“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”
Often times with good intentions, mature Christians may sometimes give this verse to individuals suffering with anxiety. But overcoming an issue can sometimes be more difficult than a simple phrase can solve. Usually, miscommunications can occur because the signs are not visually obvious. Similar to a headache, there may not always be external indicators to make anxiety appear as a problem. Therefore, because anxiety is not tangible we may not believe that it actually exists or we simply don’t know the best strategy to combat it. But, to the individual experiencing it, it is real and it is difficult to get through. In this case, though intentions are pure, simply quoting a bible verse may not always be the best way to approach the situation when someone confides in you with their mental health struggle.
Despite technological advances in the health field, the exact cause of anxiety is unknown. Anxiety disorders go beyond everyday stress and may sometimes involve feelings of excessive fear or worry that interfere with progress and functionality. With anxiety disorders, the body reacts as if danger is present when there is no actual threat. The body sounds all the alarms to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight, when in truth no harm is present. This overactivity of the bodily systems could result in fatigue or have other damaging effects. Many people with anxiety may have difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, experience irritability, or have racing thoughts. Though the struggle with this mental illness may seem endless, there is hope because anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Nevertheless, while approximately 44 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders, only one-third of those struggling actually seek and receive treatment. Professor and clinical psychologist Ryan Howes believes that many people do not seek out therapy or other forms of treatment because they feel ashamed or embarrassed. Society has placed a negative connotation on seeking help in general as it may be perceived as a sign of weakness, and even more so as it relates to mental illnesses. This concept could become especially damaging to individuals who feel as though they have to live up to a certain reputation to fit into their cultural, racial or religious group.
According to Focus On The Family, a Christian faith-based website, stigmas within the Christian community is a major factor why individuals may not seek help or even admit that they are suffering with an anxiety disorder. Some Christians may feel hopeless and begin to believe that this battle is a sign of spiritual failure. Yet there are many biblical figures that have faced their own battles with spiritual and mental health.
Mental illness is not always the result of a spiritual struggle. However, religious ideologies and criticism from fellow believers could negatively impact one’s mental health. Though there is limited research on the topic of religion and Christianity, a study performed by Kenneth Kendler and colleagues, revealed that different religious aspects could dictate someone’s relationship with a mental illness. Internalizing disorders include depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. On the other hand, externalizing disorders involved issue relating to substance abuse or dependence. According to Agorastos et al, negative religious perceptions could include beliefs that God has abandoned that individual or is punishing them, and worsen internalizing disorders such as anxiety. On the other hand, positive religious behavior including worship, fellowship, thankfulness, prayer and reading the bible was associated with better mental health, thereby reducing (not eradicating) both externalizing and internalizing disorders. This reveals, that even with a positive and devoted Christ following lifestyle, that individuals may still suffer from mental health issues.
Upon acknowledging that religious and spiritual resources do not make Christians absolutely immune to mental health issues, some may accept mental health as a serious issue worthy of taking note of. However, the response for ‘acceptable’ treatment could be burdensome. In her testimony, Christian singer, songwriter and inspirational speaker, Sheila Walsh, mentioned that she talked to a mother whose child was battling with mental health. She said, “My daughter has struggled for years with depression but she started to work with a church that doesn’t believe Christians should take medication. My daughter took her own life.” Though truly heartbreaking and painful to admit, more situations like this need to be brought to light. Everyone is different, and what works for one individual may not work so well for another. While there have been testimonies where through prayer and petition individuals have claimed receive instant healing from God, this may not always be the case. For example, Walsh mentions that medication has helped and she thanks God each day that He has made this resource available and possible for her.
Many are wary of using secular methods versus spiritual ones in the treatment of illnesses such as anxiety. However, psychologists are now beginning to understand the benefit of spirituality. For example, Kenneth Pargament an expert in the psychology of religion and spirituality mentions that psychologists are currently developing and evaluating spiritual integration into their treatment approaches (typically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Therefore, this once secular method of treating mental illnesses is now incorporating mantras from the Bible and utilizing other spiritual resources.
Nevertheless, regardless of the method of treatment whether it be medication or prayer for healing from anxiety, individuals should not be criticized for their choice. As aforementioned, many biblical figures have struggled with issues that did not arise from a lack of faith. For example, in the New Testament, Paul mentions that he had a “thorn in his flesh” (not a literal one). After pleading with God for its removal, God did not take it away but rather said, “My Grace is sufficient”. God lovingly denied this request so that in weakness, through Him believers could be made strong. Mental health is not an issue of faith. But, in the church, it may be an issue of perspective. We forget that many in the Bible have struggled and that God is not a magical fairy that grants our every wish.
The church may sometimes alienate and criticize fellow believers because of their battles. In doing so judgment takes root and makes people feel as though they have strayed away and that God is no longer willing to help them. However, that is not truly the case. The book of Romans mentions that nothing can separate anyone from God’s love. Through anxiety, depression or any other mental health battle, God’s love never ceases. Church can no longer be a place where individuals quietly suffer from their mental illness. We need to band together and permit these tough and awkward conversations. We need to listen, be respectful and offer a helping hand. We cannot solve issues if they remain to be hidden and unspoken.
Agorastos, A., Demiralay, C., & Huber, C. (2014). Influence of religious aspect and personal beliefs on psychological behavior: focus on anxiety disorders. PMC journals. 7, 93-101. doi: 10.2147/PRBM.S43666
American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What are anxiety disorders? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorder
American Psychological Association. (2013). What role do religion and spirituality play in mental health? Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/03/religion-spirituality.aspx
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2016). Understanding the facts of anxiety disorders and depression is the first step. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety
Graber, D. (2014). Anxiety Disorders- Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from https://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/emotional-health/anxiety-disorders-frequently-asked-questions
Kendler, K., Liu, X., Gardner, C., McCullough, M., Larsen, D., & Prescott, C. (2013). Dimensions of religiosity and their relationship to lifetime psychiatric and substance use disorders. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 160(3), 496-503.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
Smith, K. (2017). Free Stock Photo of Adult, Alone, Anxious. Retrieved from www.pexels.com/photo/adult-alone-anxious-black-and-white-568027/
Stetzer, E. (2013). Mental Illness and the Church: some helpful honesty from christian leaders you may know. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/april/mental-illness-and-church-some-helpful-honesty-from.html
Tartakovksy, Margarita. (2013). What prevents people from seeking mental health treatment? Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-prevents-people-from-seeking-mental-health-treatment/