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The Tension of Distress

by Julia M. Bruce, MSPC
CEO, Wellspring Christian Ministries
 “I called to the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me and put me in a spacious place.
The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
— Psalm 118:5-6 (HCSB)

You are probably most familiar with bad stress. When you are experiencing eustress (good stress), you probably don’t recognize it as stress since it can be associated with good things in life, such as planning a wedding or receiving a promotion. Bad stress, however, is the opposite. This type of stress is known as “distress.”  

Synonyms for “distress” include: affliction, agony, excruciation, hurt, misery, pain, torment, travail, tribulation, and woe. When we experience distress we can become agitated, alarmed, bothered, concerned, disturbed, frazzled, perturbed, and upset. We experience discomfort, dismay, and worry. We are easily distracted.

When distress occurs

For many of us, uncertainty and a lack of control trigger feelings of unsafety. Yet in the face of a pandemic and uncertainty in our world, these difficult emotions are an all too familiar baseline. More so, when we are surrounded by escalating risks and panic — ranging from fear for the health of ourselves and loved ones, financial uncertainty, and social unrest — it becomes increasingly difficult to be fully aware of the toll of these threats to the safety of our health, financial well-being, and community on our bodies and minds. 

As people in ministry, we not only deal with our own stressors, but often we are called on to help others deal with their stressors. We can actually take on their stress as our own and that multiplies the stressors we carry around that weigh us down. Sooner or later, the weight becomes more than we can bear.

We reach a point of distress when stress becomes too much for us to bear. When the tension builds to the point of distress, there is no longer any fun in the challenge. We see no forthcoming relief. There is no end in sight. If eustress acts as a motivator, than distress becomes a de-motivator. When we are in distress, our performance decreases, we tend to make poor decisions, we experience anxiety and it can lead to mental health problems as well as physical problems. While eustress can be exciting, distress feels unpleasant.

What are the stressors in your life that cause distress?

Take a moment and list some examples of stressors in your life that would be distress.

Examples of distress can include the following:

  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Separation from spouse
  • Conflict in relationships
  • Hospitalization
  • Illness/injury
  • Pandemics
  • Abuse/neglect
  • Legal problems
  • Changes
  • Unemployment
  • Sleep problems
  • Problems with children
  • Financial problems

Looking over your lists of eustress (created in a previous blog post) and distress, which do you have more of in your life right now?

Whether your stress is bad stress or good stress – it’s still…

stress cartoon

Distress Protection

Protecting and preserving ourselves is survival in times of crisis and uncertainty. Practicing self-care is an act of compassion toward ourselves. You are not alone if you find it difficult to take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health during times of distress. Here are a few simple strategies that may be helpful during difficult and unsettling times:

Managing distress through self-care

  • Drink water and stay hydrated. Eat healthy food and avoid junk food.
  • Get enough sleep. In times of distress, if we are tired and exhausted, the distress seems overwhelming. But with enough rest, we are better able to appropriately handle distress. 
  • Try and slow down to notice your pattern and pace of breathing. Is your breath slow and steady? Fast and shallow? Take deep, cleansing breaths for 1 minute.
  • When we are distressed, it affects our physical bodies. Scan your body and notice where you may be holding tension and tightness. What feels tense? Are there areas of chronic pain or discomfort? Relax the muscles in those areas.
  • Consider placing your open palm over your heart while you notice the rise and fall of your chest. 
  • Use the sights, scents, and sounds that bring you comfort to change your surroundings such as looking out the window, lighting a candle, or playing your favorite worship playlist. 
  • Set boundaries to guard against information overload and excessive screen time. In times of crisis, it’s important to preserve our taxed nervous systems by limiting exposure to news and social media. 

Managing distress by reconnecting with God

  • Be gentle with yourself by letting go of negative self-talk. Remember who God says you are – redeemed, chosen, loved, treasured, uniquely created, child of God.
  • Listen to godly podcasts or sermons to keep you connected to God, who is in control of all things.
  • Remember the purpose for which God called you into ministry. Remember God is your fortress and that he has guided you through other challenging times. Claim His promises and know that He will never leave your or forsake you and that He is working all things out for your good.
  • Spend time reading your Bible, praying, and singing praise songs.
  • Memorize scripture
  • Reach out to another pastor or ministry partner, friend, or caring person by phone, social media, text, or email and ask for prayer, encouragement, and support.

Surrendering your Distress

Remember that we all experience distress in our lives. But distress does not control our situation or our ministry. Take the list of stressors that you came up with and lay them at the feet of Jesus. Surrender them to Him. Then leave them there. Don’t pick them back up again. Yes, the situations that cause you distress will still be there, but once you have surrendered them to Christ, you can know that you are no longer handling them on your own. In fact, sometimes our distress comes from us trying to handle things on our own!

Psalm 118:5-6 says, “I called to the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me and put me in a spacious place. The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Yes! Dear friend in the ministry – the Lord is for you! Call out to Him and allow Him to put you in a spacious place.

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