Inside a Crack Up: The Breaking Point of Stress

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick — the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”)

I have a theory that the breaking point of stress is when the predominant factors leading to our stress are more internal than external. At this point stress ceases to be rational, because ration is lost to us. Stress becomes a kind of obsession (“I’m so stressed I can’t even name what I’m stressed about”), dominating our every thought and feeling.

As long as stressors remain primarily external, we have the internal tools needed to address them. We can choose to fight or we can choose flight. We can rationalize our situation and problem solve to reduce our stress. We can cry, or scream, or respond with appropriate emotions to our stressors. We can pray and lay out our countless troubles before the Lord.

However, when stressors become primarily internal, we lose our ability to choose. Reason is cast aside for the rush of worry. Or reason is hijacked to perfect worry. Emotions become repressed, suppressed, and in turn eruptive. We can become robotic about the deepest losses and violent about the spilling of a glass of milk. Prayer can feel impossible or is relegated to disciplined duty and in turn serves as one more stressor.

This internal versus external stress matrix helps explain how someone can live in a warzone with relative peace, and then experience suicidal anxiety when they are safe at home in their own bed. What we do with those experiences becomes a matter of life or death. For the person now removed from war (literal or figurative), it is important to process with fully human capabilities and the help of a community what tragedies and dangers they just faced. Else a new war rage in the mind. Every external stressor is a future internal stressor, unless it is processed well.

This introduces a new corollary. To the degree that we have our inner affairs in order, the better able we are to deal with stressors internal and external. For the one with healthy mind, emotions, and spirit, internal stress does not grow as rapidly or as dangerously. The same deadline at work affects the same person differently based on the degree they have appropriately dealt with internal stressors. This is why counselors find great success in having people work through stories of origin. The once external stressors of family dynamics over time become internal stressors that effect the way we view ourselves and the world. When that stress is high, our ability to deal with external stress is low. The man who is corrected by his boss quite reasonably, is crushed as he experiences another authority figure who is disappointed with him.

Internal stressors are embarrassing, like having a rash or gas. They are our weaknesses and our sin. They are our imbalances, our unforgiveness, our disorders, our bitterness, our abuse, our hatreds, our hurts, our fears, our addictions, our lusts. If put on display, they bring us great shame, and in fact they are in large part the source of our shame. Which means the only way to effectively deal with them is to bring them into the light and see them. We need to understand what we are doing to ourselves internally. We need to battle the sin nature and not simply its effects. This normally requires help from someone with wisdom in asking questions and sharing truth. Some pastors and some professional counselors are particularly helpful. We are not meant to deal with such burdens alone.

If we don’t deal with the internal stressors, they will undo us over time. Some folks are tough and go on for years without much effect. Others (and this was my experience) have a breakdown early on and try to grow out of it. But apart from the redemptive work of Christ, there can be a point of no return. The well-known author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once confessed his own struggles in a series of essays for Esquire Magazine:

A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist. So, since I could no longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years? I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person — to be kind, just, or generous...There was to be no more giving of myself — all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste. (“The Crack Up”)

One can’t live like this for long, and Fitzgerald died of a heart attack four years later. But it doesn’t have to end up like that. There is a God who has proved himself trustworthy through a billion provisions, chiefly by sending his own Son to remake this fallen world. This God invites us to hope, and he even gives the stressed out, broken down, and cracked up child of God words to pray when we don’t know how or what:

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
 O my God, in you I trust;
 let me not be put to shame;
 let not my enemies exult over me…
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
 for I am lonely and afflicted.
 The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
 bring me out of my distresses.
 Consider my affliction and my trouble,
 and forgive all my sins.
 Consider how many are my foes,
 and with what violent hatred they hate me.
 Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!
 Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
 May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
 for I wait for you. (Psalm 25:1–2; 16–21)