Common Stress Traps

» Posted in Mental Health, Personal Growth | 2 comments


Balancing Life's Priorities

After recently recovering from a time of burn-out, I well understand the pressures that drive many of us and keep us in a state of constant stress.  And unfortunately, as the stress accumulates in our life, it can cause a myriad of health maladies, even to the point of death.  I have had to walk too many young widows/widowers and their kids through seasons of grief because of medical problems that could have been averted if their loved ones had learned to better manage their stress.  But it seems that no matter how often I “preach” about the importance of balance and prioritizing, I often fall short of this myself.

I have observed this in my practice as well, in that most of the people I counsel are overloaded with too many demands on their lives, and they struggle with worry and stress and feelings of guilt and failure. They will often take care of others, but leave no time to take care of themselves, and so burn-out rates are growing at a rapid pace. And as Christians, the stakes are even higher as we’re taught about sacrificial living and serving others, and so we “should” ourselves into a breakdown.

One of the things I’ve noticed about many Christians, myself included, is that we are terrible at self-care. In fact, we’ve raised it to a fine art – the act of draining ourselves so utterly, all in the name of serving the Lord and loving others. To be honest, I think we take pride in how weary we can get ourselves while sacrificing for others. And we struggle with feeling guilty if we were to be so “selfish” as to care about ourselves.

There are many reasons why we struggle with overloading ourselves – but I think that one of the main reasons is because of our search for approval and significance through our achievements and what we do for others.  There is something within the heart of every one of us that longs for acceptance and approval and affirmation. But from birth, we are often assaulted with hurtful or rejecting experiences that tear away at our sense of worth. Or alternatively, we’re raised in an emotional vacuum that fills us with emptiness and a sense of being forgotten. When affirmation and attention is given to us, it is usually in response to our accomplishments, or for being “good”, or for our external looks, so we learn from an early age the importance of performance and personal effort in receiving the love and affirmation we desperately want.

Lost in our secret fears and doubts, we enter the world, only to be assaulted by the messages of our performance-based and success-driven culture. Perfectionism is at an all time high (it’s even seen as a strength by many), as we struggle to measure up to some invisible standard of acceptability in the world’s eyes. For women especially, we must now battle in the career field, while at the same time, try to balance being a mother and wife. And so, we struggle with feeling like we’re a failure in both realms because we can’t seem to keep up with everyone else. Or we literally work ourselves to death to keep up, ending up with a myriad of physical, emotional and relational maladies.

Five Stress Traps

Let me share with you 5 of the most common traps we fall into that have a devastating impact on our emotional well-being and our ability to balance priorities in our life.

The first trap is what I call the Performance Trap. When our sense of worth is tied up in others’ approval, we very readily fall into this trap, and we expend a ton of energy trying to look good to others. As Christians, we get caught in the same performance trap, thinking we have to prove our love for God by doing great things for him. We rush around serving him, implementing great ministries and wonderful projects, all in an effort to do things for God.  

But another insidious aspect of our performance-oriented Christianity is that we can’t be “real”. It takes so much WORK to maintain our masks! And so, when we’re hurt or angered by life or others, we stuff that down and never deal with it, because Christians after all have to turn the other cheek, right? We’re also afraid that if we let down our hair and are authentic with each other, people might not like us. Sometimes we don’t even like ourselves!

So what does that lead to? Emotional issues like depression and anxiety, relational tensions because of unresolved hurts and unforgiveness, as well as spiritual issues because unresolved anger and bitterness blocks our connection with God. We also fear trusting his love for us, because “love” has led to so much hurt and abandonment in the past.

A second trap, which I really struggle with, is the Earning-God’s-Love Trap. I have to admit that I’m very approval oriented. I grew up in a culture where praise was rare, and it was just expected that I would be good and work hard to help my parents and to do well in school. So, hungering for that approval, I have found myself transferring that approval addiction to God. I would think, “would this make God happy? Would that make God happy?” I lived in fear of disappointing God. I started buying into the lie that the more I served God, the more I proved that I loved him.

But God has been teaching me that salvation isn’t about what I do, it’s about what Jesus DID. The cross did more than pay for my sins, it set me free from the bondage of the “shoulds”. Jesus promises us that his yoke is light, and that in him, we will find rest for our souls. God also showed me that his love for me was more about HIM, and his choice to place his love upon me, and not about ME or what I did for him. Therefore, regardless of what I did or didn’t do, his love for me would be unchanging, as he tells us in Romans 8:38-39: neither death nor life, nor any of my terrible screw-ups, nor being a bad Christian will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Okay, so I paraphrased that loosely.

The third trap is closely linked to the second one, and is what I call the Guilt-Driven Trap. Some of us find it very hard to say no, and when we do, we feel so guilty. We hate to disappoint anyone, so we force ourselves to do it all. We also believe that God did so much for us that we have to spend the rest of our lives making it up to him.  

But you see, that thinking minimizes the gift of grace. It’s kind of like saying, OK, thanks for the present, but now I have to pay you back. The Bible says in Romans 11:35-36: “Who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things…” To try to pay God back is to nullify grace. Jesus died for us to set us from the need to pay for our sins, to set us free from condemnation and duty to the rules.

The next trap is what I call the Saviour-of-the-World Trap. As Christians, we ought to want to help others. It should bother us when we see someone suffering or struggling, and so we want to do what we can to ease their pain. But what we don’t realize is that not only does God not NEED us to step into a situation to help someone else, but we often actually INTERFERE with what God is doing in their lives. By rescuing them, we prevent them from feeling the pain of whatever lesson God wanted to teach them. And in the process, we take on a burden that was never meant for us.

When we are weighed down with all the cares of the world, we actually can’t do what God is asking of us. When God asks to carry each others’ burdens in the Bible, the Greek translation of “burden” is actually “over-burden”, meaning helping out in times of crises, not with others’ daily responsibilities.

The last trap is a major one for many people, and it’s the Worried-and-Upset-About-Many-Things Trap. Some of the most controlling and stressed out people are actually some of the greatest worriers. They are so controlled by fear and anxiety that they run around trying to do everything they can to prevent the bad things they are afraid might happen. So, they MUST juggle all 12 plates and try to keep it up in the air, for fear that if they don’t, they’ll all come crashing down and disaster will happen.

Worry and anxiety is the number reason that brings people to my practice for counselling. Over half of us are chronic worriers. And what do we usually worry about? Things over which we have no control. Worry fixes our eyes on our circumstances, and not on God, and so it interferes in our relationship with God.

I don’t want to end by presenting a series of steps you can take towards better emotional, spiritual and relational health – there wouldn’t be enough space in this blog for that (stay tuned for upcoming blogs on managing stress and anxiety).  But even more importantly, I don’t want to focus on only changing our behaviours and symptoms through a series of steps I take; instead, I want to focus on our heart and the cause of the lack of balance in our lives.

And so, I want to end by bringing you back to the One who heals.  If I can even begin to understand how God sees me, even through a glass darkly, if I can begin to grasp how truly immense and perfect his love is for me, then I can rest in his love and allow myself to let go,  I can stop striving so hard to please others or win their approval, or trying so hard to succeed, or the myriad of things we busy ourselves doing in an attempt to shore up our false sense of worth.

Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-29 (Msg):“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”


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  1. Another excellent article – letting go of self-sufficiency is a real struggle for me. It would be great if churches taught us how our gifts can shoot us in the foot, if we don’t learn how to manage our behaviours in a balanced, God directed way. Another example of how professionals like you can work with God to help us grow and get balance.

    • Thanks, Dianne! I think it would be wonderful if this issue could be addressed and taught from the pulpit, especially in light of the high rates of burn out amongst North Americans today, including church leaders. I heard a great talk from Wayne Cordeiro at a Willowcreek Leadership Summit several years ago about his experience with burn-out and the steps he had to take to get his life and health back on track. He has since gone on to write a book about his experience, called “Leading on Empty”. It was a big wake-up call for me.

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