by Marjory Foyle
Careful analysis coupled with sound practical advice point the way to coping.
Missionary life often is stressful. Of course, not all missionaries feel stressed all the time. Many have very few serious problems, and adjust to their new situation quite quickly. Others, however, feel really stressed by pressures of a new climate, language learning, unusual illnesses, and separation from family members.
However, it must be emphasized that the positive gains of missionary life are enormous. Serving God in obedience to his command, and integrating with peoples of another culture are enlarging experiences. This explains why many missionaries at the end of their service affirm that they are glad they did it. They have no regrets for how they have spent their lives.
Missions professors should therefore be careful how they present possible stress factors. They must not be made to appear as the inevitable norm. This is as dangerous as denying that stress factors exist at all. A healthy balance is required, with emphasis on the firm undergirding provided by the knowledge of the love and perfect will of God.
This article will describe the stress that some missionaries experience. If it makes you feel a little gloomy, then read on. Each section will conclude with some clear practical advice, so that the situation becomes less threatening and more constructive. First, the basic facts about stress reactions.
1. The degree of stress varies not only from person to person, hut also in the same individual at different times. Recently someone said to me, "When I am not tired I can handle city driving with no trouble, but just before my vacation I find it really stressful."
Personal reactions depend to a certain extent on things like early childhood training, age, general health, and genetic and personality structure. Some people, therefore, have no trouble handling things that cause concern to others.
For example, I am always surprised at people who can stroll into railway stations or airports at the last moment. Due to my early training, increasing age, and personality structure I find this difficult. I just have to be there at least an hour early. I used to worry about this, and to pray to God to change my nature. Now I see that the God-given mechanism of avoidance can often be very profitable. I just get there early and meet all sorts of interesting opportunities from God.
2. Is it wrong to feel stressed? Some missionaries feel it is wrong to experience stress. They think that Christians should be immune to it. They say that to feel stress indicates lack of faith, or that something is wrong with their relationship with God. This may indeed be so, if there are never any stress-free periods, or if nothing is learned from stress.
The Scriptures, however, do not teach that God’s children will be free from stress. What they do explain is how to deal with it. Paul has a great deal to say about stress. He is grateful to God who has, will, and will continue to deliver us (2 Cor. 1:10). But he only learned such gratitude through suffering, great pressure, and despair, as he saw the power of God at work (2 Cor. 1:8,9). The stress taught him wonderful new things. In another passage he talks of being hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. All this taught him about God’s power, so that at the end he could say he was not crushed, nor in despair; not abandoned and not destroyed (2 Cor. 4:8, 9). In my opinion, certain stress reactions are normal, a part of the normal human makeup. They serve a very useful purpose. Babies feel stress. When they are hungry, it comes over to them as a most unpleasant inner sensation and they begin to howl. The mother may be busy elsewhere, but the cry alerts her to the needs of her baby. Young children going to school for the first time may look pale and not want to eat breakfast. As the school gates loom up, the hand may begin to tremble.
Missionaries sitting in the airport departure lounge for the first time, or driving up the road towards the ultimate location may feel nervous. The pulse rate rises, there is a little sweating, and thinking becomes apprehensive. Will it all be okay? How am I going to fit in with this new group?
Reactions of this kind are both normal and helpful. They indicate that the body is being prepared for action; chemicals and hormones stimulated by the stress are acting on certain parts of the nervous system and preparing the body for maximum efficiency.
Recently a missionary was sitting in a church vestry waiting to take part in a very large service. She was feeling nervous and mentioned this to the senior pastor. In a somewhat severe tone of voice he said, "But it’s all of him anyway, isn’t it?" Of course it was, but that day God was using a normal human stress response to increase her effectiveness.
There is no better way to reduce the last vestiges of self-sufficiency than the normal human stress response, which stimulates us to prayer and to turn ourselves over to God even more fully. Hence, stress reactions in this situation should be welcomed and valued, as a sign that the body is being properly prepared for effective action.
3. When does the human stress response become harmful? Hans Seyle, one of the world experts on stress, has written a book called Stress without Distress (Signet Books). It is a behaviorist book, but there are sections in it that are very useful. He explains that there are three stages to the stress reaction. We can learn something about missionary reactions from the principles behind each of these stages.
Stage One: The alarm reaction.
This is a very healthy, valuable reaction. I once saw a young child crawl over to a plugged-in electric iron and begin to wind the cord around himself. His mother jumped up and grabbed the child, thus saving him from possible injury by burning, electrocution, or fractured skull. She sank down with him into a chair until her pulse rate and breathing returned to normal, and she felt brave enough to let him crawl off again, this time in a safe direction. This was a fine demonstration of the normal "stage one" stress reaction, the alarm enabling the body to function at maximum efficiency.
Stage Two: Continued stress and adaptation. When the same stress continues for a long period, then the body learns to adapt to it and fight it. There are many methods of fighting (or coping) available to Christians.
The first is the knowledge that we are not alone in our fight. The power of the Holy Spirit is there for us to use. The second is ordinary courage. There are many missionaries who ask God for courage to go on in very unfavorable situations. I met a woman whose husband had an important job in a mission in a Muslim country. She was left with no role but the home. Her children had grown up and gone and she felt unhappy and useless. But God gave her courage in a remarkable way. He helped her to accept her new role of "the woman in the back quarters," and enabled her to support her husband as he carried a very strenuous job. She managed this for three years, despite the denial of her own gifts and personality. But she could only succeed because she took her new role as from God, and not as something that had been imposed on her against her will by man.
A third method of fighting involves using anger creatively. Many Christians get muddled up here. They think that all anger is wrong. Dwight L. Carlson in his book, Overcoming Hurts and Anger (Harvest House), has gone into this extensively. He points out that the person who got angry most often in the Old Testament was God himself, 375 times in fact. He indicates, and I agree with this, that anger is a neutral force within us. It can be picked up and used constructively (or creatively), or destructively. For example, our Lord used constructive anger when he cleansed the Temple. Much missionary enterprise and social reform began with constructive anger. People were suffering and something had to be done about it. This form of constructive anger is the basis of much of the drive to achieve and to relieve the needs of the people.
Our problem is knowing when the anger we experience in stress situations is creative or destructive. Generally speaking, creative anger contains three important elements-appropriate emotions, realistic assessment of the situation, and wise decision making.
(a) Appropriate emotions. Destructive anger has emotional outbursts at the wrong time and to an excessive degree. The situation requires a pea-shooter, but instead an atom bomb is let off. For example, recently a missionary lady returned to her new base after an exhausting tour. Some problem had arisen in the room that had been arranged for her, which she interpreted angrily as a lack of persona! caring. She reacted inappropriately by bursting into tears in public at the breakfast table. A grimace of annoyance would have been adequate, but instead the tears continued to flow on and off most of the rest of the day.
(b) Realistic assessment of the situation. Destructive anger affects assessment capacity, usually revealed by exaggeration. The total situation is described in negative terms. Conversely, constructive anger enables us to select the areas that are wrong, to understand some of the causes, and to see objective as well as subjective factors involved. The missionary lady described above later learned the facts of the case. Far from being uncared for, people had been working on the minor problem for weeks and handling the frustrations of getting absolutely nowhere.
(c) Wise decision making.
It is a risky business making decisions while destructive anger is operating. I have come to believe that one of the cardinal rules of missionary service is to delay making major decisions until you are fit to do so.
Recently a man was discussing a problem with me. He was just going on home leave after a grueling term of service, and was worried about a personal problem. Having heard the problem and carefully observed the person, I told him to shelve it for the time being. He was behaving as if he was a machine, not a living, breathing, feeling human being. "Go home," I told him, "eat, sleep, have a good holiday, and then see what is left of your problem. It may well resolve itself as you recover your usual health and energies."
The tearful missionary lady felt much better after a good night’s sleep in her new room, despite the persistence of the minor problem.
Stage Three: Exhaustion. The same stress has continued for so long that adaptation has broken down and distress has resulted. Symptoms of uncontrollable irritability, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, feelings of hopelessness, and excessive anxiety over trifles begin to emerge.
The following example illustrates clearly the stages of stress in one of my clients. (In all examples, the identities have been carefully disguised.) He had been appointed to a new job by his mission. He had not been consulted in the matter, and felt that the appointment was a mistake. For various reasons he did not feel he could or should refuse the job, although he made vigorous protests. After this initial alarm reaction period, adaptation occurred and he did quite well. He began to reorganize the work, made viable plans for its future, and generally seemed to be making a go of it. Despite the external appearance, however, he was desperately unhappy inside. However much he prayed for acceptance of the job, and however many rededications of himself he made, he never felt any better about the whole thing.
For three and a half years he remained in stage two, and then began to be repeatedly physically ill. At the same time, many old personal problems buried deep within his mind began to surface, and signs of breakdown occurred. He actually went through stage three, from which he emerged a better and wiser man, more complete than ever before in his life.
4. Why does breakdown occur? In my opinion, there are two major causes. The first is the most common. People who have done perfectly well in their home countries, and have served faithfully and well in their adoptive countries, sometimes break down. This is due to the battle in which they are engaged. Just as there are casualties in secular warfare, so in spiritual warfare. Such people are the honorably wounded, and should be respected as such.
The second cause, as in the case above, is overloading of the personality structure. His personality was somewhat immature, and unwelcome responsibility, plus anger at the lack of personal consultation, plus old personal problems, combined to cause overloading.
Immaturity is not the only cause of overloading. Sometimes we overdrive our bodies and minds, as if they were made of steel and not of flesh and blood. The worst overloading, however, comes from retaining too many old personal problems in our makeup. Some of these are buried so deeply that we do not know they are there, until they emerge in times of stress. Others we recognize, but have never done much about them. Things like bitterness, resentment about old things, long standing jealousy, and anger can all load us up with undesirable weights. Thus, long standing stress in our adult working lives becomes too much for us and we break down.
5. Where is the power of God in stress situations? We Christians believe that we can do "everything through him who gives us strength" (Phil 4:13). We say that God is "able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work within us" (Eph. 3:20). Where then is God in "stage three" of the stress-distress reaction?
I have come to believe that in some people God permits distress to occur so that greater good can come out of it, and greater happiness and fulfillment for the person concerned. The young man I described is the first to admit that his life has changed for the better since his terrible experience. He thanks God for it. He sees that God allowed his distress to bring to the surface buried problems, so that he could examine and terminate them, with God’s help.
It really depends on what God wants to do for us. He uses many different ways to accomplish this. He sees far better than we do the pattern of sanctifying experiences that will meet our need. Sometimes, it includes breaking and refining. Others need some unusual experience of God’s power and concern. Or else we need the experience of living in "stage two" and steadily going on until it is over, through the courage God gives us.
Our part is to trust that God really does know what he is doing in our lives. He never fails in love for us, however tough that love may be. Sometimes the maximal point of our struggle in times of stress is contained in the question, "Does the Judge of all the earth really always do right? Is he being fair to me?" Faith takes us finally to the answer, Yes.
Now, some practical advice on handling stress:
1. Recognize and welcome "stage one" reactions. When you next take a language exam, instead of scolding yourself for feeling nervous, thank God that he is preparing your body and mind for maximum efficiency.
2. Deal with old emotional problems. This is not always easy. We will take up this topic again in later articles.
3. Hold onto your trust that God knows what he is doing with you. In the end we shall understand it all.
4. Handle prolonged stress wisely. Remember that it is only the minority who learn from God through breakdown.
(a) Take more frequent breaks than usual. Social workers who care constantly for mentally handicapped children or permanent invalids get more frequent days off or vacations. Mission boards should accept that those in special circumstances of stress need more breaks.
If you cannot get away from the stressful environment, then learn to have mental escape routes. Visits to the bathroom can ensure a few extra minutes of privacy and peace. Almost any hobby helps. Try to keep a few personal "toys" with you and use them often. The more stressed I am, the more I use my binoculars as an escape into the tree tops for a while. Make plans for really good vacations, getting right out of the stressful work area. If the family is the cause of the stress, then perhaps you need a periodic break from your family.
(b) Take steps to turn anger from a destructive to a creative force. Never act while you are angry. Creative anger keeps its force even if action is delayed. Destructive anger does not do this; it erupts leaving you feeling weak and upset, with inadequate energy for assessment and decision making.
Have a personal safety valve for dealing with destructive anger. Never blow it off on innocent people. "Beat the cake and not the cook" is a good motto for missionary housewives. I personally "beat my typewriter if angry, often writing several drafts of an angry letter and, of course, tearing them all up. Then I can sit down and write a proper one. Usually by that time it all looks very stupid anyway, and I can laugh at it and be healed.
Having cooled down, write the whole matter down. State the problem, look at both sides for possible reasons behind it, and think of possible courses of action.
Discuss the problem with your mission leader. If he is not due to visit for some time and the matter is important enough to you, then go and see him. Use what you have written as a basis for discussion with him, thus indicating that you have thought it all out carefully and are not just "acting on emotion." Do not worry if you get angry while talking to him, for there may be a bit more to blow off and resolve. (Mission leaders are usually trained to accept other people’s anger as a part of their job, and understand that if people are not allowed to express their anger to them, then it will probably emerge in unwise anger at public committees).
Talk freely to God about it. He knows about your angry feelings anyway, but sometimes we don’t tell him. Instead, we pray stereotyped prayers that fool nobody.
A missionary was once having a problem with a colleague. One day he blew the whole thing off on God. He told him clearly that he was starting to hate the man. He told God all the things he felt the man was doing against him. He had become secure enough in his relationship with God to do this. Blowing off the anger cooled him down, and then God was able to show him something he himself needed to know in order to rectify the relationship.
5. Try to make some positive decisions about your problem. This may not be possible while you are in the middle of it, but use a period of time away from it to decide what you should do. If you decide voluntarily to return to it, then the situation will become easier. It is now your own personal decision to return, rather than an imposition by someone else.
6. Do not worry if prayer and Bible study become very difficult during a prolonged stress period. God is not at all dependent on how much we pray or study, although he likes to meet us. The main thing is our being born again as his children. When spiritual life is difficult, then use aids. Books, tape-recorded talks, and good music are all helps to worship that God understands and respects.
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