In her mid-twenties, Ally stepped down from her job at a Christian organization, feeling too stressed to continue. After moving back in with her parents, a friend asked her to house-sit while they were on vacation, and she thought it was a great opportunity to spend some time alone to reflect on her next steps.

Initially she was running on adrenaline, but when she settled in for some time with the Lord, her heart began to race, she began to sweat profusely, she felt physically ill and her thoughts began to spiral uncontrollably.

“What if I can’t find another good job? What if I do find something but can’t handle it?” 

“Are people going to think that I am a failure?”

“Has God abandoned me?”

This was her first panic attack – thought not her last in the weeks to come.

These kinds of experiences are debilitating, leaving us feeling crippled with fear, and unable to move forward with purpose and meaning.

This is only one form of anxiety (others include generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.), but it is commonly experienced even by people with a deep relationship with God. There are those who would teach that worry or anxiety is a sin and that God disapproves of the Christian who indulges in such activity. This perspective of anxiety is not only wrong, but it can be incredibly damaging to those who are anxious or have an anxiety disorder.

When we read in Scripture that God’s people are told to “fear not,” it can be easy to misunderstand this command and feel shame when we experience anxiety. What it means, though, is that even though there might be reason to fear or be anxious, followers of God can be assured that his presence is with them, that he will protect and sustain them even in the worst of circumstances

Anxiety is not typically a choice people make. It is an autonomic response to a real or perceived threat. Ally did not choose to have a panic attack; rather as she began to reflect on what her future might hold, her thoughts and fears began to overwhelm her, physically as well as mentally, even though she had a strong faith in God.

Psychiatrist and author of The Whole-Brained Child Dr. Daniel Siegel explains the difference between the “downstairs” brain and the “upstairs” brain. When our anxiety is triggered, it is because the amygdala, which is part of the downstairs brain, has kicked in to warn us of danger. Before we can think through a response, we instinctively go into a fight, flight or freeze response. When we are functioning out of the downstairs brain, we are not able to access our upstairs brain where we can make rational, well-thought-out decisions.

While this instinctive response to danger is all part of God’s design, it should be noted that we all experience fear and anxiety to varying degrees, depending on genetics, circumstance, biochemistry or trauma. The good news is God also designed us to be thinking beings, and to counter anxiety we need to be able to re-engage the upstairs brain.

In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul tells us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This can be an excellent tool as we move from being controlled by the downstairs brain to utilizing our God-given upstairs brain.

Let’s go back to Ally and her terrifying experience.

As she feels overwhelmed with worry about her future, her downstairs brain is screaming at her, but simple tools such as deep breathing, taking a brisk walk or distracting herself with music can help Ally re-engage her upstairs brain by countering her negative thoughts (taking them captive) with a few simple questions.

Fear: “Is it true that God has abandoned me?”

Truth: “No, I don’t see any evidence of that. He gave me a safe place to land for now and has promised to be with me.”

Fear: “Have people actually said that they think that I am a failure?”

Truth: “No one has said that.”

Fear: “Is it true that I will not be able to handle the demands of another high-pressure job?”

Truth: “This experience has taught me some things about how I handle stress and ways I can put supports in place so I can manage some of those things better.”

Fear: “What if I can’t find another good job?”

Truth: “It might take a while and it might not be perfect, but I am employable and have insurance while I search. Maybe this isn’t so hopeless.”

Now that Ally’s upstairs brain is functioning again and she is better able to think rationally about her anxieties, she can begin to move forward again, faith intact, trust in God restored and no longer paralyzed by fear.

For those who become overwhelmed by their anxious thoughts, it can be difficult to find a way out of that heightened state on our own. While God did provide us with an upstairs brain, he also provided us with helpful resources. Counselling, support groups or even doctor-prescribed medication are all available to help Spirit-filled believers like Ally manage their anxiety. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.

Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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