Being stressed out isn’t your purpose

Is it possible to be both in the profession and line of service you were meant to be in and yet not be living out your vocation?

You may have carefully explored what you value and the talents or strengths you possess. You have used these and your passions to identify a job that aligns with who you are. You know the work you are doing is important, you have passion for this work, and you value it. Beyond this you are good at this type of work—your abilities set you up to excel.  This work is truly your vocation, your purpose, so, you embrace this work and fill your life with as much of it as you can—more is better right? You over-schedule yourself with this type of work—but you are doing the work you were meant to do. So goes the cycle of so many, and many serving in ministry, academia, student affairs and administration reach a point of burnout.

Could the work we are called to do possibly be bad for us?

I am stressed all the time.

My shoulders are perpetually tense.

I can’t fit one more thing on my calendar.

I am operating at my maximum all the time.

I wish I just had some down time.  

Do any of these sound familiar?

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health of the citizens of our stressed-out nation has fared worse than the mental health of citizens of other developed countries. This is according to a survey conducted in 2020 of  >8,200 adults from the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Yet even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Gallup survey administered in 2017 placed the U.S. at the top of the list of stressed-out nations. When asked about how much stress they had experienced during the previous day, 55% of U.S. respondents indicated they had felt a lot of stress. Given the global average for stressed respondents was 35%, the U.S. was well above average. 

See also “On burnout in academia” and “Workaholic academics need to stop taking pride in their burnout.

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at these stats, thinking, well that’s just the nature of our culture.  It may well have become a hallmark of American culture but the long-term effect of this way of living is extremely damaging and will limit our lifespan. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and mental illness. Our bodies were built for periodic times of stress, not chronic stress. It is not surprising then that our heart and blood vessels deteriorate in response to this chronic stress—truly many individuals are victims of a shortened lifespan due to the physiological damage caused by embodying the chronic stress of our culture.

How might long term stress result in damage to our heart and blood vessels? A quick biology lesson takes us back to the “fight or flight” versus our relaxed state. The technical term for the part of the nervous system that mediates our emergency response (“fight or flight”) is sympathetic nervous system. In contrast, the nervous system that mediates our relaxed state (e.g. digesting food, urinating, sexual intercourse) is termed the parasympathetic nervous system.  The design of our bodies supports infrequent bouts of emergency or times when the sympathetic nervous system dominates. Rather our physiology is meant to spend most of our lives in a state that is dominated by the parasympathetic nervous system—a place where we are in a relaxed state.

When considering your passion, your purpose, how to be living vocationally, let’s be sure we also realize the importance of living in such a way that you can regularly experience the relaxed state in which the parasympathetic nervous system dominates. Certainly, there will be emergencies and times of stress where we need to have quick, forceful heartbeats that raise our blood pressure. We need to live in moments or short periods of time when the sympathetic nervous system is commanding us to respond ready to fight or flee. This emergency state just shouldn’t be our modus operandi.

If you are called to do something, it should not occupy all of you. Your calling should not stretch you thin and lead you to be regularly overcommitted. If the work you are called to do is taking you down a path toward burnout then you are actually moving away from your purpose—away from what you were called to do. To embrace your purpose, you must be intentional to balance your called work with other efforts. You must balance the demands and stressors—engagement of your fight or flight—with the calming restorative time engaging your parasympathetic system.

So what is to done? One small step that each of us can do is to schedule extra time—a buffer–between our meetings and obligations. A few minutes of extra time to allow us to transition from one gathering to another could allow us to avoid rushing our body or mind. Even this minor shift could significantly shift the amount of time we experience the sympathetic nervous system dominating the parasympathetic nervous system. Beyond this, we could place defined time limits on how long we will work on a particular task. When the time is up, we could go for a short walk or engage in an activity that helps us experience more of a relaxed state. Imagine spending an hour of your time putting together a puzzle, 20 minutes of meditation, or taking time for five slow deep breaths. These activities can slow your heart rate putting the parasympathetic nervous system back at the helm. There is no answer that will work for every individual but as we explore our vocation be sure to also consider what measures you can take to ensure while you are living vocationally that you don’t inadvertently become another statistic in our stressed-out nation.

Here are other relaxation techniques, recommended by The Cleveland Clinic:

  1. Deep breathing exercises.
  2. Meditation.
  3. Mindfulness meditation.
  4. Progressive muscle relaxation.
  5. Mental imagery relaxation.
  6. Relaxation to music.
  7. Biofeedback
  8. Counseling, to help you recognize and release stress.

Amy Santas is Professor of Biology at Muskingum University in New Concord, OH. She presented on a panel at the 2021 NetVUE UnConference titled “Good Enough Pedagogy.” Amwas a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration Seminar. Click here to read her other blog posts on this site.

Related posts: On vocation and the realities of burn-out, see this piece by Jon Malesic. For the importance of self-care in academia, and how to incorporate it into your courses, see this series by Courtney Dorroll, based on her research and a workshop she developed with support by a grant from NetVUE. See also “Caring for the Caregivers: a Plea” by Trina Jones; “The hard realities of reduced bandwidth” by Hannah Schell; and “Comedy or Tragedy: Some Shakespearean Wisdom for Vocation” by Jason Stevens. On the need for times of rest, see Shirley Showalter’s “Vocation & Vacation: Challenging the “Culture of Competitive Martyrdom”; “Work and Sabbath at the Dawn of COVID-19” by Krista Hughes; and “Resting into Vocation” by Catherine Knott.

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