The Weight of the World: Anxiety, Care and the Theology of Suffering
Authored by Jennifer Boen and reprinted from SpeakUp (A Conference on the Church and Mental Health).
The spectrum of anxiety
**The alarm sounds to wake you for another workday. For a few seconds, you think about rolling over and sleeping a bit longer. Then you remember. You have to give a presentation and the boss will be there.Suddenly your hands are sweating. A wave of nausea hits you.
**“The store is closing in 15 minutes,” a voice says over the intercom. You head to the checkout to pay for your new dress and leave out the nearest door, the manager locking the door behind you. You notice how empty and dark the parking lot is compared to when you arrived. Suddenly you recall you parked on the opposite side of the store. As you start walking to find your car, you observe a man get out of his vehicle and start walking toward you. A myriad of thoughts race through your mind: “Should I scream? Should I run back toward the store? Should I find my phone in my purse and dial 911?”
**A new family has moved into the house next door. Their children are near the same age as yours. They invite you and several other neighbors for a cookout. You want to go but just thinking of leaving the house, especially if the situation involves being around a group of people, spurs a panic attack. That’s why you stopped going to church a year ago.
Each scenario typifies anxiety at some level and in some context. Anxiety is a very complex biological, neurological and biochemical emotion or response. It can be rooted in past experiences, complicated by our belief system and both over-emphasized and under-emphasized for the role it plays in our everyday lives. Most of us think of anxiety in negative terms. It makes us uncomfortable and we want to escape it, but it’s not always a bad thing. The adrenaline surge or hyper-alertness can enable us to physically flee from a dangerous situation. God created us with the ability to respond with genuine fear.
It is helpful to think of anxiety on a spectrum much like ADHD. At the low end is basic, everyday worries or concerns; at the other end is debilitating fear. We often don’t get to decide how we will respond to something, especially if it evokes a past experience that we’ve stored in our emotional core or sensory memory rather than in the logical cortex of the brain. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring, intrusive thoughts that may keep them from doing things they would like to do.
Reframing the church’s approach to anxiety
Heidi speaks firsthand about anxiety, as she too has struggled with it. As a deaconess in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, a women’s ministry leader as well as a pastor’s wife, Heidi has also experienced the huge conundrum anxiety has within the church and spiritual sectors. Within the church, we tend to contextualize all anxiety as worry, which becomes problematic from both a mental health and a theological aspect. When people confide in ministry leaders, for example, or seek prayer and support as they face fears and worries, citing Bible verses about fear or anxiety may be more harmful than helpful. Phil. 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (New International Version). The verse is truth from God, but quoting this out of context to a person burdened with anxiety can cause the individual to feel shame and admonishment for doubting God’s protection, provision, and promises.
When we pull back and look through a wider lens, we see many examples in the Bible of great men and women of God who had times of fear and anxiety. Job, David and Paul are good examples. David proclaimed that the Lord was his rock, his fortress, his deliverer – but he also said he felt forsaken. Even in the goodness of God, God is working in and through the anxiety to bring good. There is growth; there is a turning to God and a turning to one another. When we express our anxieties out loud, they lose a lot of their power. We can embrace our anxieties without being bogged down.
Five strategies to help the anxious
*We live in a broken world and despite our desire to proclaim and live out God’s truth, we will have times of anxiety. An important strategy is what I call the theology of now – focusing on what God has given us for what we need today, reminding one another of what we can do at this moment to see that God is at work.
*When someone comes to us with a burden of anxiety, we should open up about our own struggles. This helps reduce the shame, the stigma that people in the church may feel about their own anxiety. I call this “living in the one another.” Sharing our journey will release someone else’s shame.
*We often cannot control our body’s response to situations that cause anxiety. Research points to the biochemical and even DNA “kinks,” or changes, that result from traumatic experiences. Hormonal changes can increase anxiety. Medications can be extremely helpful in such situations.
*Music is a great tool to allow anxiety to move in and through us. Loud, thunderous music encourages the mind and body to work out feelings such as anger; other times, what’s needed is calmer music.
*Lastly, make a gratitude list. For 30 days, write down 10 things – no duplications – for which you are grateful. Gratitude can affect our brains and rewrite what we are focusing on.
Heidi Goehmann is a licensed, independent social worker in Norfolk, NE, where her husband pastor’s a church. She blogs regularly, does podcasts and leads online women’s Bible studies through her website, ilovemysherpherd.com. Heidi earned her undergraduate degree in theology from Concordia University in Chicago and her MSW from the University of Toledo. Also, an advocate for women of cross-cultural communities, Heidi is the mother of four children, ages 6 to 15.
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