Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Anxiety and the Christian Life

The following blog entry is adapted from a chapel meditation given by Dr. Wolff on May 7, 2014.

I John 3:18-24 The Message

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.

And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave to us.

As a psychologist I have spent many years being trained in how to be aware of people. Really much of my academic work has been to think about how people’s feelings, actions and perceptions all work together to form them. And perhaps you’ve heard the jokes that people tell psychologists when they’re introduced; “Don’t analyze me,” “I better watch what I say around you,” or “can you read my mind?” To me those oft-repeated jokes, while funny and corny, also betray an inner sense of worry that we have, “what will happen if I’m truly seen by someone? Will I be unmasked? What will really be known about me?”

1 John seems to speak to that a bit, he reminds us that, hey, we all have that debilitating self-criticism, that inner voice that can plague our thoughts with reminders that we aren’t any good, or aren’t very capable. I don’t know about you, but I am visited by those kinds of thoughts on occasion. I suspect most of us live with some worry about our ability to measure up. We’re frequently aware of the ways in which we aren’t good enough. This is a paradox, though, for the generation of the “selfie”, that despite our focus on ourselves and our usage of things like social media to “announce” the smallest detail of our lives, we still live with uncertainty and insecurity about our worth and value.

The author Anne Lamott puts it quite well in her book, Bird by Bird (1995). This is a book on how to write, but as is characteristic of Lamott, there is a fair amount about the human experience as well.

“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head 24 hours a day, nonstop in stereo….Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that ones touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on” (p. 116).  

I suspect that many of us can relate to Lamott’s radio station analogy, that in the very moment we ready ourselves to do something difficult or challenging we are plagued by negative thoughts about ourselves. I know that I have had those moments when preparing for class or even before getting up to share this chapel meditation.  Maybe like me you’ve heard the phrases in your head “Why did they ask me to do this? I don’t have anything to offer. This is going to be a disaster!”

All of this is what we psychologists often call negative self-talk, and some of us struggle with it more than others. And as I John references, it’s even harder to shake because often pieces of it contain truth. When 5% of our critical thoughts contain some truth, we hear that 5% amplified as through loud speakers blaring throughout our minds, often blocking our ability to do or think about much else, leaving us stuck.

What follows this critical attack on our sense of self? Well, many of us shake it off, we combat it with good thoughts or reminders about our capabilities. Perhaps we even remind ourselves about our worth in Christ as the scripture suggests. But for others of us this negative thinking will lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. Worry might overtake us for a while, and we find our belief in ourselves shaken.

So what is anxiety? Most professionals agree that anxiety is a series of worries about everyday events, fears about the future and apprehension regarding social interaction. All of us will experience brief periods of worry in our lives. In fact, as I often quote to my students before an exam, a moderate amount of anxiety can be motivating! It helps us to study harder and become more prepared. But once that worry becomes more extreme and excessive, it can become paralyzing.

The statistics suggest that a great number of us are familiar with feelings of worry. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health 40 million Americans over 18 in a given year could be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That’s about 18% of the population over 18 years old (Anxiety Disorders, 2014). Additionally, the Association for University and College Counseling Centers continues to note that anxiety is the most predominant presenting concern among college students who are seeking help from college counseling centers (2013). And these numbers don’t include those of us who just get caught in the grip of worry occasionally. What this suggests to me is that I John’s acknowledgement of our self-debilitating criticism is an accurate reflection of our human condition. Most of us know how that feels. We can relate to feelings of anxiety because we have known them.

A band I enjoy is the Wailin Jenny’s; they have kind of a guitar folk style, and as a preface to one of their songs, they offer this introduction:

“But even if you don’t consider yourself a chronic worrier, I think there are times in all of our lives where we find that our mind is not with us at a particular moment. It’s not seeing anything that is actually going on in front of us. Its running the little films of our lives in our head you know of what maybe shouldn’t have happened a few weeks ago or what is going to go wrong a couple of months from now or go right a few months from now. It’s just not with us, and I think that the antidote to worrying is being in the moment. So I wrote this song to remind us to be mindful.”

The singer goes on to offer a song called, Begin that focuses on staying present where we are at any given time. Mindfulness is an increasingly popular term within the psychological community. It’s been integrated into several mainstream treatments for anxiety, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Over and over studies of the effects of mindfulness in psychology say, yes it works! It helps people cope with feelings of worry.

But what is it? It’s a practice of staying present in the moment and really focusing on the what is going on around you rather than letting your mind wander off ahead of you into the what if’s. I also hear a nod to a practice of mindfulness in 1 John. It’s a specific kind of acknowledgement that abiding in God’s presence keeps us grounded and mindful.

When I read this passage in I John, I can’t help but feel openness, a sense of space enlarging before me and an awakening hopefulness. It’s sort of the same feelings that I have had during the last few weeks when it became clear that spring is sticking around. The life-giving greenery around me in contrast to the cold, snowy, dark winter that we’ve just come out of is refreshing to my spirit.

That feeling of freedom that the passage suggests is in direct contrast to the chains that anxiety shackles us with.  Such freedom seems to be possible both due to the acknowledgement of our struggle and a response that God knows us better than we know ourselves.

Does this lay out a formula for eliminating anxiety and worry from our lives? No, it does not. The organic methods of the Holy Spirit are much more complex than that. What I see instead is the offering of hope for our troubled and weary selves. The wonderful line, “truly living in God’s reality,” feels like a promise to me, one that I’m not even sure I can fathom. I’m encouraged by it, but also left wondering, what does that mean? What does it look like? Especially when we are weighed down by troubles, what is God’s reality?

The passage seems to suggest that there is something that can change simply by living in God’s knowledge of us, rather than our definition of self. It’s a good reminder that our sense of our own identity is ultimately limited. As is our vision of the world. God’s is greater and much clearer.

There is also the reminder to love one another. The passage doesn’t use the word “authentic”, but it’s a good word for our era. To love each other authentically. To really see each other, worries and imperfections and all.  One of the great privileges of being a psychologist is sitting in a space with people that eliminates the need for social convention. Therapy often allows us to simply be present with each other, to sit in the moment and really listen. It’s always remarkable when strangers allow me to enter in to some of the messiest parts of their lives. It’s an act of truly being seen and heard by someone else. One of the things I’m most grateful for is the way it has changed me, and taught me to really look at the person in front of me.

And outside the therapy room in all aspects of our lives, we are presented with opportunities for authenticity, or to worry about how we are perceived or we worry about taking relational risks. Will the other person reject our attempt at authenticity? Or will it be received with love and tenderness? I find myself worrying about those things in my day-to-day life.

So this passage in I John is a good reminder that God’s promise is real, and it’s inviting us into freedom.

Anxiety disorders. (2014). Retrieved April 17, 2014 from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

Association University and College Counseling Center Directors. (2013). Annual survey. Aurora, IL: Author.

Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, Anchor Books.

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