The Intersection of Faith and Anxiety
- Part 2 -
An Essay by Sara Goetz, Cornerstone Community Team
Missed Part 1 of this essay? Read it HERE.
Although the stigma of anxiety and depression is slowly diminishing, the question still plagues us: how does faith and hope and trust in God make sense within the context of anxiety and depression? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because as someone who has wrestled with anxiety and depression for a while, I’ve struggled with the same question. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Your amygdala’s automatic response has nothing to do with your faith. Read that again. YOUR AMYGDALA’S AUTOMATIC RESPONSE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR FAITH. The flight or fight response is a chemical reaction — and my apologies to chemistry teachers everywhere — but our rich and mysterious hope in God simultaneously includes and transcends all things physical. Your amygdala doesn’t check in with your beliefs or your faith before it responds. It’s not supposed to. God didn’t design it that way. He designed this part of your brain to react quickly and decisively to keep you safe. When the amygdala is triggered, it’s going to react. So let it. But don’t let it become a barometer of your spiritual or emotional maturity.
While Jesus has tremendous compassion for our feelings; the Bible asks us to focus on our THOUGHTS. 2 Corinthians 10:5 states that “...we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I find tremendous comfort in this verse. It reminds me that I might have thoughts that are not “obedient to Christ.” But God is not asking me to take responsibility for the automatic thoughts that my overactive mind may produce, He asks me to be responsible for accepting or rejecting them. I love this idea. I love that I am not my thoughts and my faith is not my thoughts. Instead, my identity as a child of God lies in what I do with the thoughts my brain creates. For me, that is the epitome of freedom. At times, I feel like my anxious mind acts without my permission — and the idea that God is disappointed in me because my mind is bent toward anxiety is more than I can handle. This verse has released me from the fear that I am a disappointment to God. It reminds me that what God wants me to do, He has also equipped me to do. Through His help I can pay attention to my thoughts and reject those that do not line up with his grace and truth. His expectation of me — and the strength that He gives me to be the person He intends me to be - is not thwarted by anxiety. On the contrary, God knows my bent toward anxiety and gave me (and you!) this verse to remind us that we are more than our anxious mind.
Neuroscience teaches us that we can re-train our minds to quell the flight or fight reaction, but it takes time and determination. Much like creating a new path through the woods, creating a new neural pathway requires hundreds, if not thousands, of times of walking deliberately through a new place to embed the path. That means that we need to experience many flight or fight reactions before we can retrain our brains with a different, more tempered response. And what I know about God, His character, and His desire for me, I am assured that He won’t get tired of the process, impatient with me, or frustrated that I am a work in progress. God’s desire is to HELP me forge a new path; he doesn’t withhold His grace until I’ve made the new path. And conscientiously taking my thoughts captive, training them on those things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable—or anything that is excellent or praiseworthy—honors God, even if those thoughts are not the things I initially think about. (Phil 4:8)
It’s with tremendous compassion that God meets us where we are. He is the very essence of long-suffering and patience. The truth is, the imbalance anxiety creates in our minds may not be immediately restored. However, God offers us his promise to never leave us or forsake us. There is no caveat in that promise, no fine print, no exception to His commitment. Rest in that truth - He will never tire of reminding you of His deep and constant love. If you are interested in practical things you can do to actively restore balance to your overworked mind, continue on to part 3 of this essay by clicking here.
If you want to read more about the biology of anxiety, read Part 1.