Dear Mentor: How do you deal with the stresses of the academy?

Dear Mentor,

 Whether publishing deadlines, criticism from colleagues, funding cuts, or something else, each of us feels pressure in the academy. Are there unique ways for the Christ-follower to deal with stress? What can we do when we see a colleague or a student — whether Christian or not — struggle?

This mentor question is borrowed from a panel discussion of Christian faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We're grateful to include the response of one of the panelists, guest mentor Brian Rust, along with other responses from writers at The Well.

from guest mentor Audrey Ellerby

To me, S-T-R-E-S-S often feels like a four-letter word. Sometimes I even avoid saying it aloud for fear that my words will be the cloth from which it will materialize. The pressures of academic life that you mention are very real! And they often loom large in a way that wants to overwhelm my peace.

Being naturally introspective, the wheels of my head instinctively start spinning as I try to process the best way to respond to a stressful situation. As my former pastor was fond of saying: “It’s easier to act like a Christian than to react like a Christian,” so as a Christian I often attempt to be deliberate in my response. Here are a few strategies I've learned to run to:

  • Remind myself that I’m not defined by my job, but that I am beloved by God. This is sometimes hard to implement, but thinking of life and loved ones outside of work is often helpful to bring to mind a context in which I feel loved.
  • Meditate on what it really means to not worry, and try to identify practical ways to preoccupy my mind with other things — in that very instant — so that I can distract myself from worrying about the pressures. For me, this is often best done by thinking about a need someone else has that I can help to fill and get busy filling it.
  • Recite Scripture. Several years ago I developed a set of ten Scripture-based affirmations that I try (and often fail!) to recite over myself daily. It’s a great arsenal: when my mind fails to bring up an appropriate Scripture for my situation, the simple act of running through my list of affirmations usually brings up at least one that’s appropriate enough. As an example, the first one on my list is “God has everything under control; I can trust him completely.” (based on Ps 37:5-6)
  • Pray for God to make me to act in a way that is becoming of him. While I know we are responsible for our own actions, sometimes I honestly can’t muster up enough goodness to act right on my own. My favorite Scripture in this regard is Mark 9:24 — “I do believe; help my unbelief” — because it seems to perfectly capture the space I often feel caught in where my heart wants to do one thing but my body seems incapable of doing it.


from guest mentor Brian Rust

I manage people and programs in information technology. My stresses and pressures come from several sources. For example, we have service emergencies for which I am often the spokesperson. Frustration over the inability to use an essential service can escalate into criticism and anger directed at us.

I've come to understand that criticism is the currency of the university economy. To be critical is to demonstrate knowledge and superiority; to be effective at both giving and taking criticism is to survive and thrive. It’s in this environment that Christians, I believe, can be particularly effective.

In situations where we are receiving criticism and anger, I need to pray for the peace of Christ to rule in my heart, since, as a Christian, I have been called to a life of peace (Colossians 3:15).

My staff and I also have a workload that can be unrelenting. There is always more to do than time in which to get it done. And managing people — hiring, leading, disciplining — is another source of both satisfaction and stress. Again, as a Christian, I have to remind myself God does grant peace if I seek it. I need to bring my burdens to Him, and expect Him to give me rest. As a result, I have come to see that when I acknowledge Him, He really does grant me rest for my soul (Matthew 11:38-30).  

For many, work in the academy is perhaps too profoundly important. The pressures to publish, obtain tenure and grants can lead one to believe it is so important that failure feels like the end of the world. I try to keep and demonstrate an eternal perspective; God is in control, nothing surprises Him. Likewise, nothing should surprise or so profoundly affect his followers — if we hold things lightly. 

I also try to see things from others’ perspectives — to not respond to criticism with criticism. We are all under pressures. Hard as it may be, I need to try to rise above.

Of course I fail. I make mistakes in my work. And I fail to handle pressure well at times. Sometimes it seems like a double failure because I not only disappoint myself, but others who are watching me. All I can do is be transparent. I need to admit failure and, as needed, seek forgiveness.

This is where my attempts to be faithful to God turn into a witness before others. Occasionally people will ask me how I seem to handle pressure so well. At other times they confide in me that they are dealing with things that seem overwhelming. I pray for them, and I tell them I am praying for them. Not just “thinking positive thoughts,” or “hoping for the best.” But asking God to help them in the same ways he helps me.

I also try to make time to ask and listen to others’ concerns. I don’t try to solve their issues or lend advice unless asked. I try to be ready to give an account for the joy, or peace, or hopefully good example that they see — which is Christ in me.


from guest mentor Karen H. Kim Yeary

As an academic and a mother of three young children, managing stress is something that I struggle with on a regular basis. Sometimes I feel that stress has become so much of my life’s rhythm that relaxing is the harder thing to do.

There are the stressors that one has some control over, like organizing one’s time to meet deadlines. Then there are stressors that one doesn’t have much or any control over. As a Christ-follower, there are three things I do to help me manage this latter type of stress.

  1. Time with God. It’s hard to find time with God, but I think of it like food. If you don’t eat you will be weak and more susceptible to stress. Even if you don’t like food, you need to eat to live. I think it’s important to think of spending time with God in His Word similarly. It’s hard for me to spend time with God every day, but I have found that it is important to do, even if it’s for just a few minutes. The Word reminds me of who I am and who He is. Experiencing God through spending time with Him is a way to address the root of many stresses. He is the well I can always draw from and the only well that will address the core of all stress. When I try to draw from other wells— colleagues’ positive opinions, academic success, etc., the root of my stress remains because these other wells are inadequate.
  2. Taking care of my physical body. When I take care of my physical body, I am better able to deal with stressors. I try to exercise a little bit each day, even if it’s walking for 15 minutes. When I exercise, I listen to a sermon or praise music to focus on the truths of God’s word. I also try to eat healthy and get as much sleep as I can.
  3. Making time for pleasure. I try to take some time each week to do something that gives me pleasure. For me, this has included 30 minutes at a coffee shop, reading a magazine, or having lunch with a friend. I have found that doing even small things for myself have made a big difference in my overall wellbeing.

Now what do you do when you see a colleague or student struggle with stress? There are stressors they have where you may be able to tangibly do something to help alleviate the stress. A student may appreciate more of your time. A colleague may appreciate your expertise on a task. I think practically helping others, even if it does not advance your career, is a way to show Christ. I also think that affirming the person’s worth and talents is another way to help others struggling with stress. Even if your colleagues and students do not know Christ, they are valuable to Him and have been made with unique strengths. I think speaking these positive truths into a person’s life is another way to show Christ in the academy.

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