Stress; it’s a word that we are all only too familiar with. We associate it with work, with certain people, with responsibility, with busyness. But I’m beginning to believe it’s much more than just the extreme emotions we identify as “stress”. What if it’s even more acute than that? What if, rather than reaching the heightened level we call ‘stress’, it is, in fact, anything other than living in the restful state we were created for?
“My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”Psalm 62:1-2
In physics, stress is a quantity that describes the distribution of internal forces within a body or object in response to an external force.
Imagine you are a student in my class at school. You’ve been sitting with your hand in the air for a few minutes, trying to attract my attention, but I’m busy working with another student and haven’t yet noticed your request for help. You decide it could be a few minutes more before I turn towards you so you begin to fiddle with your plastic ruler. You tap it on the desk, you spin it between your fingers, then you hold it with a hand on either end and begin to flex it in the middle; first, extending your elbows wide, bending the ends upwards toward one another to create a satisfying ‘U’ shape, then, pulling your elbows tightly to your sides, doing the same in a downwards direction.
“This is fun,” you think, with a smirk. So you do it again, this time a little farther, just to see how far it will bend… SNAP! Your hands drop to the desk, a shattered half in either hand, grimacing weakly at your peers who have turned to identify the source of the sudden noise.
Maybe this is not an example you can immediately identify with, but I see this scenario all the time at school. So stay with me…
In your boredom and impatience, you had put the ruler under stress. The external forces that you applied with your hands to bend it – first, small forces, slowly increasing as you sought to find the (literal) breaking point – caused unseen, internal stress forces as the ruler sought to counteract the external forces being applied and to remain in a state of equilibrium. As you bent the ends of the ruler upwards, compressive (negative) stress forces were acting on the topside of the ruler, while tensile (positive) stress forces were acting on the stretched underside of the ruler. When you bent the ends of the ruler downwards, the object experienced the opposite stress forces. At first, switching these forces around a couple of times had no lasting effect on your ruler: when you stopped applying external forces, the ruler bounced back to it’s original, straight state of rest. This flexibility – when stress and strain occurs in an object but can return easily to its original state when the force is removed – is called the ‘elastic region’. In the elastic region, any damage done can be rectified when the external force is removed.
“Cool!” you thought. “I can push and pull and bend and twist this ruler and nothing bad happens!” So you pushed a little harder next time, applying a greater force – so far there had been no lasting consequences, maybe a little more force would do no harm either… Wrong. The greater applied force caused greater stress and strain forces, and resulted in deformation of your ruler. Once stress and strain experienced by the object exceeds the elastic region, deformation occurs and this cannot be reversed, even if the forces acting on the object are removed.
Now ruler companies know that children (and sometimes teachers, too) like to test the flexibility of a ruler once in a while, therefore they employ people to calculate the stress of the various manufacturing materials to predict when the ruler will fail; physics tells us that failure occurs when the stress within the object is greater than the strength of the material.
So why am I giving you a physics lesson about a plastic ruler? Well, because I’ve been acting like that student of late. Except I’ve not been simply playing with a ruler, but pushing and pulling and bending and twisting myself, my health, me. I’ve been doing so for a long time without any lasting consequences – I’ve always bounced back – so why should it be any different now? But recently, without realising it, I pushed too far.
“Failure occurs when the stress within is greater than the strength of the material…”
At the beginning of the year I visited the doctor for a routine check-up and was quickly informed that my blood pressure was too high. We talked about some of the causes and implications of that and I proceeded to make some diet changes to help lower that number. By my follow-up appointment a few weeks later, however, my blood pressure reading was even higher than the first, and I was immediately put on medication to bring it back down.
In the weeks that followed, I paid even closer attention to my diet, stringently weighing up every choice I made; I underwent multiple blood tests in a specialist clinic to help identify the root cause of my high blood pressure, I even wore a large and awkward device for 24 hours to track my blood pressure at 15 minute intervals to see if a pattern related to my daily routine emerged.
But as I waited for the results of each of these tests, I suddenly and unexpectedly got sick and was out of work for more than two weeks. My energy levels were very low, I was sleeping for 12-14 hours each night, and my pulse was racing even when I was (physically) resting. For the first week, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to even look at my phone or talk to anyone; it all felt too much. I couldn’t make decisions, I couldn’t leave a short audio message for a friend without feeling breathless. What was going on? I returned to the doctor and underwent further tests.
Upon my recovery, I followed up with the doctor to discuss in detail the results of the plethora of tests I had undergone. The conclusion? Stress. Every single test conducted came back clear and showed no underlying issues whatsoever. I was even told to stop taking my new blood pressure medication because the 24-hour test had indicated that, while on the medication, my blood pressure actually dropped dangerously low while I slept. The only culprit that could be identified was stress.
The insights of those first medical appointments were indications that I was allowing myself to be bent and twisted in ways beyond what my body or mind was comfortable with, but the pressures I was feeling at that time were still in the ‘elastic region’; I would experience stress and strain, but my body (and mind) would always bounce back and no permanent damage was done. But as the weeks went by, and the external forces mounted – uncertainty about my health (ironically!), future decisions to be made, adopting a new role and responsibilities in church, relationships that needed some TLC, and so much more – I reached breaking point. All of a sudden, the stress that I had accepted as ‘normal’ had pushed me beyond the ‘elastic region’ and deformation occurred: I broke. The pressure I had allowed in my life had put me under stress and strain, and it had finally reached a point where it could no longer be reversed without inflicting permanent damage.
So why had I not noticed the stress sooner? Well, honestly? Because it didn’t overwhelm me. I had accepted that it was OK to live in the ‘elastic region’ and had allowed it to become my ‘normal’. On reflection now, I am ashamed to say that I don’t think I’ve come close to equilibrium – true rest – in a long, long time.
I have had to take a serious look at my responsibilities, my boundaries, my priorities in recent weeks. This experience – though (sadly) not entirely a new one – has, for the first time, been supported with substantial medical evidence and I can ignore it no longer. It has been a wake-up call of gargantuan proportions. Stress is no joke; it is no small thing that is part of a ‘normal’ life (at least, it shouldn’t be!) It is not something that we just have to suffer through. There is, believe it or not, another way.
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will give rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.Matthew 11:28-30
The Bible talks extensively about rest, yet we, as Christians, rarely do. And I don’t just mean don’t-go-to-work-but-spend-all-day-doing-chores-instead kinda rest, which is what I have, until very recently, understood Sabbath rest to be. Instead, Sabbath rest is to be dedicated to God (Exodus 20:10). It is time that we can set aside all of our burdens, our worries, our responsibilities; a day that we can turn off our phones, close our full inbox, and ignore our to-do list. Instead, it is a day to be enjoyed with the Lord; a day to physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually rest; a day to invest in relationships and to be filled up and recharged, ready for the week ahead.
The world does not sit on our shoulders – as I have so unwittingly yet arrogantly believed of late – and Sabbath rest (when we do it right) reminds us of this. At rest, we surrender our power, our strength, our control, and trust God to carry all of our concerns for us. Why on earth would we seek to carry the weight of the world ourselves? Because we get caught up in the swirl of activity happening around us and inevitably get sucked in if we are not alert to it. But Psalm 127 reminds us that all of our activity is in vain, if not in partnership and agreement with the Lord.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.Psalm 127:1-2
I used to think that stress and rest were dependent on circumstances, but I have learned afresh this year that they are, in fact, dependent on our faith. Do we trust God to carry our worries for us? Do we trust that He holds all things in place? Do we trust His timing and that no good thing will pass us by, even if we stop for a day and rest? Do we depend on His strength and not our own?
Since those weeks of sickness last month, I have worked hard at identifying stressors and then at setting new boundaries to relieve some of the pressure. I have sought to reassess priorities, and to cut out unnecessary strain in my week. But have I reached the root of the problem yet? No, not really. These are good changes – and necessary – but the stress is still present. At least it was, until I eventually stopped all ‘activity’ this week and finally started surrendering.
God, forgive me for thinking that everything depends on me. You are God, not I. You are in control, not I. If you chose to rest after you created the world, how much more should I choose it too. Forgive me for allowing busyness and responsibility – even ministry – to come between us. Thank you that you love me for me, and not for what I do for you. I surrender all my worries to you again today, God, knowing that you do not ask or expect me to carry them alone. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.