by Michelle G. Whitecotton
Some ideas about how to handle stressors common to missionaries: language study, culture shock, discouragement, loneliness, burnout, and depression.
A missionary makes out her menus for the week, goes to the store, and finds three of the 15 items she wants. The terrible heat becomes unbearable. Seeking relief in an air-conditioned cafe, she spends $2.50 for a piece of greasy chicken. Then her husband comes home and, because of his own stress and tension, blows up at her.
Stress, according to Wayne Oates, is how we feel when we’re being pushed to the limits of our strength and energy. Of course, not all stress is bad, he says, but that’s the kind of stress I want to look at. I want to give some ideas about how to handle stressors common to missionaries: language study, culture shock, discouragement, loneliness, burnout, and depression.
Mastering a foreign language is difficult and time-consuming, and it often results in unbearable isolation. Language study produces marital stress. The wife who learns more quickly than her husband may hold back her progress to spare his feelings. One partner may have the edge because she or he grew up speaking the language. The wife may struggle to learn the language because she carries responsibilities for the home and children.
However, such stressors can be alleviated. Husbands and wives can encourage and support one another. Supervisors of national language teachers can help them to understand the problems of language study. For example, if a student doesn’t show up for a few days and is not ill, the teacher may think the student is uncommitted or uninterested. In reality, severe anxiety may be causing the absence.
Language schools can help to reduce stress by offering activities outside the classroom, such as excursions to local churches, historical sites, and cultural attractions. Such outings provide helpful breaks and build cohesion among students.
Richard Breslin says culture shock “. . . refers to the accumulated stresses and strains which stem from being forced to meet one’s everyday needs . . . in unfamiliar ways.” When we leave our home countries, we leave behind the familiar cues we grew up with that help us to interpret and understand what’s going on. Many times, learning new cultural cues is so exhaustive it leads to shock. Usually calm, collected people can sometimes burst out in anger.
Just trying to adjust to everyday living leads to frustration and shock. Whatever the causes of culture shock, the symptoms generally include loss of interest, homesickness, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, poor concentration, and fatigue. Of course, new missionaries plow into things with great zeal and energy, but after two or three months the symptoms set in and some of them think they have made a big mistake in going overseas.
Hurt feelings often crop up as a result of culture shock. Missionaries may not be prepared for resistance to the gospel, and for less than enthusiastic responses to their ideas within their team. They may run into government red tape, interviews with the police, and misunderstandings with local believers. They begin to feel sorry for themselves and even wonder if they have anything to contribute.
As bad as it sometimes is (See related article in this issue by Linda Wilson.—Eds.), culture shock can be alleviated. Many times all that is required is an extra degree of patience to put up with fatigue and loss of interest. These alone are not symptoms of a nervous breakdown. In the meantime, it helps to find places of private escape for hiking, reading, and listening to music.
Making strong efforts to know the people and their culture also helps. Rather than worrying about the country’s deficiencies, it’s much better to learn all you can about the country and concentrate on the good things it has to offer. Giving time to the people, relaxing with them in their homes, and entertaining them are ways to reduce shock.
It’s important never to leave the field during culture shock. The problems must be talked through with fellow missionaries or counselors. The pain greatly lessens when we talk with people who have been hit by culture shockand lived to tell about it.
Discouragement frequently sets in even before missionaries arrive on the field. Extensive prefield testing, raising support, paying off debts, travel, and uncertainties about departure are major sources of discouragement.
Once on the field, new missionaries often get discouraged by the pressures of orientation and language study. If that’s not bad enough, they get discouraged because they do not feel they belong on their new field. They feel incompetent and out of place, especially if they are given assignments for which they do not feel adequately prepared. Unfortunately, discouragement sometimes leads to bitterness and resentment.
Loneliness comes from a sense of not belonging and a sense of being misunderstood. Many times, such feelings spring from the failure to form close relationships with other missionaries and nationals.
Loneliness strikes single missionaries in remote places, as well as couples in new areas. Husbands who travel a lot in ministry and wives who remain at home often become lonely.
Stress arising from discouragement and loneliness must be identified and remedied before more serious problems develop. The main goal is to find some way to focus on other things. For some people, physical labor helps—gardening or cleaning, for example—while others need to follow regular exercise plans.
Of course, finding a good friend to share burdens is a great help. Lonely, discouraged people need to be able to vent their feelings confidentially. A trusted friend can help to direct the person away from self-pity.
When stress builds unabated, burnout is likely. Esther Schubert has written a helpful list of symptoms that point to burnout:
- The tendency to feel negative or cynical about the people to whom you minister.
- Loss of enthusiasm for your job.
- Lowered emotional investment in your work.
- Fatigue and irritableness.
- Cynical, sarcastic humor.
- Increased withdrawal from people.
- Increased rigidity in dealing with people.
- Feeling isolated and unsupported.
- Frustrated in accomplishing tasks.
- Increased sadness.
- Physical ailments.
- Less enjoyment of sexual intercourse.
- Tendency to blame others for problems.
- Tendency to feel guilty much of the time.
- “Hanging on” until retirement.
- Feeling empty and drained.
Sometimes the mission system causes burnout. Policies may be out of step with the culture. Leaders may be out of touch with the needs of their missionaries. The mission-ary’s job may not be well-suited for her or him. There is no time to get away and relax.
Of course, some cases of burnout arise from our personalities. Perfectionists, workaholics, and “control freaks” tend to burn out quickly. Missionaries who can’t say No, or who lack assertiveness, are prime candidates.
Sometimes you can prevent burnout simply by eating well and getting enough rest. (It helps if you don’t work while eating.) Recreation, relaxation, and exercise also help. Missionaries need extracurricular stimulation, so they are not constantly talking about their work. Thick skin and a sense of humor offer some protection.
If left untreated, burnout can turn into depression. Depression is more than just feeling sad, or having a bad day. In severe cases, victims say there’s no physical pain that compares with the emotional pain of depression. Depression can strike anyone, and if it is not treated it may lead to suicide.
A depressed person will have at least five of the following symptoms within a two-week period:
- Depressed mood.
- Decreased interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities.
- Significant weight loss or gain; decrease or increase in appetite.
- Insomnia or oversleeping nearly every day.
- Overactivity or underactivity.
- Fatigue or loss of energy.
- Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt.
- Decreased concentration or an inability to think clearly.
- Recurring thoughts of death, or suicide.
To be true indicators of depression, however, these symptoms cannot be related to an illness, nor can they be a reaction to the death of a loved one. Nor can there be any other psychiatric illness.
Missionaries can do several things to overcome depression. Of course, not all stressors can be avoided, but it is possible to think ahead and to learn how to relax. Missionaries can develop effective problem-solving skills. Such skills begin by dealing with realities, and not fantasizing about what might happen. Missionaries can learn what they can control and what they can’t. Of course, if depression persists missionaries should seek professional help.
Missionaries can learn to cope with stress in a number of ways. Learning from colleagues is one of the best. Most missionaries have faced similar circumstances and are happy to offer help. Thanks to the telephone and electronic mail, missionaries can talk over their problems with friends at home.
In some cases, professional help is the best way to go. Counseling agencies are available overseas as well as in the U.S. (See list of agencies in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January, 1996.—Eds.) Some agencies send counselors to the field.
Austin, Clyde N., ed. Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1986.
Brislin, Richard W. Cross-Cultural Encounters: Face-to-Face Interaction. New York: Pergamon Press, 1981.
Carr, Karen. “Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Missionaries: How to Recognize, Prevent, and Treat It.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 30 (July, 1994): 246-255.
Cox, Tom. Stress. Baltimore: University Park Press,1978.
Echerd, Pam and Alice Arathoon, eds. Understanding and Nurturing the Missionary Family. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1989.
Foyle, Dr. Marjory F. Overcoming Missionary Stress. Wheaton: Evangelical Missions Information Service, 1989.
Furnham, Adrian and Stephen Bochner. Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions to Unfamiliar Environments. New York: Methuen & Co., 1986.
Gish, Dorothy. “Sources of Missionary Stress.” Psychology and Theology 11 (1983): 236-242.
Gray, Charlene J. Children of the Call: Issues Missionaries’ Kids Face. Birmingham: New Hope, 1995.
Hansel, Tim. When I Relax I Feel Guilty. Elgin: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1979.
Lockerbie, Jeannie. By Ones and By Twos: Single and Double Missionaries. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1983.
Oates, Wayne E. Managing Your Stress. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
O’Donnell, Kelly, editor. Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelism. Pasadena: William Carey Library,1992.
Schubert, Esther. What Missionaries Need to Know About Burnout and Depression. New Castle, Ind.: Olive Branch Publications, 1993.
Walters, Doris L. An Assessment of Reentry Issues of the Children of Missionaries. New York: Vantage Press,1991.
White, Frances J. “Some Reflections on the Separation Phenomenon Idiosyncratic to the Experience of Missionaries and Their Children.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 11 (1983): 181-188.
Yapko, Michael D. Free Yourself From Depression. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1992.
Copyright © 1996 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.