In this article you’ll learn a little bit about the neurobiology of anxiety, a little bit about what the Bible has to say about anxiety, and you’ll learn about what you can do to have a healthier relationship with anxiety.
Anxiety is God’s idea…
Weird, right? But it’s true.
Your brain, including the sympathetic nervous system, the amygdala, the vagus nerve, the adrenal glands, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (does your face hurt yet from all the neurobiology terms?), were all spoken into existence by your Creator.
God gave you anxiety on purpose. When it’s functioning in a healthy way it’s actually VERY helpful.
You see, anxiety is your body, your sympathetic nervous system, signaling you about something that needs your attention and doesn’t feel safe. Think about it kind of like a smoke detector. If the alarm is blaring, it might mean the house is on fire! Get out QUICK! Or, it might mean the cookies you forgot to set a timer for are charring in the oven. Or, maybe it’s just time to change the batteries.
Either way, you don’t want to ignore the alarm! The smoke detector is your friend.
But you also don’t want it to keep blaring in your ears. What then shall you do? Stay tuned to the rest of the article to find out.
First, let’s look at what the Bible has to say about anxiety.
In the book of Matthew in the Bible, Jesus identifies the underlying fears that drive many of our anxieties – will I have my basic needs met (food, clothing, shelter), life and death (Matt 6:25-34) – saying “your Father in heaven knows you need these things”. Notice he doesn’t shame you saying ‘these things don’t matter so stop being dumb’.
He invites you to acknowledge the fears you have and bring them into relationship – bring them to him. God invites you to bring to him the fears that your anxiety alerts you to because he cares about you (1 Peter 5:7 (LEB) 7 casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you.)
Again, in Philippians the apostle Paul says, don’t just be anxious, let your anxiety alert you to what’s going on and lead you to Christ (…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philp. 4:6)
Jesus undoes our aloneness by inviting us to get curious about and name the fears that underlie our anxiety. Then he wants us to bring the fear to a relationship full of secure love, a relationship with him, our Father.
It’s not just the vertical relationship with the Father in which we are invited to engage. God designed us to need one another as well. The apostle Paul directs us to share our struggles, joys, and sorrows with one another. He says by doing so we ‘fulfill the law of Christ’ to love one another (Galatians 6:2 Carry the burdens of one another, and so fulfill the law of Christ; Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.).
Interpersonal neurobiology confirms what the Bible has always said. What scientists call ‘dyadic regulation’ is what the Bible calls loving one another. This is shown through sharing one another’s burdens and empathetically connecting with the joys and sorrows of one another’s lives. Cradle to grave we need safe relationships to share our lives with.
When a newborn baby’s sympathetic nervous system is activated – the baby cries out for his mother. In a healthy family, the mother hears the cry, scoops up the baby, looks into his face and begins to comfort him. Both through her presence and through practical ways, the mother engages to soothe the infant by addressing his need.
While it looks different in adults, the neurobiology is much the same. When as adults our sympathetic nervous system is aroused, we NEED to connect with another person. Then we can work together to identify the underlying cause of the alarm going off and address the need.
Bearing one another’s burdens isn’t’ just a nice ‘Christian’ thing to do for others – it’s a neurological NEED God wired into every one of us. ‘It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)
As a child, the burden is on parents to recognize the cries of the child and pursue meeting the needs. As adults, it’s our responsibility to recognize our needs and to vulnerably seek out others.
I can hear you now, “Ok, Josh, so let’s say I buy what you’re selling. Both neuroscience and the Bible agree, anxiety can be my friend by alerting me to underlying unmet needs, AND God works through healthy relationship in my life to adequately address these needs. Now what?”
Glad you asked. Let’s get practical.
If we are going to make friends with our anxiety, the first thing we have to do is recognize all the strategies we’ve developed to distance ourselves from our anxiety. These strategies, what counselors call defenses, are akin to putting your noise canceling headphones on to try to drown out the blaring smoke alarm.
Defenses don’t actually address what is sounding the alarm they just distract us from the alarm. They can take the form of drugs, alcohol, porn or more socially acceptable methods like workaholism or a carton of Ben & Jerry’s (I love the one with cookie dough and brownie!).
You might be surprised to know that worry is actually a defense. Through worry we try to get away from anxiety by trying to think through all the different scenarios that might happen in the future. Anything we use to get away from our anxiety instead of getting curious about what is emotionally driving our anxiety, is a defense.
Side note: Sometimes we worry out loud to God and call it prayer. It’s actually not the same thing as listening to our anxiety, getting curious about what is driving it, naming the underlying need, bringing it humbly and vulnerably to the Father, and allowing others to bare it with us. Instead of addressing what’s causing the anxiety, worry actually fuels anxiety – even if we call it “prayer”.
We develop these strategies for dealing with our anxiety when we don’t have access to a better way. They work, to some degree, because they do help drown out the sound of the alarm. But, if the house is on fire, do you really want to just drown out the alarm? And what else might you miss in life if you go around wearing noise cancelling headphones all the time?
If we get honest with ourselves about our defenses, we can choose to move towards our anxiety with curiosity and appreciation instead of trying to run away from it.
Back to our smoke alarm analogy. If the smoke alarm is sounding (i.e., our sympathetic nervous system is aroused) we want to appreciate the alert and get curious about where the smoke might be coming from.
If this isn’t the first time your smoke alarm has been set off and you have done the work of caring for the situation, you might have some clues as to where to start. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the kitchen.
If this is all new to you, be patient with yourself, it takes a little time and a lot of intentional effort to forge a new path in your brain. Enlist the help of a friend who REALLY loves you and who is not prone to advice giving. Advice giving is often a defense that people use to get away from the anxiety they feel when you share your anxiety with them! They feel the need to “fix” your anxiety so they can avoid feeling theirs.
Any of the core emotions we experience as humans can trigger anxiety (fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust). As you get curious about the emotions that are under your anxiety, you might be surprised with what you find.
Some common “rooms in the house” I’ve learned to check when exploring anxiety include:
- If x doesn’t go well, I’ll disappoint the important people in my life. (Fear of loss of connection with those that matter most to us.)
- If x falls back into y, it will be terrible. (Sadness/grief around powerlessness to make a good outcome happen.)
- I’m really frustrated with how x is handling this situation. (Anger about something that is not right.)
- I really violated my character and compromised my values in this situation. (Disgust about behavior that misaligns with identity)
- It feels really uncomfortable when I receive positive attention. (Vulnerable Joy triggering shame and/or fear)
There are many possibilities for what might be driving anxiety, these are just a few examples to get your curiosity pumping.
Be prayerful about the process. Invite the Holy Spirit to help you know your heart and identify what it needs. Then bring what you find to the Lord and another healthy, trusted person in your life.
Show your heart kindness and compassion, the same way you would with someone who is precious to you. The Bible commands us to love others, in the same way we love ourselves (NLT)
Ok, so you have cared for you heart by listening to your anxiety, identifying what is sounding the alarm, naming it, and sharing it with the Lord and another person. Now what?
Naming with oneself, before the Lord, and with another loving person should be enough to silence the alarm on the smoke detector (move from a sympathetic nervous state to a ventral vagal relaxed/peaceful state). If the alarm is still blaring, there is probably still more that needs to be named.
Naming/witnessing the underlying cause of the anxiety doesn’t change the circumstances that are causing the alarm any more than pressing the little button on the smoke detector that silences it puts out a fire.
It does, however, silence the alarm because it lets the alarm know you’ve acknowledged the situation and can now take appropriate action. That’s what the anxiety needs to know to feel safe.
Neurology side note: At a neurological level, naming and dyadic regulation engages the ventral medial prefrontal cortex of the brain down regulating the amygdala. Which in turn sends messages via the vagal nerve (10th cranial) to return the body to ventral vagal homeostasis (rest and digest). In case you were curious. Physically you know this is happening when muscle tension in the body relaxes along with the gut, breathing relaxes, and the chest cavity feels lest restricted and more expansive. Heart beat also slows, blood pressure reduces, and pupils return from their more dilated state.
Action plan time.
Equipped with the understanding your courageous exploration has armed you with, now you can make an informed decision about what needs to happen next. Do you get a fire extinguisher, call the fire department, or just open a window and flap a towel at the smoke detector?
Each of our core emotions come with an action tendency. That is, God designed our emotions to inform and energy action.
- Fear alerts us to danger and energies moving to safety.
- Anger alerts us to injustice and energies us to advocate for what is right.
- Sadness alerts us to loss and energies us to grieve.
- Disgust alerts us to something toxic and energies us to expel it from our life.
- Joy alerts us to something good happening and energies us to engage it, take it in, and share it with others.
Physical action is not necessary every time your emotion system is giving you information about a situation. Sometimes it’s enough to acknowledge receipt of the information.
Emotion is not supposed to control our action, it informs our action.
Emotion is an important part of our embodied experience as humans, and so are the other functions of our brain that enable us to engage thoughtful responses to life.
Many of us find ourselves stuck in an anxiety/defense cycle that never addresses the underlying reasons for our anxiety.
Overtime anxiety keeps getting worse and our ability to enjoy life to its fullest diminishes.
There is another way. Instead, try making friends with your anxiety. Appreciate it’s God given function of alerting you to something important and get curious about what that might be.
Enlist safe, healthy people in your life to be a part of the exploration and caring for the underlying needs that are revealed. Courageously name them, to yourself, God, and the caring people in your life. Invite God and the family of God to love these parts of your experience to wholeness.
Let the emotions you discover inform your action plan for navigating your life.
If you find yourself having difficulty doing any of the things discussed in this article, don’t be discouraged! It’s normal for it to be hard at first. You’re doing something new that involves changing well-worn neuropathways in your brain.
There are professional counselors who are trained and experienced in helping people face these very challenges. You’ll want to find someone who works from an approach informed by attachment theory, is emotion focused, and experiential. Experienced therapists with training in AEDP, EFT, Polyvagal, EMDR, and Character & Competence should know how to help.
The counselors on my team at MyCounselor.Online are trained in these models, and they LOVE Jesus! It would be our honor to come alongside you if you could use the support. You can find these Christian Counselors on our website: MyCounselor.Online/christian-counselors or in the Christian therapist directory ChristianCounselors.Network.
Thanks for reading this article. I pray you find the ideas discussed helpful and enriching to your life.
Cheering you on!
Josh Spurlock, MA, LPC, LMHC is an ordained minister, Certified Sex Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor, Level 2 AEDP therapist, and founder of the clinically informed faith-based counseling practice MyCounselor.Online. Josh, his wife Cassie, and their 4 children still at home travel the country in an Airstream travel trailer speaking, writing, and opening counseling offices. You can follow their journey at JoshSpurlock.com or on social media @talk2spurlock