Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stress, Burnout and the Bible

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, Mark 1:29-39.

I thought it was a weird thing to put in front of a church but insightful nevertheless. The Marathon church sign read, “Those who burn out were first on fire.” Unfortunately it's true. People who are the most enthusiastic are most at risk for burnout, just as the bigger a fire is, the faster it will go through its fuel. If it's not replenished, it will burn out.

Burnout is not the same as stress but stress can contribute to burnout. It could be a job in which you are overworked and underappreciated, or where the work is monotonous and unchallenging. It could be family responsibilities: dealing with small children, ailing parents, or even an overstressed mate. It could be all of the above. It doesn't help if you are a perfectionist, a pessimist, or a control freak. And it is exacerbated by a lifestyle in which you don't get enough relaxation, social support or sleep. The result is an increase in adrenaline and glucocorticoids, hormones which, in a brief burst, help a zebra outrun a lion, but which, when experienced over a long time, can damage your immune system, clog your arteries, make you fat, shrink your brain and shorten your lifespan.

A lot of this has been discovered by researchers who have studied 2 surprisingly similar societies: British civil servants and baboons. In both cases, it was found that those at the top of the hierarchy have less stress and better health than those who worked or ranked below them. The less control you have over your circumstances, the more at risk you are for illness. The fact that the civil servants all were covered by the British health care system allowed the researchers to eliminate other factors, like differences in pay, to reveal that stress alone is responsible for a host of health problem. (It also eliminated the stress of the civil servants being shot with tranq darts as the baboons were.)

Prolonged stress can lead to the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion called burnout. Instead of having too much of everything, you now have too little: too little energy, too little motivation, too little ability to care. Whereas under stress you felt pressured, anxious and pulled in several directions at once, when you're burned out it's hard to work up any feelings about anything—work, home, life. Your viewpoint on everything becomes cynical and negative.

This can even happen to people of faith. We can try to do so much for so long that we can burn ourselves out. We can be so overwhelmed by all that should be done that we can run dry of compassion. We can get so discouraged by the sins of others, even those within the church, that we can give up on our ideals and become disillusioned.

A little sidebar on disillusionment: the illusion that is being shattered is not that there should be ideals but the illusion that they already reside in some human being or institution. Ideals are goals to shoot for, not states of being already existing in our world. An ideal is not like Shangri-la, waiting to be discovered, but like the United States in 1775, waiting to be created. In the same way, Jesus came not to find the kingdom of God on earth but to found it. Even today, like the ideal of freedom for all, God's kingdom is a work in progress. It's like a movie script. It needs to be realized through the hard work of many people, toiling towards a common goal, as envisioned by the writer/director.

There are ways to prevent burnout, many of which are touched upon in today's lectionary readings as well as other scripture passages. As the page about burnout on the website says, step one is to start each day with a relaxing ritual. Among their suggestions are meditating for 15 minutes or reading something inspiring. How about reading the Bible, or the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer or remembering God's blessings as our psalmist does? In Psalm 119 it says, “Make me understand the way of your precepts and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” Remembering that we have a just, powerful and loving God is a good way to start the day.

Prayer is the way Jesus starts his day in our gospel. He just had a very busy day and evening, healing everyone brought to him. Most of us would sleep in but but Jesus gets up before dawn, finds some place where he won't be disturbed and prays. He probably prayed for strength for the new day. He probably prayed for guidance. He might have prayed for those he healed, who had to make major adjustments in their lives. Like getting a job if they had been disabled and relying on handouts. Or not falling back into bad habits that would undermine their newfound health. Or just finding the strength to keep believing as everyone offered their own take on why they had recovered. Whatever the content, Jesus began his day by communicating with God and no doubt relieving himself of the burdens he didn't need for that day. recommends adopting healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits, important for us, not so much for people in the days of the Bible. They didn't have our labor-saving devices. Just walking everywhere, fetching water from the well, working in the fields, hauling loads and other everyday activities kept them fit. If someone was seen running, it was probably an emergency, not a daily jog. They also ate more fruits and vegetables than we do, ate a lot less meat and no cheese fries whatsover. They didn't stay up late watching TV, surfing the web, or playing video games. On a National Geographic special, neurologist Robert Sapolsky admits that the time he spends in the bush in Kenya studying baboons is probably better for him than the time he spends in the labs of Stanford.

It's likely he benefits from another action recommended by the website: disconnecting from technology. Studies show that too much time spent staring at your laptop, your phone, your iPad, your TV can lead to depression, loneliness and obesity. Each day we need to spend time away from screens. We might find more time to praise God's works if we spend less time plugged into the works of man.

Jesus illustrates another principle of burnout prevention. He sets boundaries. He says “No” to people demanding more of his time. The folks at Capernaum wanted Jesus all to themselves. Jesus wanted to move on and take his message to more people. To prevent burnout, we need to say “No” to certain demands on our time and energy. We need to make some time for what we want to do.

Our psalm both advocates and is an example of another principle of burnout prevention. “Nourish your creative side,” the site says. “How good it is to sing praises to our God!” says our psalm. Indeed! Or to praise him with painting, or sculpture, or dance, or poetry, or photography, or fiction, or glassblowing, or calligraphy, or needlepoint, or chipcarving, or metallurgy, or jokes. You needn't do it well enough for mass consumption. Make it your personal gift to God, your exercise of the gifts he's given you, for his praise and your self-expression. Do something non-utilitarian for a change and do it with joy.

Finally, the website tells us to learn how to manage stress. The key word is “manage.” Studies of hierarchies show it's the amount of control a person has that is the determinant of whether stress harms him or her. Those with the most control over their environment have the best health. People who have little or no control over their work or living environments are the most at risk for the negative effects of stress.

But we can choose to be part of different environments. You can be a lowly office drone at work but also the coach of your kids' softball team. You can be a dental hygienist Monday through Friday but a knight of the Shire of 3 Rivers in your local Society for Creative Anachronism group on weekends. You can sell car insurance on weekdays and teach history at the community college on weeknights. You can be anywhere in your work hierarchy and find a place to be indispensable and appreciated at your local church—teaching Sunday school, singing solos, administering the Eucharist, keeping the books, doing coffee hour, leading a Bible study, serving on the Vestry or Council, organizing an outreach ministry.

Of course there are areas of life where no one on earth has control, not even the alpha males at the top of the hierarchy. There are several ways we can react to this fact. We can choose to ignore those areas; just go about life as if we weren't all susceptible to death, disease and disaster. We can respond with fear, shivering in the knowledge of our helplessness. We can despair and give up in the face of the inevitable.

Or we can respond with faith in God. And the great thing is that God is not your typical top dog. He cares for the underdogs. In the words of our psalm, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds....The Lord lifts up the lowly but casts the wicked to the ground.” Those humans who get to the top tend to lord it over those they dominate. But not God. When his kingdom is realized, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The meek shall inherit the earth. But that's just a myth, isn't it?

No, it's science. About 10 years into his study of a troop of baboons in the wild in the Africa, Robert Sapolsky witnessed something that devastated his subjects and should have destroyed all further research on them. The baboons discovered the trash dump of a nearby resort. They ate the garbage of the kitchen. The aggressive alpha males hogged the food and gorged themselves on it, limiting their inferiors' access to this food source. But the meat was tainted and all the alpha males sickened and died. This left the troop with a majority of females, plus the less aggressive males from further down the hierarchy. It changed the whole culture of this baboon troop. There was less bullying and more cooperation and grooming. The females were no longer the target of male temper tantrums. And when aggressive young adolescent males joined the troop, within 6 months they learned the ways of this tribe and calmed down. The last became first and this baboon society is the better for it.

The baboon society did not fall apart when its culture of strict hierarchy and brutal aggression changed. Human societies can change, too. In fact, a study of women raising severely handicapped children showed that some of the damage done by the stress on them can be repaired. It was found that the compassion and caring expressed in a support group activated a chemical which protected the mothers' genes from the extreme aging that otherwise should afflict them and shorten their lives. Numerous studies have shown that regular church attendance is associated with better physical and mental health and longer life. Stress kills but community and compassion save lives.

God is compassionate. He forgives, he heals, he gives us peace. That makes him trustworthy and our trust in his goodness gives us hope. And that hope allows us to keep working for the realization of God's kingdom and to hang on for its consummation. So as Isaiah says, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary....he give power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

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