Staying Relational in Stressful Moments, Part 1

By Jessica Duisberg

December 8, 2020

De Pree Journal

It is an understatement to say this year has brought more than its share of stressful moments. And they certainly won’t go away just because the calendar turns from December to January. In this season of Advent, we take time to intentionally remember the incarnation of God, who took on flesh in a historical moment filled with as much stress as peace. How did Immanuel, God Among Us, react in moments of high political, religious, and emotional intensity?

In the days leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus explicitly condemns the Pharisees and declares destruction over Jerusalem. Yet woven into the woes is a striking contrast. Jesus cries out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mt 23:37). This unexpected tender image of a hen with her little chicks has always taken me by surprise. Not many people I know, including myself, can shift with such rapid ease from severe to compassionate and back again. In my most angry moments, or times when I am disappointed or fearful, I usually lose touch with tenderness. And in my tender moments, I usually lose touch for a while with anger, sadness, and fear.

But Jesus stays connected to the fullness of each person and group he encounters, responding to both their value and their brokenness at the same time. To the woman caught in adultery, he says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). To his own betrayer on the night of betrayal, he says, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me,” and then immediately afterwards he offers the bread with the words, “Take and eat; this is My body” (Matt 26:26). From the indescribable agony of the cross, he prays about his executioners, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Manifest to human sight and touch, God Among Us not only entered into the experience of human life and death, but he entered into the fullness of human relationship without disconnecting from its joys or pains. He stayed in relational mode all the time.

In his book Outsmarting Yourself, Dr. Karl Lehman describes how the human brain shifts into and out of relational mode. Relational mode moves us past the “fight or flight” responses of the animal-like lower brain and maximizes what is uniquely human. Relational mode synchronizes the brain’s lateral and hierarchical functions, promoting creativity, flexibility, storytelling, empathy, values, and morals. In relational mode, we feel relationally connected, experience joy and gratitude in being with others, make eye contact, and maintain a sense of humor and kindness. In relational mode, we are also aware of the other person’s heart or true self, concerned about what the other person is thinking and feeling, and able to perceive the other as an emotional resource.

stay homeAs I type these words, I find myself recalling times when I was in relational mode and times when I most decidedly was not. When I am not in relational mode, my default is task mode. I get so focused on a task that I treat people as if they only exist to the extent they help me accomplish that task. I might be typing away at the computer absentmindedly saying “uh huh” and “ok” when my husband is trying to get my full attention. Or I might be thinking about how to fix a friend’s problem when what she really wants is empathy. Occasionally I shift into enemy mode, reacting to others as if they are problems to be solved or worse, as if I need to fight against them in order to get what I want or need. Lehman describes these states under the umbrella term “non-relational mode.” Pastor Chris Coursey calls it “airplane mode” because all incoming relational signals are temporarily shut off.

In this stressful year, I have needed to work harder than usual to stay in relational mode. When emotions run high, I still slip too easily into non-relational mode—particularly when I feel fear, anger, or hopelessness. What about you? Are there certain environments, certain groups, certain states of mind or heart when you tend to slip out of relational mode? Are there certain places, people, or times when it’s easy for you to stay relational? How might you start to catch yourself when you slip out of relational mode? What helps you get back into relational mode?

In all honesty, sometimes it’s less painful in the moment to fight, freeze, or flee than to stay relational and connected. But even if I switch into non-relational mode to protect myself, I’m still more likely to hurt others or do things I regret. If Jesus stayed relational even while he was betrayed and crucified, then his Spirit can make it possible for me to stay relational in my moments of distress. I’m getting better at catching myself in non-relational mode. When I do, I ask the Lord for help, take a short breather, and then try to re-engage from relational mode. It takes time to do this and requires me to face some things I’d rather avoid. But I have discovered that relational mode also means I’m more open to joy and hope, more flexible, and more peaceful. Appropriate for Advent. Vital for 2020 and whatever comes next.

P.S. Jessica could use your help gathering data for her dissertation! We would love for you to fill out her survey (password: adaptive). The survey will take about 30 minutes and contribute to cutting edge research on adaptive leadership and emotional resilience. It is designed for those who have held professional or volunteer positions with oversight of at least five adults for at least one year in the last ten years.


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Jessica Duisberg

Writer & Author

Jessica Duisberg is the Assistant Director of Fuller’s Innovation for Vocation Project. An Anglican priest and former nonprofit ministry director, she is writing her doctoral dissertation on cultivating the emotional resilience for adaptive leadership.

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