Does it feel like helping others is sometimes hurting you more? Are you taking deliberate steps to manage stress in your life?
Everyone experiences stress. Even good events like weddings, births, and graduations create stressful conditions. Prolonged negative stress creates changes in your brain which steal your ability to think clearly and wear down your bodily functions. Researchers have shown that upwards of 80% of doctor visits are somehow stress related. The negative physical effects of stress will always lead to burnout if unattended to. Health care workers, pastors, missionaries, first responders, and other leaders must give themselves permission to rest or their ability to care for others will disappear. As my former professor Eric Scalise says, "If you're always last, you won't always last."
People in the helping professions must pay special attention to stress because not only do they have to manage their own personal lives, the people they are trying to help often bring tough circumstances and great expectations for miracle solutions. Helpers feel responsible to help people become successful. When people do not live up to the helpers expectations, the helper can take it personally and carries too much of the responsibility. Failed expectation is the primary cause of stress. Not only do helpers have great expectations for themselves, but those being helped often have unrealistic expectations for helpers. Leaders are not allowed to fail, right? Perfection is often the measure of success for the person in charge. Not only that, but if there are ten followers, there are likely at least ten views of perfection to live up to. You can't please everyone and you can't let other peoples' expectations define yours. Some may have legitimate expectations, but the composite effect of everyone is often impossible to meet.
For Christian leaders I recommend a book by Paul Cox entitled, Sacrifice the Leader: How to Cope When Others Shift Their Burdens onto You. He helps you understand how to avoid situations, for example, when someone opens up to you about his or her burden and pain, and suddenly you find yourself distanced, ridiculed, or even blamed for issues for which you are not responsible. Dr. Cox shares about inter-personal dynamics, listening skills, and steps a leader can take to avoid becoming the scapegoat for someone else's baggage.
This winter is gripping many parts of our nation with record cold temperatures and more than average snowfall. The other day I stared out my window gazing at the white back yard. I could only imagine the green grass and luscious plants in the garden just 5 months ago. For crops to grow here in the northeast, all four seasons are necessary to fulfill the growing cycle. I was reminded that winter, for example, even with the cold and longer nights, serves a needed function of giving the soil rest and dormancy. Each year winter anticipates summer and summer anticipates winter. Seasons come and seasons go.
Human life also happens in seasons. Sometimes it's difficult to discern the transitions between when a new season is coming and an older season is going. The age old truth governs life, "What you sow is what you reap." Good seed must be sown in good soil to have any chance of reaping a good harvest. A season of harvest must be preceded by a season of preparation. Most of us have no problem accepting that truth. But another truth follows. The harvest season is followed by a season of rest. Most of us agree rest is a good thing, but how well do we practice it? Our performance driven culture wants us to tolerate higher and higher levels of stress. Those we're trying to help need examples of how to buck this trend. They need rested helpers. They need helpers who will last more than one season of production. Seasons of rest are needed between seasons of production. Maybe it's time to consider what is keeping you from getting the rest you need.
There are two types of stress every care-giver deals with. There is the stress of the service/ ministry, and then there is the stress you bring into the ministry. Compassion fatigue is a term sometimes given to helpers who become weary in the service they perform. But this stress is only compounded when the helper fails to recognize the stress of their personal lives they are bringing into their situations. Who we are as a person cannot be separated from what we do and how we perform. Most of us could benefit by looking inside to see what kinds of stress we are bringing into our circumstances.
In a webinar presented by the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) on January 14th, Dr. Eric Scalise shares six signs of being over-stressed.
1. A preoccupation with stressed out people - If you tend to always gravitate to busy, extremely-hard-working, or other stress-accommodating type people, it is easier to remain blinded to your own stress.
2. Over indulge in "escape behaviors" - Escape behaviors (addictions or things you over indulge in for satisfaction and comfort) can become a problem for you as a helper in the same way it is a problem for those you are trying to help.
3. Avoid intimacy and seek fantasy over reality - If you discover distance developing between you and those you love most, and need more fantasy/ entertainment to maintain your sanity, perhaps this says more about you than the other you are in relationship with.
4. Control everything and everyone in order to survive - Desire for control may indicate unhealthy fear-based reactions to people and circumstances. Turning into a "control freak" only narrows and shrinks possibilities rather than expanding or enhancing them. Protecting your need to be needed indicates misplaced identity in your role.
5. Justify actions by blaming others - Blaming may be a way of covering your own disappointment with failed expectations of yourself.
6. Choose to leave or quit ministry - This may indicate a "flight" response which is rooted in something hidden and not yet discovered about how you can change as a person.
Space does not permit me to unpack these more, but if some apply to you, you are likely bringing stress into your helping role. Perhaps it is time to consider what should be done to reduce the stress. In the next blog post I will share some ideas how to maneuver out of a season of stress and into a new season.
Note: The book Escaping the Pain of Offense: Empowered to Forgive from the Heart discusses themes of dealing with disappointments, offense and finding freedom in forgiveness. This book is designed to help people (especially in the Christian faith) to discover and dislodge things in life that lead to defeat. Don't miss out on your chance to use this book as a helpful tool in discovering Refuge in Christ. It can be purchased by clicking here: http://bluerockbnb.com/healing/book_main.htm . If you get anywhere near Pennsylvania for vacation or on business, be sure to look us up for lodging at http://bluerockbnb.comby Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry