Spiritual Life: Struggles with Anxiety

July 09, 2020

Spiritual Life: Struggles with Anxiety

Spiritual Life: Struggles with Anxiety

A summary of the session by Dr. Shawn Reynolds and Pastor Rita Penner

Anxiety is a very common mental disorder people regularly struggle with, but now during this time of COVID, anxiety has become one of the top mental disorders people struggle with. The merging of science and faith can have a significant impact on how to cope with anxiety and how to apply strategies to deal with anxiety.

Psychology has only been a field of study for little over 100 years, yet Jesus provided us with insight long before any research was done on it! Jesus taught us to forgive those who have done us wrong. This may seem counter-intuitive to what we may think would help us, but science has taught us that forgiving others has a positive impact on us—Jesus knows us and knows what is best for us. He cares deeply about each of us as a whole person: body, soul and mind. God shows Himself through science.

Anxiety versus Stress
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease that is typically around an upcoming event that has an uncertain outcome. Usually, anxiety is based on fear about what may happen in the future. Stress, on the other hand, is a strain or tension related to a current circumstance a person may find themselves in.  

During this season of COVID, you may be experiencing stress and anxiety because of the circumstance you’re in, along with the uncertainty and fear about what the future holds. Experiencing some stress and anxiety is totally normal, but the degree to which stress and anxiety manifests itself varies from person-to-person. There are two components where anxiety reveals itself: 
1. Cognitive component – what is happening in our minds.
This could translate into looping thoughts, that is, thoughts that repeat themselves over again; trouble falling sleeping or staying asleep; being irritable or acting out of character.
2. Physiological component – what is happening in our body.

This could translate into feeling tense, stomach aches or experiencing ‘butterflies’, shortness of breath, or rapid, irregular heart-beat.
Identifying cognitive and physical symptoms can be tricky because they can differ from person-to-person and don’t necessarily present the same way in all cases.

If you experience any of these physical symptoms, without an awareness and understanding about what is happening in your body and mind, you may think that you were having a heart attack. Often, when a person experiences the physical symptoms for the first time, they think something is medically wrong and end up in an emergency room hooked up to a heart rate monitor, only to be released later and told their experience was a result of anxiety manifested into a panic attack.

Unless someone you know or love has experienced anxiety and talked about it openly, you may not understand what’s happening, and why it’s happening to you. The fear and the shame of finding out there is nothing wrong and, even more so, learning that the symptoms are a result of anxiety, can be humiliating and embarrassing. As humans, it’s natural to hide behind our shame and not talk about it for fear of being judged or labelled. The stigma surrounding mental disorders still exists. By not talking about our experience with anxiety and how anxiety shows up for you personally, we inadvertently perpetuate the stigma of mental disorders and prevent others from learning that anxiety is common, and we aren’t alone. In fact, about one out of three people will experience a panic attack at some point, and many more will experience concerns with anxiety .

Understanding the Spectrum of Anxiety
Everyone worries! That is natural, and we’ve already mentioned anxiety is very common, but the degree to which people experience anxiety differs. For some, it may be mild anxiety—butterflies in the stomach before a meeting or trying out a new sport. For others it may be debilitating where it is impossible to leave the house, and still for others it may be somewhere in-between. Most psychological disorders are on a continuum, or spectrum, so where you are on the spectrum can move back and forth depending on various factors like your circumstances, how you are feeling, what you’re going through, how you were raised, your physiology and the strategies you have to combat and deal with your anxiety.

Strategies to deal with anxiety
Jesus talked a lot about anxiety and worrying about what may happen in the future. In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus tells us not to worry about our life, and what we will eat or drink; or about our body, what we will wear. God takes care of the birds and feeds them, so why wouldn’t He take care and provide for you—you are more valuable then them. He also asks you if by worrying you can add a single hour to your life? Giving your worries to God, praying and trusting that He will take on all your anxiety and worry is definitely one way of dealing with our anxiety. Knowing we serve a loving God who helps and provides healing provides comfort and peace, but He may not provide it immediately or in the way we imagine. Faith alone may not erase anxiety or by being more faithful, cause the torment of anxiety to disappear. Sometimes we need additional help, and what works for one, may not work for another—unfortunately there is no magic wand.

Be part of a community
God made us human beings and enabled us to help each other, serve one another and live in community. Being a part of a community where you can be authentic, vulnerable and safe to talk about your experience with anxiety is so important. Community doesn’t necessarily mean opening up and sharing your most intimate thoughts with a group of 30 people, of course if you feel comfortable doing that—go for it! In community can also mean one or two people that you know and trust. Sharing your story and listening to others can be healing for a couple of reasons. First, knowing you are not alone, and second, by offering you hope. Others have experienced anxiety or other mental disorders have worked through it, learned to manage it and cope with it—you can too.

Build Resilience
What makes anxiety or mental disorders so difficult to battle is that we try to avoid putting ourselves into situations where we experience anxiety. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know how terrorizing and unbearable they can be. You do everything in your power to avoid having another one, so you may decide you shouldn’t drive because the last time you drove to work, you had a panic attack. Then, over time, you avoid driving, then going to work, and eventually you are afraid to leave the house. You become really invested in never having to experience another panic attack again; however, in doing so, the anxiety and how it manifests itself becomes even worse than the panic attack itself. The only way to combat this is to meet it head-on by building resilience through exposure, acknowledging what is happening physically and mentally, and building language around what you are feeling at that moment. Name your emotions and learn how to sit with uncomfortable feelings. This takes practice and is REALLY hard! Remind yourself that panic attacks are generally short, but even the longest ones only last for 45 minutes to one hour, as our bodies simply cannot sustain that level of energy for longer periods of time and emotions ebb and flow. Knowing you are going to survive a panic attack (no matter how awful it is) and meeting your anxiety right where it is, putting a name to the feelings that your feeling, courageously, builds resilience.  

Rate it
Create an awareness of what you are feeling and experiencing by rating your anxiety on a scale, also known as the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS) from 0 to 10 (0 = totally chill, while 10 = my head is going to explode). Applying this technique will give you a sense of what is happening and force you to take an objective view as to what your body and mind are doing. You can then incorporate other tools to help you.

This may sound very basic, almost patronizing, but the truth is, when we are in a heightened state of anxiety… we sometimes forget to breathe. Of course, our body can do this on its own, but when we are highly stressed, we tend to take short, deep breaths, which are not what we most need at that time. Not only does taking deep full-bodied breaths ground you, it also provides much needed oxygen to your brain and helps you calm down and relax. There are a number of breathing exercises that you can practice. Find out which ones work for you!

Be present
Anxiety is all wrapped up in what might happen in the future, let’s face it, when we are experiencing anxiety, we are not focusing on what is happening right here, right now. So… bring yourself to right here right now. You can do this by identifying five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste.

The ultimate truth
God tells us that He is the ultimate shepherd and is walking through this us. That means, you are not alone! God is with you—always. Despite knowing that God is with you, it can sometimes be difficult, when your thoughts are on repeat and what is going on in your mind is distorting the facts to think rationally. Dr. Reynolds refers to this as Catastrophic Misinterpretations. When people are anxious in a way that affects their life on a consistent basis, they are usually making an error in one of two ways:

1. They are overestimating the likelihood of the negative thing happening.
2. They are overestimating the impact of the negative thing happening.

One simple exercise to help you to decipher truth from misinterpretation involves evaluating the degree of risk. Ask yourself the following questions and write down your answers so you can visually see what you wrote:
• What are you anxious/stressed about?
• What are the facts? What is the ultimate truth?
• What is most likely to actually happen?
• Is it a true catastrophe?

Schedule some time to worry, pray or meditate
These days schedules can be pretty hectic – managing work, kids, family, finances, social events etc. Why should worrying be any different? We can sometimes try to block our thoughts to manage them, but as humans, the more we tell ourselves we can’t have something, do something or think something, we end up wanting, doing and thinking about it even more. For example, “Don’t think about a white elephant!” … leads you to think about a white elephant. If you give yourself permission to ‘worry’ about things that are important that require a bit of energy to come up with a solution, set some time aside to focus on the problem without any other distractions. The time you have becomes more productive in solving the problem. Schedule time to pray and meditate. This too becomes helpful in grounding yourself and sharing your thoughts with God or just sitting quietly in His presence. It’s very easy to push this time aside because of the many other demands that you have going on daily. By scheduling time, not only are you nurturing your soul, but you are giving yourself permission to take some time to be present.

Children and Anxiety
While many of the strategies and tools mentioned were primarily for adults, they can also be applied to children, depending on their age. As a parent, you can help your child be present by focusing on what they are seeing, hearing and feeling at the moment. When your child is really upset, help them to breathe and focus on their breath. If your child is young, have him or her blow on your face. This forces them to inhale and exhale with intention.

Ever heard yourself saying to your child, “you’re just fine. There is nothing to worry about...”? The intention, when uttering those phrases, is usually to allay any fear the child; however, their feelings are dismissed and the opposite happens. Instead, talk with the child about how they are feeling. Help your children build language around their feelings – start with simple emotions like mad, sad and happy that most of us, and over time help them expand their emotions vocabulary (Bonus: This can also help you, develop and name yours)! If your child is older and can rationalize, help them evaluate the degree of risk: What are you stressed or worried about? What are the facts? What is most likely to happen? Is it really a catastrophe?

Instinctively, we want to protect our children, wrap them in bubble wrap and shield them from experiencing hurt, pain and rejection. However, by doing that, they never learn how to cope with or deal with negative emotion they will inevitably encounter as an adult. Allowing your child to experience negative emotions and not rescuing them all the time (within reason) teaches them resilience. Of course, you shouldn’t let your child play with a kite during a thunderstorm on a busy highway; but, allowing your child to feel rejected and sad by identifying and talking through his feelings because he wasn’t invited to a birthday party, can help build his resiliency. As a parent, provide opportunities for controlled failure where the failure is not going to be completely devastating or catastrophic. For example, your elementary school child chooses to not study for an exam. As a result, the child fails the exam. This is unfortunate, but it’s not catastrophic – it won’t keep the child from succeeding later on, and can in fact help them to grow and make better decisions. Help your child understand the consequences to their actions and encourage them to take responsibility for their actions.

Give your children tools to not only put names to their emotions, but how to cope with and feel those emotions. Teach your children to solve problems on their own by helping them achieve a calm state of mind. What does your child enjoy? Activities like exercising, playing or listening to music, or taking the dog for a walk are good examples. Eliminating anxiety altogether is not realistic; learning how to manage anxiety and cope with anxiety in our children is.

Final word
If you are human, you experience anxiety. There is no way around it; however, the degree of anxiety that you experience can vary. Anxiety is on a spectrum, and where you are on that spectrum may change from day-to-day, week-to-week and depend on your experiences, circumstances and physiology. For many, getting help can be accessed through the communities we belong to and by applying strategies and tools we have learned, as well as by engaging with small groups and friends. God tells us over and over again to not worry and to not be afraid; He probably emphasized this so much because he knew how easy it is for us to do this!

Professional assistance can also help, if you are finding continued challenges despite these strategies. This is important if you find that anxiety is having a detrimental impact on your life. This could mean having unusual or reoccurring thoughts, the inability to function like you once did, or thoughts that lead to self-harm toward yourself or toward others. It can also simply help you to see things in a new way that is different from what friends or loved ones can provide. There are lots of ways to get help.

Remember, you are not alone. God loves you and cares for you and invites you to cast your anxiety on Him.  

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7


Be Still and Know that I am God - Pastor Rita Penner
5 Ways to Maintain Your Well-Being During a Crisis - Featuring Dr. Henry Cloud
Trusting God in Difficult Times - Pastor Tim Keller
The Lord's Prayer - Give Us Today, Stress and Anxiety - Pastor Lou Giglio

Bible Reading Plan for Anxiety
You Version Bible App
Putting an X through Anxiety
Try Softer - A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress and Survival Mode into a Life of Connection and Joy - by Aundi Kobler
A Place of Healing - Wrestling with Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God's Sovereignty - by Joni Earekson Tada