Our concern in this course is to complement stress management with spiritual formation.*

Stress has only been used in popular culture since the second world war. Before 1940 people used other words to describe what we now call “stress”.**

From Aristotle (in the fourth-century BC) through Augustine (in the first-century AD) to Aquinas (in the thirteenth century) the language of passions and affections was used. Passions are involuntary movements of the soul towards the sensual, and affections are voluntary movements of the soul towards God.***

Emotions were first introduced as a comprehensive category in Thomas Brown’s 1820 book, Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, then refined by William James seventy years later. Modernity has no place for God and the soul. Modernity is more concerned with the causes of feelings than their ends. It is more concerned with nerves, say, than with forgiveness.****

But now we find ourselves in the post-war, post-modern era. Some define stress in terms of stressors – the things that stress us out. Others define stress in terms of the strain we subsequently experience. And some define stress as the relation between the two.*****

However defined, stress is the language of abstract mechanics rather than of persons and relationships. Stress is more concerned with the pressure on an individual than with the relationships of that individual. Whereas emotions reflect the diversity of our relationships, stress reflects an increasingly more individualistic culture.

Category Era Feelings as:
Passions/Affections Pre-Modern Soul in relation to God
Emotions Modern Body in relation to object
Stress Post-Modern Strain in relation to stressor

Each subsequent row is less about God and more about me.

‘Since stress is a product of the individual, the solutions to the stress “problem” are also reliant on the individual … The workplace is reduced to being just a source of stressors, and requires little further analysis since stress is chiefly about the individual. Notions of workplace reform or societal change are also therefore largely peripheral.’†

If emotion is like the weather, then stress is like climate change. We can attempt to manage climate change, but we cannot manage the weather. Therefore, this course seeks to complement stress management with spiritual formation, so that we can better weather our emotions.†† Being “better” means being a blessing to others. It means adding worth to the world around us. This fulfils the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28.†††

After all, our emotions can be both a blessing and a curse.

Curse Self ← Emotion → Other Blessing
Retribution Anger Forgiveness
Inertia Anxiety Courage
Death Despair Hope
Destruction Envy Gratitude
Possession Jealousy Generosity

The course is structured around six 30-minute sessions:

  • I: Defining Stress – when did stress become a “thing”? And how does it differ from emotions (like anger)?
  • II: Likening Stress – if emotions are like weather, then stress like climate change.
  • III: Sharing Stress – what does it mean for us to approach stress collectively (rather than individualistically)?
  • IV: Amplifying Stress: Anxiety – Jacob shows us what it means to wrestle with God.
  • V: Amplifying Stress: Despair and Envy – the Psalms can help us to wrestle with God together.
  • VI: Amplifying Stress: Jealousy – what does it mean to be blessed, and to bless others, in our wrestling?

* For resources on stress management, we recommend www.drsunil.com.
** In the first half of the twentieth century, people might have used the word “nerves”, as in “he really gets on my nerves”. Now we might also say that he stresses me out. See Jill Kirby, Feeling the strain: A cultural history of stress in twentieth-century Britain (Manchester: MUP, 2019).
*** For example, consider the bishop’s anger when he forgives Jean Valjean in this rendition of Les Misérables. In the world of passions and affections, the bishop’s anger has a godly end that we might call forgiveness. The passion of anger becomes the affection of forgiveness.
**** For example, William James, ‘What is an Emotion?’ in Mind, Vol. 9, No. 34 (Apr., 1884), 188-205.
***** Terry A. Beehr, ‘The Themes of Social-Psychological Stress in Work Organizations: From Roles to Goals’ in Anne W. Riley and Stephen J. Zaccaro, eds., Occupational Stress and Organizational Effectiveness (Praeger: New York, 1986), 71-73.
Tim Newton, ‘Managing’ Stress: Emotion and Power at Work (London: Sage, 1995), 7, 49.
†† This touches on recent notions of resilience. For example, see Southwick, S.M. & Bonanno, George & Masten, A.S. & Panter-Brick, Catherine & Yehuda, Rachel. (2014). Resilience definition, theory and challenges. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 5. 1-14. One of the authors of this paper (Rachel Yehuda) further understands resilience in terms of growth; and another (Catherine Panter-Brick) notes the importance of hope for resilience.
††† ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”’ [NIV].