Finding a healthy way to deal with stress at work can be a game-changer with benefits that extend far beyond work time. For most of us, some level of stress at work hits us every single day we’re on the job. Last week, I did a social media poll asking my friends and family “What stresses you out at work most?” It turned out to be one of my most-commented posts ever. Here’s a sampling of the responses:
- “Leaders making decisions without understanding the operational impact.”
- “My own procrastination.”
- “Negative coworkers.”
- “Management beating around the bush instead of answering tough questions honestly.”
- “Unclear expectations.”
And my favorite:
- “Only coffee available being a Keurig.”
Anything on that list sound familiar to you? Stress at work comes from so many directions. When we’re feeling the pressure, it’s tempting to frame stress as the enemy. We ask our friends, therapists, and Dr. Google questions like, “How can I reduce stress at work?” Or even, “How can I eliminate stress at work?” But as Christians, stress at work can be a starting point for a spiritual journey that we don’t want to miss.
It may seem counterintuitive to speak about stress in positive spiritual terms. Didn’t Jesus promise to give us peace and tell us not to be anxious? But a closer look at both Scripture and the science of stress can give us a different perspective. Often, the best way to conquer the enemy of stress is to make it your friend, embracing it as part of God’s design. If we let it, stress at work can sometimes even help bring us closer to Jesus.
This post is part of our series Finding God at Work. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources.
Stressed, Stressed Out, or Anxious at Work?
Stress is a strange animal. On the one hand, stress can energize us at work, helping us perform at our best when we’re facing a challenge. On the other hand, too much stress can gnaw away at us, making our job—and the rest of life—miserable. The exact tipping point when stress morphs into an emotional monster can be hard to nail down. But stress researchers have worked to distinguish the experience of being stressed from being stressed out, which can also overlap with being anxious.
- When you’re stressed, you feel pressure, heightened awareness, and a sense of focus that makes you physically ready to confront the stressor (or run away from it). Think of that moment right before you give a really important work presentation.
- When you’re stressed out, you feel worn down from unrelenting stressors. You get overwhelmed and debilitated. Instead of feeling ready to meet the challenge, you long for relief. Think of that moment when you joylessly clock out at work before “clocking in” for an exhausting evening with a sick kid at home.
- When you’re anxious, you experience worry, dread, fear, or panic. Anxiety can persist even when the circumstances of your life change. Think of that moment when your alarm goes off and you just want to disappear.
Stress itself is primarily a physiological phenomenon. Our body pumps us up with the hormones we need to respond to an external stimulus. Being stressed out, or experiencing “chronic stress,” is what happens when this physiological response is triggered too often, without the respite of lower-stress circumstances. While anxiety can be tied to these same external circumstances, it’s more of an internal reality, linked with how we are interpreting the events.
When we’re stressed, our body cues us up to protect our well-being as we face a particular circumstance. When we’re anxious, we persistently feel that our well-being is under threat, even if our circumstances change. While anxiety is often at least partially beyond our control, how we think influences it. For both stress and anxiety, our mindset matters.
A Healthy Mindset for Healthy Stress at Work
The science of stress is changing. Not too long ago, doctors and health researchers warned people about the destructive effects of stress itself. Repeated stress could hurt your heart! It might even kill you! But now, the picture is more nuanced. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that studies now show that believing that stress is bad for you is worse for your health than stress itself. Specifically, a study of mortality found that people who experienced high levels of stress but did not think that stress was harmful were less likely to die than people who thought otherwise. In contrast, people who experienced high levels of stress and did think that stress was harmful were 43% more likely to die. It’s a stressful statistic.
When I first watched McGonigal’s TED talk, I was skeptical. Can what people think about stress really drive such dramatic differences in health outcomes? But the research is persuasive. Psychologist Alia Crum cites a similar study about salary negotiations. A salary negotiation is a stressful event. But when study participants were instructed to think about their physiological stress response as a way their body was energizing them to do well, they were able to negotiate larger raises. So if you think that stress is bad for you, not only will it make you die younger; it may make you die poorer, too. Does that stress you out?
The takeaway here is that, in healthy amounts, stress is good for you, if you think that it is. Yes, prolonged exposure to highly stressful situations can lead to getting stressed out. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a change from a merciless schedule. But the initial experience of stress in response to a challenge is a good thing. It can help you. It gives you the energy to put forth your best effort. And the research shows that stress helps you the most when you believe that it will.
Anxiety is a different story. A small amount of anxiety about a specific situation can serve as a kind of warning light, cueing you to pay attention to it. Beyond that, anxiety is just straight up bad for you. It’s remarkable how our mindset about stress can apparently determine whether the stress is good or bad for us. But there’s no “healthy mindset” version of anxiety. Anxiety is a kind of mindset itself, one that stitches fear, dread, worry, or panic into our experience of reality. When we’re anxious, our mind works against us.
Scriptural Responses to Stress and Anxiety at Work
With these distinctions in mind, how can we respond to stress and anxiety at work as Christians? What does Scripture say about these experiences that we deal with so often?
Good Stress . . . For Eternity?
The term “stress” and the way we use it today is a modern innovation, but the science about stress connects with what Scripture teaches us about the human body. If the stress response system is part of our body, then the stress-positive research should not surprise us. The old narrative that stress was bad for you pitted you against your body’s natural response system to stressful stimuli. But stress is not the enemy; it’s you. It’s part of how you were “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
When Jesus returns and remakes our world, I don’t know how stress will work. But I don’t think a system designed to energize us for facing challenges will simply go away. We’ll still have plenty of challenges to face and work to do. I imagine, like all aspects of our bodily experience, stress will somehow be changed, taken up into God’s grace and made beautiful. Although Scripture doesn’t speak to it directly, I think we can bank on a healthy version of stress sticking with us into eternity. The next time you’re at a Bible study about the new creation and people start talking about all the things they’re looking forward to about it, you can say, “I’m really looking forward to the stress.” I bet they won’t have heard that one before.
Stepping Away from Anxiety
For anxiety, we don’t have to make conjectures; unlike “stress,” terms for “worry” or “anxiety” appear in many ancient texts, including the New Testament. Forms of the Greek word μεριμνάω (“to be anxious”) are used in the teachings of Jesus and of the Apostle Paul. As we might expect, given how destructive it is, these teachings address how to step away from anxiety. Because we’re prone to slip from healthy stress into anxiety at work, these passages have implications for dealing with stress at work, too.
Writing to the Philippians, Paul encourages them to set aside worry and take up prayer:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7 NKJV
Paul’s teaching echoes the words of Jesus about how the Father cares for his children:
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33 NIV
Here’s a simplified version of the anti-worry prescription we see in these passages:
- Step 1: Remember, God cares about you.
For Paul, God’s care is implicit in his interest in our prayers about “everything.” The minutiae of our lives are not too minute for his attention. Jesus reminds us that “your heavenly Father knows” the particulars of your needs. He takes a detailed interest in you.
- Step 2: Instead of worrying, pray about your concerns.
Paul reminds us to practice “thanksgiving” for the good things while making “supplication” for whatever we lack. Jesus tells us to seek God’s kingdom; prayer is one of the most practical ways to do just that.
These steps aren’t rocket science, but they’re easy to forget.
Both these passages conclude with a promise of God’s response when we turn from worry toward him. Jesus says that “all these things will be given to you” (Matthew 6:33 NIV) while Paul says that “the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:7 NKJV).
Those are some responses that I’d like to see more of in my life! Everything I need, and peace to boot, sounds pretty good. We can count on God to work in our lives, according to his loving character, as we take these steps away from anxiety and toward him.
A word of caution here: We shouldn’t read this promise as saying that all anxiety will immediately disappear if we pray in the right way. Anxiety has its own subtleties for each person. This Scriptural teaching in no way means that we should reject appropriate psychological and medical means for addressing anxiety, any more than Scriptural passages on praying for the sick mean we should reject healthcare. Some forms of anxiety amount to psychological disorders. Depending on the person, therapy, medication, and other interventions may be needed. In Christian perspective, these things, too, are instruments of God’s grace for the work of healing.
How to Deal with Stress and Anxiety at Work
Putting together the insights of science and the witness of Scripture, here are four ways to deal with stress at work:
- Notice the feeling of stress and embrace it as a strength. Remember, stress is primarily a physiological reality, so you should be able to identify how it feels in your body. Maybe it’s your heart rate increasing as you’re under the pressure to get something done in a short amount of time. Maybe it’s your palms sweating as you prepare for a difficult conversation with your boss. When you notice it, think: My body is kicking into gear now. This is good. This is how I’m designed, so I’m ready to face the challenge.
- Use stress as a spark for conversational prayer with Jesus, your coworker. One of my coworkers, whose desk is near mine, has a habit of walking by and briefly complaining, in a friendly way, about the stressors of her day. I think it’s a coping mechanism for her to verbalize what exasperates her. You can do the same thing, but internally, in conversation with Jesus. Beat worry to the punch and make prayer your first response, in little half-second intercessions. Jesus is doing his work while you’re doing yours; he’s available for short conversations.
- If you’re stressed out due to overcommitment, set some boundaries. Sometimes it’s not a matter of shifting your mindset about stress, but just needing a break because the stress is unrelenting. So, plan ahead for the breaks you need. Figure out how to not take work home in the evenings. Set aside a Sabbath day when you don’t check work at all. Talk to your boss about what you need, even if it’s tough.
- Notice the voice of anxiety and pivot to prayer. Anxiety often functions as a voice in our heads. Jesus gave examples of anxious questions that people ask themselves: “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?” For you, it might be, “How am I going to get this done before the deadline? Why is my boss beating around the bush? Who are they going to hire for that position?” When the voice of anxiety beats you to the punch, take it and convert it into a prayer: “Help me be efficient this afternoon. Give me wisdom for that conversation with my boss. Send us someone competent.”
All of these practices can be put to work “off the clock,” too. If you’re too distracted to pray at work, start by praying about work during a separate prayer time. But work and prayer are both too important to keep entirely separate from each other. As time goes on, figure out how to integrate prayer into your working hours, using your responsibilities as the starting point.
As you do, you’ll see how God is faithful to his promise. He will respond to your steps of faith, changing your experience of stress and anxiety at work—making them a place where he draws near.