Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, Part 1

The Apostle Paul commands this in Philippians 4.6, Do not be anxious about anything. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done. Anxiety, an inner mental and emotional state, often feels like we’re being pulled in a zillion different directions in our soul and in our mind. Anger and regret about the past and fear and uncertainty about the future breed it. An old English word for it captures its essence: strangulation. Anxious thoughts and emotions often seem like a incessant video playing its strangulating messages over and over and over in our minds with seemingly no way to press ‘Pause.’ What do we do when we can’t turn it off? I think I may have stumbled upon how.

Anxiety

For years I struggled with turning off the anxious worry video replaying in my mind. I tried every spiritual practice in the book: prayer, Bible reading, Scripture memory, fasting, confession, spiritual warfare, and even more of the same. But often the anxiety still remained. I wondered…

  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Do I have some hidden sin?
  • Is God punishing me?
  • Am I not doing the spiritual disciplines right?
  • Has anxiety hopelessly trapped me forever?

I struggled with it until I learned this insight that is slowly changing my life: I had subtly missed how God usually works.

First, I believe that all truth is God’s truth, including science and the laws of nature that He Himself created, whether those laws be gravity, electromagnetism, physics, or the biology of how our bodies and brains work.

What I realized, however, as I unsuccessfully dealt with my anxious thoughts and emotions through increased spiritual practices, was this:  Often I expected God to bypass his own created laws of the universe about how my body and brain works when I prayed/fasted/quoted Scripture/etc. for relief. I realized that I was asking God to suspend his created laws of nature. And what do we call it when God suspends the laws of nature? A miracle. I was often asking (or demanding) God to give me a miracle to end my incessant and distracting anxious thoughts and feelings.

I do believe God works miracles. But He more often works through His designed nature of things.

For example, I have no problem NOT praying for God to miraculously transport me to work from my home without driving, à la a Star Trek transporter. Most of us never ask God for something like that. Yet, when I asked God to relieve my body of its anxiety, I was actually asking him to bypass how He created my body and brain to work.

Consider this example.

Let’s say my annual review is coming up soon and for the next two months I incessantly worry about, rehearse all the worst case scenarios, and daily ruminate about how bad my review will be. The result is that the fight-flight part of my brain, the amygdala, sensing threat, signals my adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. For short periods of stress and danger cortisol is a good thing for our survival and response to danger. After danger passes, however, it will settle back to a healthy blood level. However, since I’m continually worrying for two months, my body has become stuck on an high level of cortisol and other blood and brain stress chemicals. And in those cases it takes days or weeks for those levels to drop to a healthy level. Only when those levels come down will the feeling of anxiety go away.

Yet, as I pray for God to make the anxiety go away and plead for Him to give me peace, will He do the following?

“Ah, Charles, I hear your prayers and see your predicament. I will answer your prayer. I choose to suspend my established laws about the biology of your body and brain and give you an instant miracle of no anxiety. I immediately eliminate all the cortisol that has built up for the past two months. I now force your amygdala to go off-line. I fill the thinking center of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex, with positive thoughts about your meeting with your boss. Additionally, I now force your mid-brain to produce an extra boost of the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine and flood your nucleus accumbens, your brain’s pleasure center, with that chemical to make you feel perfectly at peace.”

And poof! I feel great. No more worry. No more fear. No more anxiety. At perfect peace.

Were God to do that, bypass His created laws of biology by instantly lowering those chemicals to remove my anxiety, we’d call it a miracle, on the order of transporting me to work through the Star Trek transporter (well, maybe not that extreme). God could have done it that way. But most of the time He will not suspend the laws He Himself created that work in our bodies and our brains. He often works through His established natural order.

In order to get relief, I had often subconsciously prayed for a miracle. Yet, I’m learning that every answer to prayer does not have to circumvent His natural laws to make it a God thing. 

When I prayed for relief from these emotions, I was not taking into consideration that God may have simply wanted me to respect his biological laws of nature and slowly change my thought life in response to whatever was fueling my anxiety. And by doing so, He would gradually bring down those unhealthy chemical levels, thus reducing my anxiety.

I’m learning that debilitating, difficult, and even pesky emotions may not actually have spiritual roots or direct spiritual solutions (i.e. just pray more and have more faith). Rather, they may lie in a lack of understanding of, a lack of cooperation with, and a lack of respecting how God designed our bodies and brains.

God made hormones that flow through our blood stream and neurotransmitters that traffic in our brain. Both profoundly affect our emotional and mental well being. And our thought lives affect how much they flow in our bodies and brains.

So, as I began to learn this insight a few years ago I began a quest to understand how our brains impact our walk with God, life in general, and leadership. I even have a book coming out next year on this subject that shares my journey, Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry.

When the Apostle Paul commands us to not be anxious, what he says following that statement indicates His intuitive understanding how God designed our bodies and brains, far before science had any idea.

In my next post this week I explain a simple A-B-C process that is helping me more consistently press the ‘Pause’ button on my anxious mental videos.

Do you agree that sometimes spiritual practices won’t give us emotional peace? Why or why not?

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5 Statements that Help Leaders Define Reality

I’m eight months into leading West Park Church, a church of several hundred in London, Ontario, Canada. And I’m a US citizen, totally new to Canadian culture. When I arrived I had to adjust not only to a new church and a new staff but to a new culture as well. Fortunately I prepared myself for the transition by reading several books about on-boarding, the process of adjusting to a new job. One book, You’re in Charge, Now What suggested a process to help a new leader define reality with his or her new staff. Whether you are new to a ministry or business leadership role or not, consider using this process with your staff to learn fresh insight about your work setting.

Reality Definition Displays Certainty And Facts

Within the first month I asked one of the longest tenured staff members lead a discussion with the entire staff during a staff meeting. I gave the team instructions and then stepped out for about 45 minutes. He lead them to complete these statements in a candid sharing time. Here are the statements.

  1. We expect this from you…
  2. You need you to know this about us… (including what we believe we do well and where we need to improve as a staff)
  3. We want to know this about you and here are our concerns…
  4. Here are the burning issues now facing the church…
  5. Here are the major obstacles now facing the church...

After I left he recorded everyone’s responses on our conference room’s white board. When I returned, I read through each one and asked questions for further clarification. Here’s what I learned.

  • They wanted me to show that I cared for them through prayer, feedback, and truth telling.
  • They expected consistency and integrity.
  • They wanted to be taught, trained, and challenged.
  • They wanted to know what they could do better.
  • They wanted clear communication and clarity about their respective roles.
  • They wanted me to know that they worked hard and supported each other.
  • They wanted to know what was important to me, my boundaries, my personal struggles, and whether I wanted them to reply to every email I sent. :)
  • They wanted me to know that the church at the time faced financial challenges and trust issues.
  • They wanted me to know that I might face resistance to bringing change in the church.

This simple process provided an invaluable, honest, and simple way to help me define reality through the eyes of our staff. This experience helped me craft appropriate action plans to bring essential change for staff development and to the church at large.

My first eight months have been a joy and we’ve made great progress. This unique listening session helped set me up for success.

What tools have helped you define reality in your setting?

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A Unique and Fresh Approach to Bible Reading

A few years ago author and discipleship expert Bill Hull introduced me to a fresh approach to Bible reading through one of his books. He explained an ancient yet growing Christian devotional practice called lectio divina, which includes four phases: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. I took those four concepts and created my own acronym to make it more easily remembered: RIPE. RIPE stands for Read, Immerse, Pray, and Execute. Try reading your Bible in this way and see how it can freshen your experience. It’s also helpful to record insights you learn in a journal.

Reading the Bible

First, pick a section of Scripture of reasonable length, say 10-20 verses. Then read that section four times and apply each part of RIPE each time you read the passage. Here’s how to do it.

R: Read

Slowly read the passage, both silently and out loud. Make yourself aware of cultural, theological, or other biases you may be bringing to the passage. Read it without allowing those biases to cloud your reading. Read it first from the viewpoint of a child who knows nothing about the cultural and theological underpinnings of the passage. After you do this first, then bring into your thinking the background or theological insights you already know about the passage.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

I: Immerse

As you read it a second time, immerse yourself in the scripture and ponder it by imagining yourself as one of the original hearers of this passage, physically present in the time and place in which the scripture was spoken, written, or read. Use all five senses to re-create the context and setting in your mind. Enter into the hearer’s world. Center your thoughts on how the passage relates to Jesus.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

P: Pray

Pray over the scripture and actually ‘pray’ the scripture by personalizing it for yourself. Allow the Lord to search your heart as you ponder it. Let Him speak to your heart and reveal His will to you. Choose a learner’s posture as you ask the Lord about what He wants to stop, start, change, develop, or grow in you.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

E: Execute

Now, as you read it one last time ask yourself what you learned as you immersed yourself in the reading, and what you felt God impress upon you to do. Commit to the Lord that you will carry out today what He has impressed upon you to do, be, or change. Write down what you will do. Be specific in your commitment.

Take 2-3 minutes on this exercise.

What Bible reading methods have helped you keep Scripture reading fresh?

When Tough Times Hit: Reflections During my Daughter’s Eighth Brain Surgery

As I write this post I’m sitting in the waiting room of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago as my 27-year-old daughter Tiffany undergoes her eighth brain surgery. Due to intractable epilepsy (epilepsy non-responsive to drug therapy) caused by a brain tumor diagnosed at age 1, doctors implanted a device in her brain 8 years ago to stop the seizures. And four years ago they performed a temporal lobectomy to remove her right temporal lobe. During the last 4 years she has been seizure-free but due to complications from a recent surgery when the device’s battery was replaced, we’re back to have it reinserted again. As I’ve traveled down this road multiple times, I continue to learn these lessons about tough times.

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  1. Christ promises to sustain us through tough times.
    • “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13.5)
  2. A strong marriage makes it easier to navigate tough times.
    • Because my wife, Sherryl, and I have developed a strong marriage in good times, we can draw upon each other’s strength during this tough time.
  3. Uncertainty is an inevitable reality in tough times. 

    • A life of faith demands that we learn to live in a world with no certain tomorrow, except God and his sustaining grace.
  4. We all need a church family (and friends) that will care and pray for us in tough times.
    • Knowing our church and friends support us and pray for us encourages us.
  5. Nobody can escape tough times.
    • ‘Nuf said.
  6. Freaking out does not help us weather tough times.
    • Then calmer we’ve remained, the better we’ve been able to keep perspective and kept our emotions from running rampant.
  7. Life goes on during tough times.
    • I’m still a pastor and have responsibilities even during these interruptions. Life still happens.
  8. One day we no longer will face tough times.
    • Heaven awaits every follower of Jesus Christ and He will banish forever tough times. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev. 21.4)
  9. We must tend to our bodies during tough times.
    • Tough times causes our bodies and brains to release cortisol, the stress hormone, which can dampen our immune system. During tough times we must give special attention to body care, as much as possible.
  10. We WILL slow down during tough times.
    • When tough times comes, we realistically can’t expect to fit in all the normal life stuff as well. It’s ok to cut back on other commitments.

We pray that Tiffany will weather this surgery well (I just found out she did) and that she will recover quickly. However, we know that ultimately her future and ours as well are in the hands of our loving Heavenly Father.

When you’ve experienced tough times, what lessons have you learned?

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How your Brain Impacts Your Leadership

Our three-pound, tofu textured body part shaped like a crinkly walnut, the brain, profoundly affects how well we do or don’t lead. Leaders who excel in today’s ministry or marketplace constantly seek to add new insights to their leadership toolbox and neuroscience insight should be in every leader’s toolbox. Interest and knowledge of how our brain works is exploding today, even among Christians. The headline of last month’s Leadership Journal read NeuroMinistry, How Brain Science Informs Discipleship. You can read my article on brain based communication in that issue here. Dr. Carolyn Leaf , a neuroscientist, will be a keynote speaker at this year’s Catalyst Conference in Atlanta. And, some of today’s best sellers explain how brain insight can improving our lives. Smart leaders stay on the cutting edge of brain based insight.

 Consider how these three brain networks can positively influence how you lead.

brain

Three significant brain networks impact leadership effectiveness:

  1. Our threat system influenced by two almond shaped clusters of neurons (brain cells) called the amygdalae. The brain chemicals called norepinephrine and cortisol are released when we’re under stress or feel fear or threat. This system puts us in a survival state to either fight, flee, or freeze (what a pastor might feel when he’s being criticized).
    • This system works to our advantage when we need to solve problems.
  2. Our achievement system influenced by the nucleus accumbens, our pleasure center. When we accomplish something (like putting the finishing touches on a sermon), the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine that makes us feel good.
    • This system helps motivate us to set and achieve goals and repeat good leadership behavior.
  3. Our friend and befriend system influenced by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin, another hormone/neurotransmitter often called the trust hormone, gets released when we feel safe around others.
    • This system helps us build an atmosphere that creates healthy and productive teams.

When we understand how these three systems influence leadership, we can become better leaders. Consider these ideas that can help us engage these systems in a positive way.

Our threat system:

  1. Avoid creating a working environment that puts staff or volunteers on edge or on the defensive. They will pay it safe and not perform at their peak to avoid getting slapped on the wrist.
  2. When something unpleasant or disappointing happens to you, control your reactions. When a leader reacts or gets angry, he influences others to do the same. It’s called emotional contagion. Others will mimic a leader’s emotional state, whether good and bad.
  3. Create a healthy working environment that challenges people to step outside their comfort zone to try new things. Healthy stress helps us perform better.

Our achievement system:

  1. Help your team set stretch goals.
  2. Notice and celebrate successes often.
  3. Guard against getting addicted to dopamine. See my blog here about dopamine addiction.

Our friend and befriend system:

  1. Provide formal and informal times for your staff to interact to strengthen relationships.
  2. Have your team read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. His book offers great advice on building healthy teams.
  3. Guard against letting the threat system or the achievement system dominate this system. Fear and drivenness, if allowed, will usually trump relational health among your team. When that happens, performance will suffer.

Scripture tells us that God created each of us as His masterpiece. As we understand a significant part of that masterpiece, our brain, and apply brain insight to leadership, we will lead at our best.

Psa. 139.14  Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. (NIV)

What brain insights have helped you lead better?

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