Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 3 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Contrary to popular belief, the drug of choice in Hollywood (the business world, higher education, and the church) is not cocaine.  It’s adrenaline.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

“Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it.”  – Anonymous

Sure snakes have to eat, but it sure seems like a rotten deal for the mouse.

A pang of conscience shudders through my body as I drop the helpless mouse into the terrarium with our two juvenile ball pythons. I know snakes need to eat. But this a really rotten deal for the mouse.

My pre-teen sons have no such qualms. They want front-row seats to this Nature Channel style apocalypse. Watching Valentine and Sweetie (yes, the women of the family named them) hunt their elusive prey is precisely why they begged us to buy them in the first place.

But it’s not to be.

You’d think that a tiny mouse suddenly confronted with a pair of hungry snakes would do everything within its power to find a way out the cage. Not so. The moment the mouse sees the snake, he freezes.  Then he exhibits the last behavior you would ever expect—he starts washing himself!

Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

You read that right. Stuck between his adrenal systems “fight” or “flight” responses, the mouse’s only solution is to do neither and comfort himself with soothing behaviors that feel normal and familiar. Like giving yourself a good lick bath.

What is it about boys and snakes? (Photo: Mark Huntley)

What’s worse (or more hilarious, depending upon your point of view), as the adrenaline builds in the mouse’s system he begins to cycle through his behavior in tighter intervals. As the snake moves closer and closer, the mouse begins washing himself faster and faster.

By the time the snake is inches away, the mouse is moving at such a frenetic pace he looks like a DVD on fast-forward. With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils (and anguished squeaks), the “hunt” is over.

My boys cheer. My daughter wretches. I am silent… I have seen this behavior before. In fact, it is my behavior (and that of nearly every human being I have ever met) in High Stress Environments (HSE).

Creativity, Scholarship, Leadership and Adrenaline

Contrary to popular belief, the most commonly abused drug in high stress environments like Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Wall Street is not cocaine: it’s adrenaline.

Like the mouse in our snake terrarium, the closer we get to allowing our work to consume us, the faster and faster we move. As the adrenaline builds in our system we begin to comfort ourselves with the lifelong habits that feel normal and comforting to us. Normal, that is, until the SNAP of teeth and crush of coils engulfs our soul.

I suspect this is the hidden causation behind Hollywood’s abysmal record of drug overdoses, wild-child stars, alcoholism, failed relationship, sketchy ethics, and rampant narcissism. As psychologist Archibald D. Hart warns:

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” [1]

Scholarship and ministry can be just as bad. A recent study discovered that there is a direct relationship between a successful academic career and an unhappy family life. And, have you seen the numbers on divorce and unhappy children in pastoral families?  Ouch!

Ancient Solutions for a Modern Curse

Before we blame our modern condition (which certainly doesn’t make things any easier) let’s admit that our situation is not as unique as we would like to believe. Our high stress environment is extremely similar to the conditions Jesus of Nazareth learned how to handle over 2,000 years ago.

Filmmakers, academics, and pastors face incredible pressures, but at least no one expects us to raise the dead. (Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt, 1630)

Like a modern filmmaker, Jesus faced enormous crowds demanding food and spectacle, in full view of national leadership calling for his head.

Like a contemporary academic, Jesus had to balance a rigorous teaching schedule, with scholarly production that was “peer-reviewed” daily by the greatest minds in higher education.

Like a post-modern pastor, Jesus woke long before first light and worked deep into hours of the night comforting, healing, and challenging his followers.

On at least one occasion he was so exhausted he actually fell asleep onboard a small boat in the middle of a thunderstorm!

Yup, Jesus knew a thing or two about stress.

Yet through it all, Jesus was somehow able to develop a remarkably resilient and even tranquil inner life.

While Jesus was often tired enough to sleep through a storm, he refused to allow time alone in prayer to be pushed from his schedule. (Rembrandt, Christ Sleeping in the Storm, 1633)

No matter how close the snake approached, Jesus managed to never succumb to adrenaline induced psychosis. He could not be tricked into performing miracles for his demanding followers. He could not be trapped into unwinnable arguments by his academic foes.

He could not be persuaded to stay when it was time for him to go. He could not be persuaded to go while he still had reason to stay. He could not be run out-of-town even when his life was threatened.

How did he accomplish this amazing feat? By exhibiting the exact opposite behavior of a mouse in a high stress environment. Luke records that “As the news about him spread all the more and greater and greater crowds came to hear him and be healed,” Jesus responded, not with faster and faster work habits, but by “often withdrawing to lonely places to pray” (Luke 5:15-16).

In fact, Luke records no less than ten specific occasions when Jesus pulled away from his demanding schedule to pray in solitude. Jesus did not give in to stress-related behavior because he could not be pushed off his discipline of spending quiet hours alone in prayer and meditation–even if he had to rise early or stay up late to do it.

Defeat Adrenaline and you Defeat the Snake

Instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices prepared him to face and defeat the greatest snake of all. (The Temptation on the Mount, Duccio, c. 1309)

Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices helped him learn to consistently listen for the voice of his heavenly Father. Over time they acutely tuned his spiritual senses to discern the heavenly direction needed for each day. In solitude he learned the truth that, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). It was a lesson that saved him in his greatest hour of need.

Faced with a direct frontal assault from the greatest snake of all–Satan–Jesus was ready. The high stress environment of 40 days in the wilderness provided Satan with the perfect opportunity to consume Jesus.  His attack focused on the normal litany of adrenaline-induced coping mechanisms that had worked so effectively in other leaders.

But instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, the rigor of Jesus’ spiritual disciplines had prepared him to face and defeat his adversary. Jesus had spent half a lifetime preparing for this moment. In secret, he had acquired an arsenal of the right memorized Scripture to parry each ‘fiery dart’ of temptation, and the strength of character to wield that knowledge effectively.

With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils, the hunt is over. Only this time the anguished squeaks come not from the prey, but from the snake.

Learning from the Master

Can ‘normal’ people learn to use this same strategy? Jesus certainly thought so. He wasn’t satisfied with his own ability to thrive in high stress environments. His mission was to teach his followers how to arrange their lives in a such a way that they too could learn to thrive.

But first he first had to teach them why we normally fail…

Next: Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments

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Notes:

[1] Hart, Archibald D. 1999. The anxiety cure: you can find emotional tranquillity and wholeness. Nashville, TN: Word Pub.


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5 Responses to “Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD”

  1. Todd Coleman Says:

    Fantastic article…so scary and true.

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