Training our brains to battle anxiety through minor troubles develops emotional stamina to endure harder times.
I shook off the January chill as I walked into my small group meeting on a dark evening. The leader began by asking us to quickly list some prayer requests. I surveyed the people present. Though a few, like me, had some years of experience behind us, most of those in attendance were in their early to mid-20s.
I mentally sifted through the various prayer requests I might share — the process of grieving my mother’s death, the marriage of good friends ripped apart by adultery, or another dear friend’s unexpected cancer diagnosis. As I considered which to unload on the group, a young woman piped up with her request.
“This week I haven’t been able to sleep because I’ve been so anxious,” she said. “I feel so pressured that I want to burst into tears.”
We leaned forward expectantly, waiting to learn more about the cause of her anxiety.
“I have two really good job offers, and I just don’t know which one to take,” she concluded. “I feel so stressed about this that I could just cry.”
I was a little taken aback. From my perspective, choosing between two good things is a reason to celebrate, not cry. But I also realised the anxiety this young woman felt is not unusual these days. A number of indicators reveal that anxiety is increasing nationally for teens and young adults. Denizet-Lewis, Benoit, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Extreme Anxiety?” The New York Times Magazine, October 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html
The thing I’ve realised is that life rarely gets easier as you age. Twenty years from now, this young woman may find herself with much more serious concerns than picking a job. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Emotional resiliency can also grow over time. The key to taming anxiety is found in training your brain to think differently.
Change Your Thoughts
Philippians 4:5-7 says:
The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This passage adorns so much Christian wall art that it can seem cliché. But that doesn’t diminish its truth. The circumstances that trigger anxiety may not disappear the second we pray about it, but the apostle Paul wasn’t intending these words to be a magic formula.
Learning to trust God with the hard circumstances of our lives is a lifelong process. Just like hunger triggers us to find food to eat and thirst drives us to find something to drink, anxiety signals to us that we need to be proactive about our thoughts. The more we are proactive about changing the tenor of our thoughts, the better we become at battling anxiety.
In fact, in recent years, neuroscience has confirmed the wisdom of Scripture when it tells us to replace anxiety and fear with thanksgiving and remembrance of God’s faithfulness. Research has shown that the brain is more malleable in its neural networks than previously assumed. Scientists are realising that neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (the malleability of neural circuits) work together to reshape our brains, and thus our thoughts and behaviours. Bergland, Christopher, “How Do Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis Rewire Your Brain?” Psychology Today, February 6, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201702/how-do-neuroplasticity-and-neurogenesis-rewire-your-brain
I recently spoke with Christian psychotherapist Deborah Bumbaugh on this topic. “The medical world is confirming what Scripture says about the impact of our thoughts and feelings on our brains,” she explained. “We’re seeing that what we think about actually grows neural networks. When it comes to discussing neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change throughout our lives — we like to say, where neurons fire, they wire. Meaning that the more we think about something, the more we grow that neural connection.”
By training our brains to battle anxiety through minor troubles, we can develop emotional stamina to endure harder times when they come. The reality is that everyone suffers at some point. Jesus himself said, “In the world you will have tribulation.” Suffering is just part of living in a fallen and broken world — but it doesn’t have to break us. Scripture shows us how to take advantage of the neuroplasticity God has designed within our brains. Here are a few ways to put these principles into practice.
1. Redirect your thinking
Throughout the Old Testament, we see that when God’s people are fearful about a new circumstance, they are told to remember God’s faithfulness. They are not told to reflect upon the uncertainty of the new experience, but to remember and rehearse God’s character and faithfulness of the past. In other words, they were told to keep “walking the neural pathways” forged from prior experience of God being true to himself and His Word.
“You can think of it like skis on a ski slope,” said Bumbaugh. “The more you go down that track, the deeper it gets. The more we think about it, the more we grow it in our brains. When you sit and process something for 30 seconds, you grow new neural networks. When we talk about what the Lord has done and what He is like, we celebrate Him and it has a positive effect on our brains.”
The act of making supplications to the Lord with thanksgiving cultivates positive neural pathways and reinforces trust in the only One who has control of our futures. Rehearsing God’s faithfulness literally forges new connections in our brains — just like lifting heavy weights forges new muscles. Neither positive outcome is a result of ease and comfort. But both forms of training are worth the effort.
2. Face the cause of your anxiety
Anxiety can be a tough foe. It can overwhelm your body, make your thinking cloudy, and seemingly block any escape paths. But you can turn anxiety on itself by stopping to consider the source of those feelings.
“An ache in your body says ‘pay attention to this.’ To me, emotions are the same,” Bumbaugh said. “If you are nervous about something, you need to stop and focus on it. Give it the attention it needs to process through it. And then do what you need to do to lay it at the Lord’s feet — journal about it, pray about it.”
Once you have identified and evaluated the source of your anxiety, it’s easier to put it in its place. For example, my friend who has the two good job offers should figure out why it seems so scary to pick one. What is the actual fear behind making that choice? What is the lie that she may unconsciously believe about making a “bad choice”? How does the Bible speak to those fears or lies? So often when we get granular, we realise, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And fear must flee in the face of perfect love.
3. Know yourself
Knowing how God has made you is also important in the process of taming anxiety. If God created you to be empathetic, to respond to other people’s emotions, and to generally be more emotionally driven, that’s a good thing. But it also means in this hyper-connected world, you may need to be more cautious about how much information you let in. You may be feeding your anxiety by absorbing too much information about things you can’t do anything about.
We are now exposed on a global scale— and in nearly real time — to problems in every corner of the world. None of us were designed to carry the weight of the world, so if you’re suffering from regular anxiety, it can be a wise tactic to shrink your boundaries and monitor your input.
Only one Person is omniscient and omnipresent … and it’s not any of us. We are merely finite creatures. That knowledge should be freeing. It’s why we can cast our cares on Him who cares infinitely for us. Our resources are quickly drained, but His resources are limitless.
When You Need More Help
Everyone wrestles with anxiety on various levels. But some people have truly significant medical issues that need additional treatment. Full-blown panic attacks — where you have racing thoughts, a pounding heart, trouble breathing, and difficulty regulating your reactions — need professional help and no one should be ashamed to seek it. Panic attacks are your body trying to tell you something is wrong. There are clinical tools and medication available to treat them.
But even without something identifying, such as panic attacks, if you feel anxiety runs your life you should still consider professional help.
Bumbaugh said, “Look at how anxiety is affecting your functioning in life. If you are really having a hard time working, engaging with others, or performing regular life tasks, seek help. A sleepless night or two before a big decision is not the same as consistently altering your life and schedule to avoid your symptoms of anxiety.”
Finally, severe anxiety or panic attacks can be a symptom of unprocessed trauma. A professional therapist can help you rewire traumatic memories and address family-based disorders. When a Christian psychotherapist uses those clinical tools and integrates them with a biblical perspective, it gives patients an opportunity to reprocess those memories through a faith-based lens.
The Lord Is At Hand
The night I walked into that small group meeting, I carried significant burdens. I was grieving my mother’s death and concerned about my friends. I still am in many ways. But over the years I’ve learned that training my brain for peace is an act of worship. For that reason, I recommend keeping a very detailed prayer journal. For years, I was more intuitive and spontaneous in prayer. The price I paid for that flexibility was that I often overlooked the answers and forgot the faithfulness of God that I should have been meditating upon.
Last year I decided to change that practice. I kept a prayer journal that I updated on a monthly basis. It had a page for that month’s answered prayers, and that page made me pray much more specific prayers, because I got excited about writing down the answers. That record of faithfulness to me and those I know and love is one tangible and practical way of retraining my brain. When I’m feeling anxious about life’s next big curveball, I only have to go back and re-read all of those answered prayers.
The reason we have peace is because “the Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5). It’s not our actions that bring peace — as good as they may be for our neural, physical and spiritual health. We can and should train our brains for Godward trust, but we don’t derive security from our supplications or thanksgiving. Our security is in His promise to never leave us or forsake us.