to the onset of cancer in individuals, and can limit one’s ability to fight the disease once it appears.

  • “Flight or Fight:” Of course, there could be many explanations that make that relationship more indirect than direct, but either way, fighting against a low self-image may be essential to avoiding or at least putting off the ravages of cancer. As such, it turns out that the chronic response to “flight” can be as dangerous as a chronic response to “fight.”
  • Biblical Instruction: The biblical record speaks of stressors and the responses within the human experience. Consider the example of the Apostle Paul and the instructions of Christ:
    • Paul’s self-portrait reveals both positive and negative sides of the apostle’s inner personal life, his struggles and responses:

      1 Corinthians. 9:25-27—

      “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
      They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get
      a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man
      running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No,
      I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached
      to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

    • Christ’s instruction: found in Matthew 18:3-4—

      “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

    Reflection: How would you define your own personality in your life and leadership? How much of your experience of stress is self-induced?  Do you often exhibit the traits of a Type A personality, or have a chronically low self-image?

2. Common Stressor #2: Change

  • New Reality: Adjusting and adapting to new realities is one of the most fundamental and common of all stressors.  Even if you are unaware of it being there, a stress response of some kind accompanies most every significant change in life, work, and circumstance.  You don’t have to fret, worry, or exhibit an active “stressing out” for these events to wear on your physical and mental equilibrium in a potentially damaging way. It is more than just an old preacher’s yarn about the church presented with a new Sunday schedule. The senior member stood to respond:

“Preacher, I’m not sure our people would be happy about making that change just now; we’ve never done it that way before.”

  • Achieving Balance: This balance the body and mind naturally strive for is called “homeostasis,” and the
    lengths we go to internally to achieve it in the face of change can often wreak havoc on important physical and mental activities. Even if the change is undeniably positive, this process takes place, and when it is extreme, can have negative consequences by forcing stress responses.
  • Good Stress: Moving, getting married, having a child, getting a new job all can be great, good events, but can cause stress responses in the healthiest of people. We sometimes refer to response to those stressors as good stress, or “eustress.” Of course, negative changes tend to have more damaging, and more prolonged,
    stress effects.
Reflection: What are the most profound changes that have occurred in your life during the last two years–changes for better or for worse? Did you know that the more you have had, the more susceptible you are to stress-related illnesses and difficulty, as a result of your resources for adapting being challenged? When change causes conflict, conflict may back into stressful experiences. As you monitor your own life and work, and in your
capacity to lead and counsel other, keep in mind the impact change can have as a life stressor! An ultimate change is provided in a scriptural picture:

Philippians 1:20–“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

3. Common Stressor #3: ExpectationsTwo types of “expectation” can easily become stressors: expectations you have of yourself, and expectations you have of others. We will not explore here the expectations others have of you.

  • Of Yourself: Everyone knows the feeling of pressure that can arise as a result of high personal expectation to perform in one’s life and work. Often, the pressure we put on ourselves is even greater than what we feel from others. When managed correctly, this pressure can lead to great achievement and a sense of accomplishment and effort. But when mismanaged, or overburdened, the fear of failed expectation,
    or letting down yourself and others, can trigger stress responses that diminish performance levels in whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Lack of concentration, loss of sleep or appetite, and other stress responses can make any already-difficult task even tougher.

    This begins a debilitating cycle, as the sense of failed expectations easily translates to low self-image–you don’t want your stress compounding like an annual interest rate! Proper management of expectations–not lowering expectations but managing them!–is a key function of staying healthy enough to maintain effective leadership in the church or anywhere else!

  • Of Others: Today’s leadership demands require delegation and team-building and a reliance on others. This is healthy and a strong Christian leadership principle. It can also lead to disappointment in others when they fail to come through. Particularly in the church, we are often too quick to allow disappointment in the ethical lapses, or various failures in judgment of others to affect our own leadership capacity. Failed
    expectation from others can be a huge and complex stressor for a leader:
    • “If she can’t do it, can it be done?”
    • “Was I right to place that responsibility in his hands?”
    • “You just can’t trust people in this church/organization.”
    Losing faith in team/family members/structure can have a highly negative
    stress impact on anyone. Turning that situation into a positive growth opportunity
    is not only a great challenge; it is a necessary leadership trait in the
    church today.
“When your mother is mad and asks you, ‘Do I look stupid?’ its best not to answer her.”

–Meghann, age 13, from a Youth Calendar

Reflection: What, or who, is the greatest stressor caused by personal expectations in your life and work? What stress have you recently experienced caused by failure of another to live or perform up to your expectations? Are your expectations fair and reasonable? Do your expectations usually contribute to high performance and satisfaction? Or, do they more often cause stress and its damaging symptoms?

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© 2009; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.

For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links

Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership