“Do not be anxious for anything,” the Bible says (Philippians 4:6).
As a psychotherapist, I regularly deal with people with serious and debilitating anxiety. And I know that simply deciding to not be anxious doesn’t work.
Anxiety is the product of changes in one’s brain and autonomic nervous system as a result of trauma.
And trauma is a life event that overwhelms a person’s emotional capacity and understanding.
Traumatic response is marked by these characteristics:
- Submerged memory as the brain blocks you from again being overwhelmed;
- Emotional dysregulation as the brain blocks access to executive brain functions responsible for regulating how we feel and respond to stress; and
- Difficulty forming attachments and, sometimes, disassociation.
Anxiety is what a person experiences when these characteristics are inadequate to deal with traumatic memories or new stress experiences. Anxiety is experienced emotionally, psychologically, and somatically (in the body). It is a state of readiness to either respond with aggression (fight) or by fleeing or avoiding the situation (flight).
Anxiety is living in the expectation that the immediate future is a dark place fraught with danger, an expectation based on the traumatic experiences of the past.
As a therapist, I help my clients counter their anxiety by grounding them in the present. I teach them how to focus on breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and other methods of being mindful and in the moment.
By helping them reduce their anxiety, I help them begin the process of being equipped with the tools to deal with their traumatic experience.
I cannot improve on Paul’s prescription for anxiety, however. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV).
This ability to surrender one’s anxious experience to a loving and compassionate God is the privilege of every believer, and the beginning of wellness.
Earl Blacklock, MALM, MDIV, MC, is the Executive Director of Island Integrated Counselling of Nanaimo and Parksville on Vancouver Island, BC