Five Biblical Responses to Anxiety
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Statistics suggest approximately 18% of adults – nearly 1 in 5 individuals – have experienced some form of clinical anxiety at some point in their adult life.
What is Anxiety?
Perhaps one of the reasons anxiety disorders are so prevalent is because the highest number of possible diagnoses fall under the anxiety umbrella. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, Specific Phobias (such as agoraphobia or arachnophobia), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are all categorized as disorders of anxiety. While anxiety is a normal response to stress, these disorders find commonality in an excessive fear of a certain trigger.
It is widely known that lifestyle changes – such as healthy eating or deep breathing – have proven helpful to those suffering with anxiety, but the Bible offers spiritual wisdom to those that struggle with anxiety and fear.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
The command to not be anxious about ANYTHING seems ridiculous when we are in the throes of a stressful situation. At times, letting go of stress or finding peace in anxiety seems simply impossible. Prayer as a response to anxiety has been scientifically tested on several occasions, and results have come back mixed: some studies suggest prayer helps anxiety, others suggest prayer can make anxiety worse, and still others suggest prayer makes no difference on anxiety levels at all.
Interestingly, studies do repeatedly suggest that gratitude is negatively correlated with symptoms of anxiety; or, greater levels of gratitude contribute to lesser levels of anxiety. When we approach God with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that God sees us and has intentionally given us something good. Likewise, when we offer our petitions to the Lord, we believe that He can and will do something about what we are asking. If you have ever heard of attachment theory before, you know that a child who believes his parent will consider and tend to his needs usually grows up to be more confident and less anxious than his peers that do not trust their parents to hear them. The same appears to be true regarding our belief in God’s response to us.
The verses above are spoken right before Paul tells the Philippians to think about and put into practice what is pure and noble. Just a couple verses later, Paul famously states that he has learned to be content in all situations due to the strength Christ provides (Phil 4:13). So, the simple act of praying may not be enough to lower anxiety. Instead, who we believe God is, how we believe He reacts to His creation, and on what we set our minds makes all the difference.
- Listen to the Spirit
“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12).
Oftentimes anxiety is triggered by some external event – relationship struggles or an upcoming surgery, for example. Generally speaking, we are easily preoccupied with details we can’t control. We all know difficulties abound in life, and Jesus did not sugarcoat the hardship of living as Christians. After His ascension, He knew his followers would face oppression. He knew they would be dragged to court and in front of authorities that would have the power to put them to death. His advice? Don’t worry. The Holy Spirit will help you. While Jesus was talking specifically about persecution in the above verses, the same idea can apply to our everyday circumstances. If Jesus’ disciples could take courage under threat of death, we can take heart that, if we ask Him, the Spirit will guide us as we wade into the unknown.
- Boast in the Lord
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.” (2 Cor 11:30-31)
Anxiety often stems from the fear that we are inadequate or don’t have what it takes to overcome the task or challenge in front of us. No matter how much training we may have, or how much knowledge, our human wisdom and ability is always limited. No matter how hard we try, we can never do or know everything. In contrast, God is omniscient, full of wisdom, and able to do all things (Matt 10:30; Job 15:8; Gen 18:14). If we allow ourselves to pray and listen to the Spirit, we may find God working and speaking through us in ways we never would have imagined possible.
- Seek Encouragement
“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” (Proverbs 12:25)
Have you ever been beside yourself with worry only to have a friend or loved one come and tell you everything will be okay? As Proverbs so eloquently states, anxiety can be so heavy that it is experienced as soul pain. Since anxiety is largely fear-based, letting somebody else speak positive truth into our lives can do much to alleviate the biased thoughts we have toward ourselves or our situations.
- Focus on the Kingdom
“Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes… But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.’” (Luke 12:22-23, 31-32)
Distraction is a tactic that I often prescribe to people that are experiencing extreme anxiety or depression. Focusing on something other than emotional upset can be so helpful to help bring peace. While yoga, physical exercise, reading, or hanging out with friends can calm our emotions for a little while, they are all temporary reliefs. The verses above are referencing worry about our physical needs, but the Kingdom of God promises eternal security for our every need. No matter our lot in life, in Christ we have been given all things.
Some people believe that a right relationship with Jesus will resolve most mental health problems. While I am not of that camp, I do believe that a closer relationship with Christ never hurts. Just as God gave us physical resources and emotional knowledge, He has also provided us with spiritual resources to lead us toward healing. The Bible provides wisdom on how to trust the Lord to be the Giver and Sustainer of our faith and of our lives.