Distress and Belonging (Stress and Distress): Part 4 of 4

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by Shane Fookes, MA LPC Intern

This is the 4th and final post in this series on Stress and Distress. The first post introduced the idea that stress occurs when you experience disruption in your relationship with yourself, with God, or with another person. The second post addressed disruptions in your relationship with yourself. The third post focused on disruptions in your relationship with God. This final post tackles disruptions in your relationships with other people.

It’s been a LONG year for relationships

Even for the most introverted among us, relationships are vital for a flourishing life. And right now, you’re likely feeling the cumulative effect of a loss of relationships. After over a year of social distancing, working from home, and avoiding gatherings both large and small, we’re collectively experiencing a grievous relational deficit. We’ve lost the very relational safety net we need to navigate the losses caused by the coronavirus.

We’re made for connection

The Bible, social science, and neuroscience agree: human beings are made for relationships. The Bible begins with the provocative statement, “It is not good for man to be alone…” (Gen 2:18), and ends with a magnificent wedding celebration (Revelation 19:6-10). The central Bible invitation is to become a part of the family of God as dearly loved children through faith in Jesus. And the Bible is filled with kind warnings and instructions regarding how to live in loving, caring, life-giving relationships. 

Stress and Relationships: Belonging is Biological

Unsurprisingly, recent neuroscience research has confirmed that our need for relationships is hardwired into our biology. The second post in this series on stress introduced the limbic part of your brain. This part of your brain includes the nucleus accumbens which serves as the pain and pleasure center. Brain scans reveal how this part of your brain lights up when you feel connected to someone you love. It also registers intense, feel-like-you’re-going-to-die pain when you don’t get the connection you want.

In some ways, this part of your brain is like a relational magnet that first activated the moment you emerged from your mother’s womb. It is the part of your brain associated with your craving for relational attachment. Because attachment is so important, attachment pain is the greatest pain you experience (e.g. death of a loved one, divorce, or other separations from people you love) and attachment joy provides your greatest joys (e.g. your wedding day, the arrival of a baby, reunion with long-lost friends, the reconciliation of an important relationship). 

Longing for belonging can result in increased stress and distress

With the potential for both great joy and great pain in relationships with others, it makes sense that you experience emotional distress in relationships. Your brain is wired to “read” the people around you for threats of pain and opportunities for joy. When your brain senses the threat of pain, it ignites your body’s autonomic nervous system to respond and you experience stress. Prolonged threats and an overstimulated bodily threat response system lead to emotional distress. This happens automatically and often without your conscious awareness. And such relational distress can quite literally travel through a group of people in milliseconds.

How to Feel More Connected

So what to do? Well, first apply what you learned in the previous posts to strengthen your relationship with yourself and your relational dependence on God. Self-awareness and God-awareness are fundamental building blocks for being able to live in relationships with others.

Second, begin practicing openness with some safe people in your life. Here are a few ideas for doing that:

Communicate gratitude.

Intentionally noticing good in others and sharing your gratitude with them “lights up” the relational pleasure center of your brain and releases the all-important hormone dopamine into your system.

Give and receive feedback.

Regularly practice sharing what is helpful in your relationship with a person and what is not helpful. Keep in mind, the ratio is important! Positive feedback is needed at a higher ratio than negative feedback. Provide at least 2 compliments for every complaint (some research even points to a 5-to-1 ratio). The 2-to-1 ratio can be easily accomplished with a feedback “sandwich:” complement-complaint-complement. 

Share “withholds.”

This is similar to the previous idea, but the focus is on how much you often don’t say in a relationship. At the end of a day (or every few days), take time to think through what you “edited out” of your communication with a person and then purposely tell them. The ratio and sandwich principles in #2 also apply here.

Listen for emotions rather than problems.

Then validate the emotions. When your threat response system is activated, people become problems to solve rather than persons to love. Listening, reflecting, and empathizing with another’s emotions greatly increases your attachment bond with them.

Learn More About Stress & Distress From a Christian Therapist

You can also learn more in the following posts in our 4-part series on stress and distress from a biblical standpoint:

  1. Why Am I So Stressed
  2. The Internal Dynamics of Stress
  3. Distress & Worship
  4. Distress & Belonging


Our Clackamas and Hillsboro-based counselors are excited to work with you, wherever you are in Oregon. Your relationships can thrive again. We can help you get back on track in a way that aligns with your faith and values. When you are ready to start online Christian counseling in Oregon, follow these simple steps:

  1. Learn about our therapy team in Hillsboro and our caring counselors in Clackamas
  2. Schedule an appointment with your preferred therapist, or contact us with questions
  3. Feel more connected to the important people in your life


If you are in Clackamas, Happy Valley, Damascus, or Hillsboro, we can help you in person at one of our comfortable therapy clinicsChristian counseling is the cornerstone of our approach to therapy. Not only do we see adults, but children in counseling too. We also work with depression treatmentanxiety therapytrauma therapy and PTSD treatmentrelationship issuesmarriage problems, and postpartum counseling. No matter where you are in the state, we can provide the support you need with online therapy in Oregon. Once you’re ready to start, we’re ready to meet you. Let’s connect!

Headshot of Shane Fookes, Christian counselor in Clackamas, OR who offers counseling in Clackmas, OR or online therapy in Oregon

About the Author

Shane Fookes is a graduate of Western Seminary’s Counseling program and a Licensed Professional Counseling Intern. He was previously a pastor and is still involved in churches, and writes about marriage and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and spiritual development.

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