Stressed-Out Missionary

by Laura on March 4, 2012

Our first year overseas was by far the most stressful year of our entire lives.

We yelled more, and we got in more fights.

We irrationally loathed all-things-Asian, and the mere sound of the Asian language would make our skin crawl at times.

We cried after a trip to get groceries, and we cussed after an attempt to buy a toaster.

I threw a bike in the front yard and said awful things to my kids and blamed my husband for getting us into this nightmare in the first place.

It was not pretty. At all.

And I’d heard about the stages of culture shock {honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment}, but sometimes it’s hard to recognize the hurricane for the debris and the wind that’s nailing you in the face. And, when you are still struggling with some of the same issues two years later, it’s hard not to think you must be the broken one.

But, I heard something last week that has been a bit of a lifeline for me. I heard about the research of Dr. Dean Ornish from a lady who’s husband is a counselor and has worked in member care {a.k.a. free missionary counseling} for about 15 years. She told me of a study which looked at stress-levels on individuals, and here’s the essence of what they found:

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. {Thanks to a reader, you can view the article for yourself HERE.}

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 airconditioned 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.

But just because you want to go home, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Yet, 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 restauraunt, 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.


Thoughts on missionary stress or stress in general {because heaven-knows, stress is no respecter of latitudes}? What do you do to relieve it?

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  • Craig

    Wow, thanks for the post. I reading this as a student at a missionary training school with a young child and stress already piling on! “You’re not crazy if you freak out after a simple trip to get bananas” That might be the most helpful part of the post! Thanks again.

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  • Moldova

    I scored 815. On month 8.

  • Jennifer Creamer

    I came across your blog while searching for research on missionary stress. I can relate to your experiences! I would like to know how I might locate the research you mention by Dr. Dean Ornish. Do you have the title of the article or book you reference? Unfortunately, the link to the article did not work.

  • Marcy Pusey

    I was in a workshop recently with a woman speaking on trauma and resiliency. She said studies have shown that missionaries have a higher resilience and ability to recover than the average person. She shared the numbers you have above, and went on to talk about God’s grace in sustaining us through astronomical situations (and stress levels). This isn’t at all to negate the need for rest. Absolutely!!!! We need to take care of ourselves and allow Him to take care of us. I just thought it was additionally special that, it seems, we are often able to handle more, longer, than non-missionaries. However, as a Member Care resource for my mission (I offer free therapy services to local missionaries in my area) I’ve also seen that, high resiliency or not, if we’re not being SO intentional about our Best Yeses and taking time to recoup, we WILL snap, just as you said. Thank you for sharing… your words are affirmation to many!

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