Have you ever been going through a difficult time, only to have a fellow Christian give you poor advice with good intentions? It can be pretty insulting sometimes!
In one of my darkest times, when I was buried in my grief fog, I was given the advice to, “just give it to God.” At the time, I sent a friend a very frustrated, venting text, exclaiming, “It’s already His! I have nothing left to hold!” For me, at that time, it had nothing to do with trusting God with the situation – I already DID trust God with it. The fact remained that I was hurting. Deeply. I know the advice was given with good intentions, but it wasn’t helpful. At all.
We’ve also all had times when, because we didn’t understand what someone else was going through, we have said or done something unhelpful or even hurtful. It happens.
As individuals, it can be very difficult to try to understand what someone else is facing. Even if we have experienced something similar, we’re not going to be able to fully understand the layers of their unique experiences. Every person’s story is different, and that how it is designed to be.
With all of that said, for Christians who struggle with anxiety, feedback from others within the Church can be defeating, to say the least.
Advice from fellow believers may be propelled by good intentions, but come across as dismissive, destructive, and discouraging.
When I asked a dear Christian friend who struggles with anxiety what she thought should be included in a post with the title, “What every Christian needs to know about Fellow Believers who Struggle with Anxiety,” her input reinforced my thoughts as I worked on my outline for this article. So, feeling validated in what I want to share with you, I’d like to share what, from my professional experience, personal experience, and experiences of loved ones, Christians who struggle with anxiety wish fellow believers would understand.
1. Anxiety is a physical response to a perceived threat.
While anxiety is also a descriptive word for emotions related to fear and worry, there are physical symptoms as well. Sometimes, our bodies have difficulty determining whether or not something is a legitimate threat, so they respond as if the threats are immediate and physical, even when they are not.
If you’re familiar with the concept of “fight or flight,” you probably already understand this. When our bodies sense danger (real or perceived), there is a series of physical reactions which take place that naturally prepare us to either fight or run away.
If you look at the physical symptoms of the body’s natural “threat system,” you’ll notice that they are basically an anxiety symptoms list – you’ll find the same symptoms experienced by someone struggling with significant anxiety.
It’s also important to note that there are many physical conditions that can prompt anxiety-like symptoms.
2. Anxiety isn’t always a lack of faith.
True, sometimes anxiety could be due to a lack of faith, but often it comes more from an ambush of fearful thoughts that may have become habit over time, through life experiences. Controlling relationships, multiple failures or losses, learned behavioral habits from parents or other loved ones, or other complicated life struggles all work together to form what are known as “core beliefs” in our subconscious. We ALL form core beliefs, whether positive or negative. Even if we don’t recognize that the beliefs are there, they tend to form the basis of our reactions when there is a new experience that serves as a trigger.
For example, if someone from your past told you repeatedly that you’re worthless, that thought can be strongly rooted in your mind. Even if you don’t believe it’s true, it becomes easier to ACT like it’s true when facing new challenges. It’s how our brains work. (On the flip side, if we continually input good messages, it’s easier to act like they are true. Think Philippians 4:8!)
There is a reason that phrases such as, “Fear not!” are repeated so many times throughout scripture.
We’re human and see things from our own, limited point of view. The temptation to worry is common and can sometimes be overwhelming. For some, it can be debilitating.
3. You’re not going to say something that will miraculously “fix” the anxiety, and you’re not expected to try.
You’re off the hook! If a fellow believer is telling you about feeling anxious, it’s not your job to fix the problem by sharing quips such as, “Just give it to God,” “If you just had more faith…,” Maybe you shouldn’t have ______,”* or, “Don’t you have faith that God can take care of you?”
Generally, we know we need to give our struggles to God, right? It takes a constant effort.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Daily. Pick up the cross- the symbol of self-sacrifice in favor of the will of God… daily. As I read that, it indicates to me that it is a constant, conscious effort. It’s only natural that some days may be more difficult than others. Knowing we need to do something doesn’t always make it easy.
*While anxiety is not a divine punishment, if God is convicting, anxiety can be a very real result. That is always something to give attention. As we pray, we need to listen if God is speaking correction to our hearts.
4. Nobody wants to be treated like a very-real struggle is “all in my head,” but we all want to feel validated!
True, anxiety is rooted in our thinking habits (among other factors, as discussed above), but just because a struggle is rooted in our thinking doesn’t make it not real. To be told something is all in our heads gives the impression that it’s not a legitimate struggle, or it doesn’t count as an affliction of some kind.
Again, nobody wants to be treated like that. We all want to be validated- reassured that what we’re going through is understandable and we haven’t lost touch with reality.
Even if you don’t understand what someone is experiencing, you can still be sympathetic and acknowledge how she is telling you she feels.
5. What really IS helpful is prayer, encouragement, and support.
Pray for peace, pray for comfort, pray for wisdom and discernment to be able to make good decisions about whatever struggle is ahead.
A Christian with anxiety is experiencing a constant struggle with believing that God loves them and will take care of them, while feeling afraid about day-to-day stressors, interpersonal interactions, self-doubt, and more. While quips that seem dismissive aren’t helpful, encouraging scripture and prayers can be. If you want to help, try it!
So, a recap of what CAN be helpful includes:
1. Don’t dismiss anxiety. It’s a real struggle, with real symptoms.
2. Validate. Even if you don’t personally understand the symptoms of anxiety, or the impact they can have, acknowledge the symptoms someone is telling you, and believe they are significant to that person. It’s a personal experience, and only the individual knows what his experience is.
3. Don’t accuse an anxiety-sufferer of not having faith, etc. Instead, encourage with prayer and scripture. (And please, don’t refer to problems by saying anything that begins with, “Well, at least….”)
4. Keep your negativity to yourself. Someone already struggling with anxiety needs to be surrounded with positivity.
Philippians 4:8 (NIV)
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
What would YOU add to this list?
Most of all, be loving; and when in doubt about what may be most helpful… ask!
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