I’ve always considered myself to be a person who handles stress pretty well. I like to be busy. I enjoy taking risks. I tend to have my hands in numerous endeavors at any given time. I never thought anxiety was my problem.
Then a little less than a year ago I hit a wall. The previous several years of starting and growing the church I now pastor had caught up with me. I could never seem to get enough sleep. Small tasks became very difficult. Things I had normally done with little thought or stress were suddenly accompanied with an almost crippling anxiety.
It all came to a head one day as I was driving between meetings when all of a sudden it felt as though my heart was malfunctioning. I pulled the car over to the side of the road convinced I was having a heart attack. I remember thinking this might be the way I go out and I began praying for my family. That was my first panic attack. It was that moment that I realized I could no longer ignore the stress and anxiety that was slowly taking over my life.
Something had to change.
That began a long journey back to health. After that day I began seeking counsel. I saw a doctor. I began making changes to the way I was living. By God’s grace, a year later I can say I am no longer on any medication, the panic attacks are gone and my anxiety is at an all time low; all of this despite having more on my plate than ever. Of course I still have days that are harder than others, but those days are increasingly few and far between.
I continue to meet many people who find themselves in a similar place to where I was just a year ago. Those conversations have only confirmed my suspicion that we the church have a long way to go when it comes to addressing issues of mental health. Like me just a year ago, many aren’t sure how to understand or respond to their struggle as a Christian.
So to those who find themselves in that place right now, allow me to suggest seven ways to deal with anxiety and stress as a Christian:
1. Admit there is a problem.
Just as walking with God begins with acknowledging our need for him, dealing with our anxiety requires acknowledging our need to deal with our anxiety. Those familiar with recovery programs like AA will tell you the first step to recovery is owning up to the fact that a problem exists. And they are right. Doing so requires a lot of humility and that is the primary reason many do not get the help they need. Anxiety in particular can be hard to own up to because it makes us feel weak in an area where so many others appear to be strong. “Why is this so hard for me? Why can’t I seem to get it together?” we wonder. The temptation is to keep pushing and hope the anxiety goes away on its own. As I learned the hard way, however, pushing through without addressing the problem can lead to an inevitable and ugly crash. I was dealing with anxiety for a very long time before I would acknowledge the effect it was having on me and my family. It wasn’t until I started having debilitating panic attacks that I finally resolved to admit there was a problem. By then, however, my health had been seriously affected which made the recovery time significantly longer. Had I owned up to the problem sooner I could have spared both myself and my family a lot of pain.
2. Stop self-medicating.
Many who struggle with stress and anxiety develop their own way of coping along the way. Some of those ways of coping are helpful, but many of them are not. Some respond to stress by eating things they shouldn’t be or by snacking constantly on junk food. Some drink to take the edge off. Others camp out in front of the television for hours on end playing video games or binge watching entire seasons of New Girl. None of these are healthy ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. I think most of us intrinsically know this. What we don’t often realize, however, is that responding to stress in these ways can actually work against our body’s ability to fight back and get healthy, not to mention what it can do to our soul. In other words, unhealthy coping mechanisms often make it worse, creating an endless cycle of stress and self-medication.
3. Take care of yourself physically.
In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul encourages believers to remember that our body is a living temple, one that has been bought at a great price, and therefore we ought to glorify God with it. Taking care of our bodies therefore is a spiritual endeavor. This is particularly important for those who struggle with stress and anxiety as our physical health is also connected to our mental health. The less healthy we are physically, the more prone we are to struggle with ongoing stress and anxiety. The inverse is also true. Regular exercise, for example, has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Some of those effects have proven to be the same as medication, only they last longer and come without the nasty side effects. One study in particular showed that those who regularly exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years. For me personally, getting healthy physically played a huge role in my getting healthy mentally. In addition to exercising, this included eating healthier, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, and learning to rest well. One of my favorite anxiety moments in the bible is found in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah is so overwhelmed by his circumstances that he wants to end his life. In that moment God didn’t give him a pep talk or shame him for his lack of faith. Instead, he gave him a meal and let him go to sleep. Twice. Learning to rest is an important part of taking care of the body God has entrusted us with. Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is take a nap.
4. Be intentional with what you are filling your mind with.
Philippians 4:8 says this: “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.” Here Paul is pointing to the fact that what we fill our minds with has a profound affect on us. We see this truth at work whenever the scriptures speak of meditation. I think when many of us think about meditation we think of Eastern meditation which focuses primarily on the emptying of one’s mind. Hebrew meditation, however, is different. Hebrew meditation isn’t just about emptying one’s mind of wrong things, it’s about filling one’s mind with the right things. For me, this meant changing the kind of music I was listening to, the kinds of books I was reading, the kinds of shows I was watching, even the kinds of people I was spending time with. A year later I am much more able to take in a variety of each, but in that season I had to be diligent about filling my mind with the right kinds of things.
5. Don’t neglect the spiritual.
You and I are spiritual beings which means there is always more going on than meets the eye. So if we address the physical but ignore the spiritual, we will inevitably miss a big part of what is really going on. We must never forget that we live in a world at war. There is a battle raging all around us at all times. And while God desires for us to flourish, there is another that would love for nothing else than to see to see us suffer. He is given a number of different names in the bible. One of those names is “the father of lies.” Lying is what he does best. And he is well aware that his words are most likely to get through when you are most vulnerable. When you are overwhelmed with grief and anxiety he will whisper in your ear lies about your identity, your self-worth, your status before God, your past, your future, your hope. It is important that you recognize these for what they are. You must make a habit of utilizing the power of prayer, the gift of the scriptures and the support of Christian community who can help you discern the lies you are tempted to believe and who will remind you of who you truly are in Christ.
6. Consider seeing a doctor.
Some Christians can be weird about medication when it comes to treating things like anxiety and other forms of mental illness. I find this rather funny considering we rarely treat other parts of our body the same way. The same people who argue against taking medication for anxiety are generally pretty big fans of novocain when they are the ones in the dentist’s chair. Why the double standard? The most likely answer is they simply don’t understand. It is my personal conviction that medicine is not a rejection of God’s power, but rather a provision of his grace. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need. That said, you need to know medicine is not the cure-all when it comes to treating anxiety (or any mental health struggle for that matter). It can include side effects and it often takes multiple tries to find the right one. But it can help tremendously. Medicine helped me get over the hump and back to a place of normalcy. I am not taking any meds currently but if things got bad again, I wouldn’t hesitate to consider getting back on them. I know a good number of faithful Christians, pastors and leaders who take meds on a regular basis. If you try all of the things mentioned here and still find yourself struggling, it may be time to talk to your doctor.
7. Embrace the blessing of brokenness.
When I was in the worst of my depression and anxiety there were days when getting out of bed was difficult work. Just the sound of my alarm brought with it a sense of dread that made no rational sense but gripped me all the same. Hardly a moment went by when I was not painfully aware of my shortcomings as a man, as a husband, as a dad, and as a leader. It was awful. And it was wonderful. It created in me a dependency like I’d never previously experienced. I held onto Jesus with white knuckles as I prayed my way out of panic attacks. When my wife Megan prayed over me it wasn’t something I just thought we should probably do, it was something I desperately needed every single day. Words like that of Psalm 23 weren’t just nice words to casually read at leisure or embroider on a throw blanket. They were my life.
This is the blessing of brokenness. There are some things about God that can only be learned through suffering. There are some things he has for us that can only be received in the valley. Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t why God refused to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Because a broken and dependent Paul was a Paul through whom God could change the world. He was the kind of Paul that could write and mean words like this:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take this suffering away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
If you are walking through the valley of anxiety right now, there is a way out and I pray you find it. But in the meantime, don’t miss what God may have for you right where you are.