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Not All Stress is Bad: 3 Tips for Handling Stress Well

Updated: Jun 30

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Stress is often a word that gets tossed about quite a bit in our culture. In fact, stress has become like a "business" unto itself, funding numerous pharmaceutical companies and keeping many counselors in thriving practices. Stress is real and present in our culture today, and some of it can be very destructive. But does this mean that all stress is bad? I would argue that some stress, especially in recovery, is good.

One definition of stress is "force exerted on one thing by another; strain." Stress is a type of tension, two objects (or ideas) pressing against each other. Most stress we experience in life produces a level of discomfort, or at least momentary chaos. We don't tend to like that. We are conditioned in our comfortable, modern thinking to believe that discomfort, in all its forms, is not good. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking causes us to ignore some pretty basic realities of life -- and recovery.

If you were to drive up on a car accident and discover a person has been thrown from their vehicle and the car is now crushing their legs, you would likely begin "stressing out" that car! There would be lots of force opposing the weight of the vehicle on that poor person's legs. And they wouldn't mind whatever degree of stress is necessary to remove that painful reality.

That's obviously an extreme example of the "good" stress that can occur in life, but I think there are lots of other areas where we need to re-imagine stress. Like recovery.

Addiction is brutal; on the one addicted and on anyone in relationship with them. There is certainly a negative kind of stress that surrounds addiction. But when a person begins to engage the recovery process, they often falsely believe that it should not involve stress. They think the journey away from all the negative stress of addiction should be smooth, consistent, and pressure-free. No wonder so many relapse and abandon recovery altogether!

When you start saying no to what you have previously always said yes to, you will meet resistance. This resistance will be emotional, spiritual, even biological. This is normal. This is good, positive stress. Recovery is a process of learning how to live above urges and cravings; to engage them in a way that is healthy and God-honoring. This is stressful, and I don't believe that kind of stress will ever fully disappear. Nor would I want it to.

If my life is "stress-free" I can be certain of one thing: I'm not growing. Growth requires strain, or a "force exerting against me." If I want to grow in intelligence I must "stress out" my mind. If I want to grow in physical strength and stamina, I must stress my body. So, if I also want to grow in recovery or in my spiritual walk with God, I must have something pressing against me for that growth to occur. Otherwise, I will remain flabby and ineffective; mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Don't misunderstand, I desire a life with no stress -- just like you do. But I am learning to desire growth and maturity more. I have lived seasons of my life, even in recovery, that were stress-free. They were uneventful and enjoyable, but they were also fruitless. There was no pruning occurring during those seasons. I was just a fruitless limb swaying in the breeze. That's no way to live life, at least not abundant life.

My hope is that every person who embarks on the journey of recovery from addiction would long for abundant life, the kind of life Jesus offers His followers (John 10:10). But make no mistake, such a life only comes by way of lots of stress and strain. The truly mature follower of Christ is not scar-free and glamorous; they are battered, bruised, and probably walk with a limp. But they are also filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23) Their scars may attest to the stress of growth, but their mature faith is laying up treasure in heaven that goes beyond the best this world could offer.

Are you stressed out? Rejoice! You are in a wonderful opportunity for growth. Don't run away from it. Stand firm in it.

3 Keys to Bearing Fruit from Stress

  1. Get help distinguishing positive stress from negative stress. Not all stress is bad, but not all stress is good. In order to grow and mature it is important to learn the difference and respond accordingly. Positive stress involves the natural and normal obstacles that must be overcome in order to keep growing. Negative stress involves thoughts and circumstances (and sometimes people) that work to destroy the truth of your identity as an image-bearer of God. This kind of stress is not an obstacle to be overcome, but rather a cancer to be removed. Seek out good counsel from someone you trust who is competent to help you distinguish positive stress from negative stress.

  2. Stay focused on the target: growth. When stress and strain hit, it is easy to lose focus. Everything very quickly becomes about the stressor and you veer off course from the goal, which is growth; spiritual, emotional, relational. Be careful of making stress the focus. If you do you will likely spiral mentally and emotionally in destructive ways. I'm not suggesting that when stress hits it is easy to stay focused on growth as the goal, but it is crucial if you want to prevent getting "stuck" on your growth journey. Learn to "use" the stress as an instructional tool of sorts to help you reach the next stage of your growth mission.

  3. Work through stress in community. To become mature emotionally, spiritually, and relationally requires community. You simply cannot be all that God designed you to be as a human without other people. Therefore, don't try to work through your stress alone; face it with some friends. The kind of friends to look for when it comes to working through stress together are those who "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) and who don't waver from the truth of the gospel and what it means to your identity in Christ. Ultimately, all stress (positive and negative) can be sufficiently handled through our faith in Christ.

Take a deep breath. Life is stressful, but this doesn't mean you must be crushed under its strain. With a little training you can learn to distinguish positive stress from negative stress and keep pressing on in your growth mission.



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