Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Distress or Creative Stress

I read an article recently on the benefits of stress. While we usually hear of the negative side of stress, we tend to forget that this common human condition can be creative in certain situations. Most of us function better when we have some motivating tension. Stress becomes distress when it is constant and/or experienced to a degree of intensity inappropriate to the situation at hand, but most of us function better when we have some motivating tension.

Several years ago one of my colleagues, who was an excellent preacher, consulted his doctor about the stress symptoms he was experiencing around important places in his work. After a good physical examination, the doctor told him he was fine and that his response to his working situation was appropriate. The doctor said: "Having tension around important events is indicative of the difference between a racehorse and a cow." Most of us want to be racehorses with the disposition of a cow. The two simply do not go together. Some tension is not only good, it is essential, unless you are a cow.

My grandfather was a good violinist. (He called it fiddle playing.) When he was preparing to play, he would tighten the strings of the violin. When he finished playing he would loosen the strings. He knew that leaving the strings tight all the time would warp the instrument. We have all heard of nervous people being ‘as tight as a fiddle string.' If we go through life 'as tight as a fiddle string' all the time, it will eventually warp the instrument. That is the problem with tension. It is essential to get 'keyed up' to make beautiful music whether you re preaching, playing ball, dancing, acting or fiddling. It is, however, dangerous to stay 'keyed up' all the time.

If we stay in charge of our stress, we will not warp the marvelous instrument that God gave us by keeping it ‘tuned' all the time. One of the most important ways in which we can manage our stress is to refuse to make tomorrow's troubles today's concern. While that is easier said than done, it is essential to mental and physical health.

There is a great deal of evidence to show the relationship between unmanaged stress and health problems. The list of health problems caused by stress is frightening, but no one knows better than a cardiologist the extent to which the heart is a primary victim of stress. On three separate occasions I have spent time in the hospital having stents put in partially clogged blood vessels in my heart. Along with my love for fried foods and lack of exercise, unmitigated stress was a precipitating factor in my heart problems.

While it is true that stress is not "out there", there seems to be an increasing social dimension to stress. It has to do with the anxiety we feel concerning troubling things about which we feel powerless to change. Dr. Gordon Livingston, in his book, "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart" points out that we live in a culture in which the sense of being wronged is pervasive. This feeling gets expressed in political movements and in our propensity to be a litigious society in which we will sue anybody about anything in order to get what we perceive to be some modicum of justice for having been wronged. Livingston suggests that "If every misfortune can be blamed on someone else, we are relieved of the difficult task of examining our own contributory behavior or just accepting the reality that life is and always has been full of adversity". And, it is clear that adversity is not evenly distributed. Stress is endemic in our culture. If you simply watch the evening news you can see why it is so difficult to avoid being distressed.

There is a fine line and shifting between using stress and being used by stress. In our rapidly changing world, it takes intentional effort to make the adjustments necessary to keep creative stress from morphing into unhealthy distress.

Ask your body, your doctor, or me -- the positive results are worth the effort.