Stress isn’t always a bad thing.
Stress is one mechanism God uses to grow us, to shape us, to mold us into who he wants us to be.
But clearly stress can also put us into a place of overwhelm, where we don’t see a way forward and can’t seem to get out from under the weight of it. Unmanaged negative stress can start to take a mental health toll.
When it comes to mental health and the church, church mental health programs tend to focus on more visible, more seemingly significant mental health challenges. Dealing with unmanaged stress, which can often be a trigger for deeper mental health struggles — often isn’t on the radar.
And that’s only talking about the churches that are seeking to lead in this area through providing mental health church resources to their congregations. Many churches aren’t operating effectively in this area, often due to a lack of quality church leadership training.
Dr. Henry Cloud, author of Changes That Heal, helps to equip churches to help others in this crucial area. Seeing a lack of comprehensive church leadership training programs available, Cloud has now released Churches That Heal. This digital toolkit for churches and church leaders seeks to provide both church leadership training and the tools to equip church leaders to serve and teach others.
We recently sat down with Dr. Henry Cloud to discuss this all-important topic of stress and mental health. Below, we’ve distilled down the results of that conversation into five spiritual strategies Christians can use to cope with stress.
If you’re feeling negative, unmanaged stress building up in your life, consider implementing these five spiritual strategies for coping with stress.
1. Build and Invest in Healthy Relationships
We know from the book of Genesis that it isn’t good for us to be alone. In times of stress, isolation will often have a compounding effect.
The book of Hebrews reminds us to consider how to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24)—something that cannot happen in isolation. It requires a community of healthy relationships.
Dr. Cloud put it this way: “The first aspect to stress is to ask if you’re isolated. Are you handling this stress as an alone entity in the universe? Or are you handling this stress in relationship with others? We were not designed to exist unto ourselves. The number one mitigator against stress is the feeling of not being alone…
If you want to reduce your stress, do what the Bible says: ‘Encourage one another and build each other up’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11 – NIV). Be connected to people. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, ‘Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.’”
If you’re needing to reduce or mitigate stress, build healthy relationships — or invest more heavily in the ones you already have.
2. Keep Control of Your Reactions
Feelings of stress often build up when we feel like we’re losing control — or like control has been stripped away entirely. It’s entirely natural to want control over our own lives — even if Jesus tells us that this is ultimately futile (Matthew 16:25).
Despite how we’re all tempted to feel, there are so many things that you cannot control. The economy, global pandemics, even the fortunes and future of your own employer: there’s little that you individually can do to change trajectories like these.
On the other hand, we have control over more than we sometimes think we do. Reactions are one area where each Christian maintains (or should maintain) a high degree of control.
You often cannot control external stimuli (the things that happen to you). But you can control the way you react to those things.
In Dr. Cloud’s words:
“There are a thousand things you can control. That’s why the Serenity Prayer says, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’
- Other people don’t have control of your emotions.
- Other people don’t have control of your reactions.
- Other people don’t have control of how you think about yourself.
- Other people don’t have control of how you’re going to spend your time.”
By controlling your reactions to the events along your path, you’ll also control the amount of stress that those circumstances can create in you.
3. Self-Assess Your Stresses
Usually when we’re feeling stressed, we’re in times of pressure. It doesn’t seem intuitive to slow down and think, but that’s exactly what Dr. Cloud recommends.
John 16:33 says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (ESV)
So tribulation (or trials, or stress) is to be expected. And not every instance is cause for existential panic. Not every stressor is worth the stress we allow it to create. Sometimes simply slowing down and self-assessing is all it takes to reduce some stress.
Here’s how Dr. Henry Cloud put it:
“You’ve got to audit what has the ability to stress you out.
Our stress system is a reactive one. It goes through these filters and tells you when something is a danger and when it’s not. Sometimes we can have an ‘all or nothing’ stress button and it has a lot to do with the way we perceive things.”
If the building is on fire, feel free to feel stress. It’s the right response! But some lesser stressors? Thinking them through may be all it takes to reduce their impact.
4. Focus on What Matters Most
In our ever-connected, always-on world, one giant stressor for most people is a constant feeling of overwhelm. There are, at any given moment, 273 things to do, and it seems impossible to focus or prioritize.
That’s a stressful way to live, even if it’s exactly what our society pushes as normal.
As Christians and Christian leaders, it’s paramount to find a way to focus on what matters most, delegating or pushing away all else. Gaining that focus will reduce the stress of distractibility.
In Dr. Cloud’s words:
“Think about simplifying and compartmentalizing what’s important. Most of your time and energy should be going to what you’ve named as most important and let everything else fall off the list or be delegated.
“When you’re doing a task, spend your time doing the task! Don’t try to balance or multi- task because it leads to more stress, less focus, less good results, and a bigger taxation on your system.”
5. Increase Good Stress
Not all stress is bad stress, and one way to combat the bad is to increase the good. Good stresses invigorate us, spurring us to growth and innovation. These could take the form of physical exercise routines (which, while physically taxing, raise endorphins and tend to increase focus), or additional stress from passion projects or highly motivating endeavors.
“Positive stress invigorates you. It’s about stretching yourself, trying something new, getting out of your comfort zone, and reaching a goal. You don’t have time to think about all this other junk when you’re positively stressed.”
Introducing Churches That Heal: A Digital Toolkit for Churches and Church Leaders
Stress is only one part of the mental health picture, though it’s a significant one that deserves more focus. These five observations and many more are included in Dr. Henry Cloud’s newest release, Churches That Heal.
This digital toolkit for churches provides a wide range of mental health church resources and starts with helping pastors and leaders themselves heal. Once that process begins, the program further equips church leaders to position their churches publicly and effectively as places that are a haven to the afflicted, places that provide true, lasting answers to mental health issues.