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21 December 2015

Stress, wellbeing and the Church

Stress, wellbeing and the Church

Stress is affecting people like never before, yet encouragingly 60 per cent of evangelicals deal with it through prayer, our new research suggests. But should the Church be stepping up to help Christians cope? Andrew Parnham explores.

You probably don't need me to tell you that stress is a major cause of unhappiness in our nation. It's the most common cause of longterm sickness absence and 52 per cent of workers say that stress is increasing (1). But it's not just a workplace issue. One in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem this year, and stress is linked with a range of disorders like asthma, depression, ulcers and heart attacks.

So what is stress? Life's pressures aren't necessarily bad in themselves. We all need them to some extent, just as a muscle needs resistance to stay healthy. But we become stressed when our internal resources aren't able to deal with external pressures. It's as much to do with our response as the stressor itself – which is why today's therapies focus as much on our internal environment as the external situation.

How can we respond? Well, we all have resources that we can develop. Physically, sleeping better, getting fitter and taking more exercise are remarkably effective at combatting anxiety. Finding space in the day to simply 'be' brings mental relief; and of course, receiving emotional and relational support from others is crucial to our wellbeing. 

These are accessible to all people, but Christians have more resources. Research shows that compared with other people – whatever the popular myths say – those who practice their faith experience less anxiety, cope better with stress, have lower rates of depression and recover better from illness. Why? One researcher concluded that the undergirding hope that believers have brings tangible outcomes, physically, emotionally and spiritually(2).

But there's a wider, deeper story. 'Wellbeing' is more than stress-management, just as 'health' is more than the absence of disease. There's a lot of talk these days about 'happiness' and 'wellbeing' and magazine articles often give us five, eight or ten tips to happiness. However, I often come away thinking that it's all a bit anecdotal: if you do 'x' and 'y' you'll be instantly happy. Life isn't really like that – we need something more joined up, an underpinning framework that can hold all those different parts of life together.

Our culture isn't much help. The focus is primarily on the physical and material level – think economics, commerce, science, technology and medicine. They all see health and fitness in material terms. "How's your health?" we ask, and usually hear back: "Oh I had a cold last week, but I'm better now." In other words, we think physical health. But what about our mental, emotional and spiritual health? Here's the rub: it's in precisely these less tangible areas that our society is struggling – think anxiety, depression, loneliness and community cohesion, to say nothing of spiritual issues.

Underlying that focus on the material, which you could summarise as the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, is a materialistic worldview that proclaims that matter and energy are the only fundamentals in the universe. This has brought us much wealth – materially – but is frankly rather thin when trying to account for the less concrete, immaterial things like relationships, community and spirituality. 

Which brings us back to stress. Most stress is related to emotional, relational and life issues – the very things that society is also struggling with. Both individuals and communities are desperately looking for resources to meet the pressures. It all sounds like a vicious circle. So what kind of emotional, relational and spiritual resources are available to us, especially Christians? 

The nearest biblical equivalent of 'wellbeing' is the word 'shalom'. It's often translated as peace, but its meaning goes far beyond that. Wholeness or completeness comes closer, and my working definition is: wholeness for whole person in whole of life, extending to whole of creation. In the Old Testament, there are three dimensions of shalom: personal – wellness in every part of my life; relational – healthy relationships between individuals, communities and nations; and moral – lives of integrity and authenticity. No area of life is excluded. In the New Testament, the equivalent is the life of the Kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus. 

This wholistic view of life is profoundly relevant to our day, and speaks powerfully into the very contexts where we are struggling. But western Christians suffer from the same affliction as their secular counterparts – our mindsets are divided between the visible, material world and the invisible, spiritual world. Whereas the Bible sees no separation, we propagate a sacred/secular divide, where our church activities are detached from the rest of our lives. So we go off to work on Monday morning ill-equipped to cope ourselves and with others. 

It's a wholistic worldview that underlies The Happiness Course. A while ago I came across the fascinating wellbeing research, especially positive psychology, which has been emerging for a number of years. I was impressed, though not surprised, to learn that people who live appreciative, grateful lives, undertake acts of kindness, nurture relationships and practice faith and spirituality are healthier, happier and longer-living than others.

Long story short: I began to run the course locally – and then more widely – and found that the vast majority of participants responded with interest, enthusiasm and hopefulness, as they discovered ways to develop and practise deeper endeavours, healthier relationships and greater meaning and purpose in their lives. I've run it scores of times now with very different types of people, but I'm constantly struck by their positive responses and the hopeful ways they find to move forward. The course comprises four sessions: A Happy Life – can we be happier? How?; A Successful Life – what is true success about?; A Relational Life – are relationships important for happiness?; and A Meaningful Life – can I know meaning and purpose? Each session is about two hours long, and is participatory and practical, both fun and serious, and incorporates a number of communication styles.

So, yes, life can be stressful, but we don't need to wring our hands with frustration – there is much we can do. 

Learn more on Andrew's blog: thewellperson.wordpress.com
1 http://www.stress.org.uk/About-stress.aspx
2 Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, page 60

Andrew Parnham is a former doctor and church leader and founder of Livability's 'The Happiness Course'.

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