10 February 2014

Missionary stress; living in a foreign culture

Missions has always been accompanied by danger,
     but the world has become an even more dangerous place. 

Missions has always been full of stress,
     but today's missionaries live with two to three times the stress
     of those who live in their home culture.

Missions has always been hard work,
     but today's missionaries are experiencing levels of exhaustion
     that leave them bone weary in body and soul.

All of these add up to profound needs which, left unmet,
     often end the careers and/or effectiveness of these dear people.
-George and Connie Blake, MTI missionary de-briefing leaders

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Stressed-Out Missionary
Laura Parker, missionary in Asia

When stress levels reach above a 200 (on the Holmes-Rahe scale), doctors will advise patients to make life changes– drink a glass of wine, exercise, sleep more, that kind of thing. The goal is to keep stress levels below 200, since anything over that can result in some incredibly negative effects, especially over the long term. In fact, 50% of the people scoring a 200 were hospitalized in the two years following the scoring with heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, or other severe illnesses. Apparently, the cumulative effect of stress on the body and mind can be an extremely damaging one.

Then, they used the same standards and scale to assess missionary stress levels. They found that the average missionary’s stress levels for the first year are typically around 800-900, and the sustained stress levels of a cross cultural worker stays around 600.

Sheesh. 600. And 200 might get you a heart attack or cancer.

So, yes, maybe there is a shred of evidence for our entire family needing to recover in an air-conditioned room watching a movie at 2:30 simply because we braved the grocery center on a Sunday afternoon.

Maybe there is something behind the fact that we “accomplish” less and are tired more each day, something true about the reality that depression, anger and miscommunication are dangerously a hairline fracture away, all the time.

Perhaps there’s a good reason why we gain weight. And have shorter fuses. And oftentimes resent the very culture and people we are trying to love. Maybe there’s a reason we burn-out faster.

Apparently, missionaries can be a stressed-out bunch.

And while I don’t offer many solutions, I will just say this to my fellow expats: You’re not crazy if you freak out after a simple trip to get bananas. You’re not an awful missionary if you can’t cross off anything from your to-do list because just surviving a day literally sucks every ounce of effort from your soul. You’re not broken if you sometimes - or even, oftentimes - hate this thing you've given up so much to pursue.

Make no mistake, long-term stress will produce fissures and cracks. And cracks, if left unattended, can end up shattering, spilling, and wrecking things.

And, yes, maybe God doesn't give us “more than we can handle.” And, yes, our weakness provides opportunities for his strength and love to show up, but, still - don’t be stupid. Or go all-superhero.

Get a massage. Take a vacation. Go eat at a Western restaurant, even if it is more expensive than the local food. Consider exercising a necessary to-do, and consider prayer an even more necessary one. Do whatever it takes to relieve some of the natural stress which comes from living in a different - and typically much more difficult - environment than the one you were born into.

Tightly-wound rubber bands typically end up snapping people, after all.

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What Missionaries Ought to Know about Culture Stress
Ronald Koteskey, Member Care Consultant at GO International

What causes culture stress?
Many factors enter into the amount of culture stress one feels while living in another culture:
  • Involvement - The more you become personally involved in the culture, the more culture stress you may feel. The tourist, the business person or someone from the diplomatic corps not committed to being the incarnation of Christ in that culture, may feel little culture stress.
  • Values - The greater the differences in values between your home culture and your host culture, the greater the stress. Values of cleanliness, responsibility, and use of time may cause stress for years. Cultures may appear similar on the surface but have broad differences in deeper values.
  • Communication - Learning the meanings of words and rules of grammar are only a small part of being able to communicate effectively. The whole way of thinking, the common knowledge base, and the use of non-verbals are necessary and come only with great familiarity with the culture.
  • Temperament - The greater the difference in your personality and the average personality in the culture, the greater the stress. A reserved person may find it difficult to feel at home where most people are outgoing extroverts. An extrovert may never feel at ease in a reserved culture.
  • Entry and re-entry - Most missionaries, unlike immigrants, live in two cultures and may never feel fully at home in either. Every few years they change their place of residence, never fully adapting to the culture they are in at the time.

What are the results of culture stress?
Many of the results of culture stress are the same as those of any other stress:
  • Feelings of anxiety, confusion, disorientation, uncertainty, insecurity, or helplessness
  • Fatigue, tiredness, lack of motivation, lethargy, or lack of joy
  • Illness (stress suppresses the immune system), concern about germs, or fear of what might be in the food
  • Disappointment; lack of fulfillment; discouragement; feeling hurt, inadequate, or 'out of it'
  • Anger, irritability, contempt for the host culture, resentment (perhaps toward God), feelings of superiority or inferiority
  • Rejection of the host culture, the mission board, or even of God
  • Homesickness

What can be done about culture stress?
Much can be done to decrease culture stress and make it manageable:
  • Recognition - Realize that culture stress is inevitable for those attempting to become at home in a host culture, and look at what factors cause you the most stress.
  • Acceptance - Admit that the host culture is a valid way of life, a means of bringing Christ to the people who live in it.
  • Communication - Beware of isolating yourself from everyone in your home culture, those with whom you can relax and be yourself, those with whom you can talk.
  • Escape - You need daily, weekly, and annual respites. God made the Sabbath for people, so be sure you keep it. Reading, music, hikes, worship, and vacations are necessary.
  • Identity - Know who you are and what you will allow to be changed about you. Acculturation inherently involves changes in your personality, so determine the unchangeables.
  • Activity - Since stress prepares you for fight or flight - and as a missionary you can probably do neither - you must have some physical activity to use that energy. Sports, an exercise plan, and active games with family or friends can reduce stress.
  • Befriend a national family - Get close to a national family just for fun, not to learn or evangelize. Learn how to have fun in that culture.

Can culture stress be prevented?
The answer to this is simple and short. NO! 

Stress in general cannot be prevented; we all experience it in life. Trying to become at home in another culture is always a challenging venture. However, like other stress, it can be managed, decreased to a level with which you can live-stress without distress.

The factors that help you cope with stress are summarized in the three enduring things mentioned by Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 13:
  • Faith - In addition to faith in God, faith in yourself as a person created in God's image and called into his service will help you cope.
  • Hope - Rather than feeling helpless, having not only the hope of eternity with God, but also hope in your future, knowing that he has good plans for you, will help you cope.
  • Love - Finally, having both God's love and the love of his people to give you support in the stressful situations you face daily, will help you cope.

Stress is a part of life. Everyone learns how to manage it or suffers the consequences.

Remember that not everyone can be at home in two cultures, and it typically takes a very long time for those who do it successfully.

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I will appreciate your prayers for me concerning this very real issue.
     - deb


Anonymous said...

Deb, just wanted to thank you for this post on missionary stress. I really felt like you were speaking directly to me. I have bookmarked it and will rad it time and time again when I'm stressed. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I can pray!

deb said...

I'm glad you saw it, Jennifer! I actually thought of you as I collected the quotes.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your transparency. Living in two totally different cultures can be very stressful.
I learned a lot from your article concerning my own stess.
Love, Peggy G.