As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Sharon Hastings shares her top tips on how to combat anxiety
Feeling a bit on edge? Butterflies in your stomach? Palpitations?
A post-pandemic survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 60 per cent of UK adults feel so anxious that it stops them doing things they want to do at least some of the time. With the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and uncertainties around the world, it’s appropriate that anxiety should be the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.
Because anxiety is so common, we sometimes think we just have to accept it. Christians know that the Bible tells us to cast all our anxieties onto God, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). But what do we do when, having done this, anxiety still threatens to paralyse us?
Christians know that God breathed life into us: we can harness this gift to help ourselves
If we have a physical problem, such as high blood pressure or asthma, we entrust that to God as well, but it doesn’t stop us taking anti hypertensives or inhalers. These treatments have proven effectiveness, and we know God works through them.
It makes sense to use proven treatments for anxiety too. God can work through mental health professionals, and drawing on their expertise doesn’t mean we don’t trust him; it’s just good sense.
I have schizoaffective disorder, a psychotic illness, but anxiety is something I wrestle with daily. Here are five proven strategies from secular psychology that have helped:
Breathwork has been used in various religions, including Christianity, but exercises advised by modern psychologists are rooted in physiological research and are spiritually neutral.
In a typical breathing exercise, you might breathe in for a count of four, hold for seven and breathe out for eight (or simply in for five and out for seven), repeating ten times - or until you feel better.
When you slow your breath and make your exhalation longer than your inhalation, you activate your soothing parasympathetic nervous system, over-riding adrenaline responses to decrease your heart-rate and calm your body and mind.
As Christians, we know that God breathed life into us: we can gratefully harness this gift of breath to help ourselves.
2. Be mindful
The psychiatrist known as the father of secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines this as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.
In other words, when we practise mindfulness, we step back from our thoughts and anxieties, taking on the role of an observer and watching them come and go without getting caught up in them. We might do a structured practice following spoken guidance in an app, or simply set a timer for five minutes.
Although mindfulness is associated with eastern religions, Kabat-Zinn and others have derived practices which are free from religious associations and proven to reduce stress.
Christians who practise mindfulness can add another layer of awareness: as we pay attention to the world around us and to our inner worlds, we can be mindful of God’s creative hand at work.
3. Get curious
The research of Dr Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, shows that curiosity is experienced as a positive emotion in our brains, and it over-rides anxiety; it is hard to stay anxious if you’re feeling curious.
His treatment involves thinking curiously about our anxiety: Do I feel it most in my chest or my stomach? More on one side, to the front or back? Then, when you’ve located it, you “breathe curiosity into it” until the anxiety dissipates.
I’ll admit that this sounded corny to me, but it works. God created our complex brains, and gifted people who could ‘hack’ them!
4. Write it down
Research from psychologist, Prof James Pennebaker, shows that writing expressively about “personally upsetting experiences” for 15 minutes on three to five consecutive days has benefits that include reduced stress, improved mood and lowered blood pressure.
You don’t need to share what you’ve written with anyone or keep doing it long term. It’s a simple – and free – form of therapy that anyone can start at any time.
5. Practise self-compassion
Work in the field of self-compassion has been spearheaded by Dr Kristin Neff, who developed the five-minute “Self-Compassion Break” often recommended by psychologists.
This involves becoming aware of your anxiety, low mood or unease, noting that “this is a moment of suffering”, and acknowledging that “suffering is a part of life”, before placing your hand on your heart and saying: “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” You genuinely seek to channel compassion to yourself as you might do to a friend in a similar situation.
When I finish the self-compassion break, I feel replenished and my anxiety holds less power. Knowing that God has compassion for me turbocharges the practice.
We should cast our anxieties onto God, because he does care for us. But that care is shown, in part, through the gifts of insight he bestows on researchers and healthcare practitioners, whether they are believers or unbelievers.
God can work through mental health professionals, and drawing on their expertise doesn’t mean we don’t trust him
Christians can reap the benefits of God’s common grace regardless of the instrument he uses. It is right to seek out proven tools to help us manage our anxiety. If you need help in this area, why not give one of them a try this week.