Years ago, Mad TV did a skit with Bob Newhart where he played a psychologist. A new client walked into his office and began to share her fears. He listened carefully, rocking back in his chair before saying that he wanted her to pay close attention while he told her two words that would solve all her problems. She grabbed a pen and paper and prepared to take notes. Newhart, who had been quiet and reserved up to this point, suddenly yelled, “Stop it! Just, stop it!”
As funny as the skit is, it can strike an unsettling cord. To someone who is overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, the well-meaning advice that is often given, particularly by Christians, is to simply “stop worrying and trust God.” It is almost never that simple.
I used to believe anxiety was a sinful sign of my lack of faith, so I ignored it.
For years, I tried to work around it. Constant stress eventually makes us sick though, and my body took the brunt of it. Emotionally, I felt fine. I was “handling it,” but the headaches would start by midday and last until bedtime. Nausea, fatigue, muscle aches and insomnia followed.
God created us as cohesive beings—mind, body and soul. We can only ignore the health of one of those parts for so long before it starts to affect the health of the rest.
High levels of stress and anxiety have significant physical effects on our bodies, such as stomach pain, muscle tension, chronic pain, headaches, weakened immune systems and the development of other mental health disorders.
God wired our bodies to give us signals when something is wrong. We notice symptoms of a cold and we respond accordingly. Stress is no different. When we see the signs that all is not well, here are a few places we can start.
Be honest with yourself and others.
As Christians, we believe that the truth is freeing, not only truth as in the person of Jesus Christ, but also the truth when spoken into the rest of our lives.
Imagine a relationship that is experiencing tension. The longer two people ignore the problem and try to work around it, the less healthy their dynamic will become. The same is true for our mental and emotional health. We won’t experience real freedom from worry unless we start by naming it. Be honest with God, be honest with yourself, be honest with your community, be honest with a counselor.
Let it go.
A group of researchers have found that worry is often used as a form of protection. Worry suggests that it is taking care of us by helping us brace for impact. Knowing how difficult it is to suddenly receive hard news, worry tells us that we can be prepared. Together, we can think through all the ins and outs before anything happens.
Like all lies though, worry doesn’t give us the whole picture. While worry would like us to believe we have something to gain by keeping it around, Jesus said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:27-34)
When worry presents itself as the most reasonable way out, expose it for the lie that it is and let it go. Replace them with the promises of God instead by returning to Scripture to read what God has to say about your future and your security in Him.
Guard what goes in.
Jesus warned that whatever is stored within the heart would eventually tumble out of the mouth. (Luke 6:45)
What we fill ourselves with will shape the health of our spirits and our minds. Inevitably, it will spill back out in the way we think, talk and behave.
If you find yourself crushed by stress, how might you be able to better guard what goes in?
Examine your triggers for anxiety: Facebook? Particular TV shows? Answering emails before bed? Drinking five cups of coffee before lunch? Three glasses of wine with dinner? Saying yes when you should say no? A lack of boundaries?
Identify what’s going in that is adding to the chaos and then choose to keep it out.
Guard what goes out.
Paul ended his letter to the church in Philippi by speaking to what they set their minds to. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
When we are working out of unhealthy ideas about ourselves and the people around us, it’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing than to choose to think differently.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has found that our brains develop highways for processing the same information repeatedly. With intentional practice, actively choosing to replace old thoughts with new ones will make the brain build new highways and our automatic thought patterns become healthier with time.
What we say matters. It shapes our brains as much as it shapes those around us. Let us guard what goes out as fiercely as we guard what goes in.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
Anxiety is not a mandatory standing condition of life. Rather than viewing it as a sign of sin or mistrust, let’s view it as a temporary messenger, designed to slow us down and reorient our minds, bodies and souls towards the peace and the freedom that Christ promised.