The last few posts have had an unofficial “soul care” theme to them as we’ve explored alternatives to fuming over a world gone mad, how to get along with our “difficult people,” and tips for filling our minds with scriptures that bring joy and peace. Hey, that sounds like a good bootcamp for the final months of election season, right?
For some, though, the hardships of 2020 coupled what could best be described as a dark spiritual climate have sent us to a new level of distress. We’re not talking a few worrying thoughts here. We’re talking chest-tightening, sleep-wrecking, stomach-churning misery. If that’s you and it’s been going on for two weeks or more, it’s time to talk to your doctor about your health. If it is chronic anxiety, it’s not “just in your head,” but a real health problem with real treatment options. That may include medication and counseling, and as I’ve learned from my friends Dena and Jason, authors of When Anxiety Strikes: Help and Hope for Managing Your Storm, it may also include new ways of caring for your whole self. Here’s what they had to say:
Cassia: I’ve heard you both mention that “anxiety is a body-related event,” not just something that happens in our minds. Can you explain that and how caring for the body affects our experiences with anxiety?
Dena: For me as an anxiety sufferer, I’ve come to think of it as a back and forth exchange between my body and my mind, which Jason has helped me see aren’t really as separate as we like to think. When my mind churns up anxiety, the resulting adrenaline and cortisol wreak havoc on my body. My gut gets funky, my muscles spasm. Sometimes I get bodily sick in ways that require medical intervention. On the other hand, when I am in a good place and keep up my bodily self-care such as walking, doing breathing exercises, limiting caffeine, and eating healthy foods, I can stave off anxiety.
Jason: There is a way in which theologically, we have separated ourselves from our bodies. In many ways, early Christianity was influenced by Gnosticism and dualism, which elevated the mind over the body, in a way that hurt us. When you look at what Jesus did, he didn’t make people get their “mind” right before he fed them. And so much of the ministry of Jesus was healing of bodies! So, there is a way in which belief is important, but Jesus never asked someone to recite the Nicene Creed and cogently explain the Trinity before offering sustenance and healing.
Because anxiety so affects the body with heart rate increases, chest tightening, muscles tightening, and stomach problems, you have to start there. I use the analogy sometimes that if you were soothing a crying child, instead of just telling them to “calm down,” you pick them up, you breathe more calmly, you focus on soothing first. Now for us adults, we have to find those soothing actions that help us calm first. Once that brain and body system settles a bit, then we can work on the thoughts that may have triggered the anxiety in the first place.
Cassia: One of the things I love about your book is the dual perspective from you, Dena, as an anxiety sufferer and a college pastor, and you, Jason, as a mental health professional and someone who loves and cares for an anxiety sufferer. When and how did the content in When Anxiety Strikes: Help and Hope for Managing Your Storm move from being your personal story to one you felt convinced you needed to share with others?
Dena: Our story began 20-something years ago. I was diagnosed with panic disorder at age 24 while in seminary. After an acute flare-up, I received treatment and improved, but like many others, I have had periods of relatively good mental health and periods where I struggle. You learn a lot when you manage a health issue for 20 years! Jason has been in private practice mental health work for 15 years, so he learned a lot from a therapist’s perspective, but we had not considered combining our experience until one summer seven years ago after another anxiety flare. I longed for a devotional to help me through the hard days but couldn’t find one I liked. I felt led to write such a book and shared this emerging call with Jason. He had been leading several community courses on mindfulness meditation and suggested we write an eight-week course on managing anxiety from a Christian perspective.
Jason: Over a weekend I crafted the format for the book. We would start with the breath, body, and movement, and then shift to the mind and change. Then, there would be a whole week devoted to spirituality. The final week would focus on finding a healthy community. Once the format was set, we wrote about four weeks of the book in a blur ahead of the class. The last four weeks were actually written while we were offering the class, so a lot of our real-time learning from the participants themselves made its way into the book. Those fundamental components, from understanding the importance of breathing all the way to finding healthy community, resonated with our participants at the time, and seven years later, remain the key chapters in our book.
Cassia: Your book does a great job encouraging those with anxiety, but what advice do you have for those who have been brave enough to share their struggles with others but have found a lack of empathy or even felt blamed for their suffering?
Jason: At times with some clergy, friends, and family, that can be challenging because the stigma around mental health is strong. But I say, keep looking. Find a therapist or counselor or clergyperson who can walk with you through those first steps of treatment and relief. We don’t tell someone with diabetes or heart disease, “Well, if you had just not had all those Big Macs then you wouldn’t be feeling this.” Our faith calls us to act as Jesus would, with open arms, with love. That doesn’t preclude some eventual lifestyle changes, but that is in no way where you start.
Dena: Oh goodness, that is a hard place to be in. First off, I would tell them I am so sorry that happened to them. It’s hard not to take it personally, but the rejection is more about the person judging you than about you. Unfortunately, that probably happens to all of us who struggle with anxiety, which is the last thing we need. I’ve also learned than when I am struggling with a flare up, I’m careful about who I share my story with. Some folks I just don’t trust to hold my struggles because I don’t need their toxicity. And yes, sometimes those folks are family and friends so that really stinks. But like Jason says, keep looking. Test the waters with folks around mental health issues, and don’t feel bad for setting boundaries wherever you need to with those who don’t get it. Friends that seem understanding get to hear your story. Those friends become precious treasures. And until you can find those understanding friends, good therapists and empathetic pastors can get you through.
Next post I ask Dena and Jason to discuss the mind and spirit including breaking down their favorite scripture passages when it comes to anxiety. The couple also has some excellent advice for those who love and care for an anxiety-sufferer. In the meantime, go check out When Anxiety Strikes: Help and Hope for Managing Your Storm, currently the number one new release on Amazon for Christian Counseling and recently recommended by Christian writer Ann Voskamp.