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.

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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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 a Leadership Journal edition 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, was a keynote speaker at a 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.

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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4 Ways to Become a More Grateful Leader

Ministry challenges can often rob our joy. Mounting problems, unhappy people, and never ending ministry demands often leave us with little emotional reserve to appreciate the good. What do we do when that happens? While not sticking our head in the sand about our problems, how can we bring joy back into our leadership? I believe becoming more grateful can help…a lot. Consider these 4 ways to become a more grateful leader.

1. Realize the practical benefits gratefulness brings.

Recent research has shown multiple benefits of gratefulness (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Benefits include these.

  • You will feel better about life in general.
  • You will be more optimistic and experience more positive emotions.
  • You will be less likely to be depressed.
  • You will physical feel better.
  • You will be more likely to help others.

2. Practice the discipline of metacognition.

Metacognition is the term for thinking about what you are thinking about. Often we are unaware that incessant chatter and mental rumination about problems replays in our minds, like a scene in a dvd that’s stuck a loop. When that happens, negative thinking can snowball so that we lose perspective and only see the negative. However, when we consciously make ourselves aware of that video playing on our mind (periodically check in on our thinking), we can stop the problem tape and ‘reinsert’ a gratitude tape.

The Apostle Paul wisely points this out in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, 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.

3. Re-frame problems as learning opportunities or as ways that God can work.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We can’t avoid problems in ministry. But we do have the choice on how we choose to perceive them. When we gratefully re-frame a problem as an opportunity for God to work, it can motivate us to focus on solutions. And creating solutions gives the brain something it loves, certainty. Creating action plans and goals to solve a problem gives us a burst of the feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps motivate us toward further action.

4. Keep a journal of blessings.

In one study (Korb, 2012) researchers asked participants to keep a daily journal of what they were grateful for. They asked another group to write about what annoyed them. The group who recorded what they were grateful for showed greater determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other group. So, journaling what you are grateful for is a proven way to increase gratefulness.

What has helped you become a more grateful leader?

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Sources:

  • Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
  • Korb,A. (2012) The Grateful Brain 

Four Ways to Combat Mind Wandering

Let’s face it. Our minds wander, constantly. Research indicates that we mind-wander almost half our waking hours. We all have a bit of ADHD in us. That same research tells us that most mind wandering makes us unhappy. Although healthy mind wandering can enhance creativity, most of the time it doesn’t help. So, how can we minimize mind wandering and stay on task? In this post I suggest four practical ways to keep on task and win the mind wandering battle.

Four Ways to Combat Mind Wandering:

First, it’s important to understand why our minds wander. In short, our brain simply tires, and quite quickly. The fancy word for what causes mind wandering is called the neuroenergetic theory.

  1. Our brain cells (neurons) need energy that comes from two kinds of sugars – glycogen, a form of glucose, and and another sugar called lactate.
  2. Neurons get this energy from the brain’s maintenance cells, called glia cells, and specifically from one type of glia cell called an astrocyte.
  3. After 12 seconds of mental effort, our neurons literally begin to run on empty. So, they need more fuel to fire efficiently and maintain focus and attention. They first look for lactate and if they can’t find it, they look for glycogen.
  4. If they can’t fill up with some sugars, they don’t fire effectively, attention suffers, and we mind wander.

So, the key is to keep our brains fueled and alert. How do we do that?

  1. Get enough sleep at night. Sleep actually helps restore the supply of glycogen to the brain’s maintenance cells, the glia. Regular skimping on sleep will reduce this energy source and thus inhibit your ability to stay focused throughout the day. More here about the brain benefits from sleep.
  2. Take a short napNapping less than 20 minutes in the middle of the day provides many brain benefits. A nap can enhance memory, improve learning by clearing out information in your brain’s storage area making it ready for new learning, and make us more alert.
  3. Wisely use caffeine. Moderate use of caffeine actually keeps the sleep neurotransmitter (adenosine) from making you sleepy because it mimics it, though without the sleepiness. More here about using caffeine.
  4. Take regular work breaks during the day. Long stretches of work with no breaks diminishes our willpower, reasoning ability, performance, and attention. It’s called decision fatigue. Read more about decision fatigue here. Taking breaks does the opposite. Resting your brain will improve creativity, productivity, and focus. I use an app called Time Out to dim my screen every 70 minutes. I then take a short five minute walk and get back to work. It works wonders

So, you can win the mind wandering battle with a few simple choices. Try one of these next week and see what happens.

And, reflect on what this Scripture says about our minds.

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. (Is 26.3)

 

 

 

4 Obstacles Pastors Face in Setting Boundaries

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote the wildly popular book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of your Life. Dr. Cloud also wrote Boundaries for Leaders. I recommend them both. Essentially a boundary for a ministry leader or a pastor is like a property line around your yard, only in this case that yard is your soul. Healthy boundaries make for healthy souls. Unhealthy boundaries make for unhealthy souls.

In my 34 years in ministry, I’ve seen many pastors with poor boundaries. Sometimes I’ve not kept healthy ones myself. Why is that so? I suggest 4 reasons and 4 potential ways to build healthy boundaries.

First, our call and vocation is rooted in our desire to help people. And helping people takes time, and lots of it. If you are successful as a ministry leader, people with needs will keep coming your way. So, you’ll never check everything off your ministry to-do list. There will always be one more person who needs to hear the Gospel, one more person who needs prayer, one more person to counsel, one more call or email to return, one more hour you could spend polishing your sermon, etc., etc. Our vocational call places us in a position where needs will always vie for our attention.

  • Solution: Remind yourself that Jesus didn’t heal everybody and he didn’t make himself available 24/7. In fact, he often spent time along with His heavenly father away from people. If the Son of God needed healthy boundaries, it seems that we do too.

Second, our 24/7 connected world makes it hard to disconnect. I recall the first cell phone I owned. It was a Motorola flip phone that looked like a brick with one edge angled. It was novel and fun. Few other people owned cell phones at the time. And because cell phone usage was expensive, I didn’t give out my number to many people. So, I didn’t have to field many calls even though I looked cool as it hung off my belt. As cell phones evolved from ‘stupid’ phones to ‘smart’ phones they no longer served as tools for talking. Now not only can someone call us, but they can text and email us. My current phone is actually set up to send me a text when I miss a call (ugh!). We can be reached 24/7 in multiple ways which blurs boundaries.

  • Solution: Put your phone away after 6 pm. Don’t answer emails after 6. Don’t put your cell phone next to your bed even if you put it on vibrate. If it’s within reaching distance, you’re still connected.

Third, our brains are social. Neuroscientists are now learning boatloads about how our brains impact life and leadership. It’s one of my passions and why I’m pursuing a masters in the neuroscience of leadership. And next year my book Brain-Based Leadership: The Science of Significant Ministry comes out. This month Leadership Journal’s theme is called Neuro-ministry: How Brain Science Informs Discipleship. I wrote this article in that issue for LJ on neuroscience and communication.

When I say our brains are social I mean that human interaction stir ups biological processes within our brains. When we say, ‘No’ to someone (we attempt to establish a boundary) and feel disapproval from them, it actual hurts. Even mild forms of rejection light up the same parts of our brains that register physical pain. Since it actually feels bad, we often acquiesce to a request and say, ‘Yes’ to avoid that uncomfortable feeling that rejection brings. In doing so, we again blur our boundaries.

  • Solution: Expect to feel an uncomfortable emotional tinge when you try to establish a boundary and feel disapproval from another. Remind yourself that feeling that way is normal. Give yourself an hour and the feeling will fade, as long as you don’t feed it by ruminating on what the other person is thinking after you said, ‘No.’

Fourth, we want to feel needed. God gave us a desire to feel needed, that we matter, that what we do counts. And when we help others, preach a good sermon, or lead a meeting well, it feeds our souls and feels good. However, sometimes we can get hooked on feeling good. Dopamine, one of the feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) moves into our brain’s pleasure centers when we accomplish a goal (preach a good sermon, etc.). Serotonin is another one we feel when we get an ‘atta-boy’ from another. Just as some people get addicted to alcohol and drugs because it feels good (they affect neurotransmitter production), we can can addicted to the jolt we get when we serve another well or check off something on our to-do list. Addiction to affirmation and accomplishment can subtly overtake our motivations and blur our boundaries. In this post I discuss how to leverage four key brain chemicals.

  • Solution: Ask yourself if you may be addicted to feeling good. Can you take your day off and turn off ‘productivity’ and ‘helping others?’ If you can’t, I’d read Cloud’s two books on boundaries.

How do you keep healthy boundaries?

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