In light of the holiday stresses and anxieties, I bring you a couple of thoughts regarding “Christian” anxiety.
Everyone faces anxiety at times in their life (unless you lost your amygdala) But some anxieties are unique to evangelical Christians:
1. What if I am out of God’s will? What if I make the wrong choice?
2. What if I committed the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit?
3. What if I am missing out on the blessing of God? What does it mean if I don’t feel thankful?
4. What if God wants me to stay in this awful situation? What if my situation is God’s punishment for previous sins?
5. What if I’m not sure I believe? Am saved? Have faith?
6. Is God holding out on me because I have weak faith?
I’m sure there are more you could list (feel free to add to this!) that are unique to Christians.
When working with someone struggling with these kinds of intrusive spiritual fears (aren’t all fears intrusive?), I have noted that they often
- struggle with frequent guilt
- are comforted by voices around them telling them that they are okay…but the comfort doesn’t last very long as cognitive efforts to convince them they are wrong fail
- work very hard to do Christian service–sometimes to the point of compulsion
If you or someone you love struggles with these fears consider the following recommendations
1. Listen for the deepest concern. What if’s are almost always present in anxiety. What if I’m not saved? What if God isn’t going to give me my desires? Instead of responding to the surface fear, listen between the lines for deeper concerns (without debating them). For example, fears about not being sure about faith may really be a deep sensation of guilt and or failure to be perfect.
2. Validate AND encourage re-evaluation of the meaning of the fears. Always begin with validation—communicating that (a) it is clear the counselee has a real problem that needs attention, (b) such concerns are painful, BUT—and this is important—, (c) it might be possible that they have mis-identified their spiritual problem. Fear tends to deceive the mind and misdirect attention away from more important matters (e.g., a worry about germs focuses attention on cleanliness but away from underlying fears of being out of control).
3. Counter fear with STOP and MEDITATE techniques. Most people have their self-soothing techniques. Unfortunately, some of these can add to the anxiety. For example, repetitive “Lord save me” prayers will only lead to more belief that you may not be saved. Look for these repeated responses to fear and try to stop them–even if they seem rather religious in nature. Instead, look to meditate on some other part of the bible or of the character of God–something completely out of the orbit of the fear.
4. Develop alternate goals. Most anxious people would like not to be so. Who can blame them? But eliminating anxious spiritual thoughts may not be a good goal. And, the efforts to do so may only increase the spiritual angst. Yes, medication and preceding efforts may reduce anxiety, often the fears remain active in the background. An alternate goal might include (a) resisting the old dialog that engages the fear as important, (b) choosing to use the stimulus of the fear to focus on a specific person in need (a shut-in who needs a call, praying for someone else, etc.). These alternate tasks will reduce the anxious person’s thoughts about self…and thus reduce their anxiety.