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The field of psychology is often tainted by ideology. Given that the ideology is mostly humanistic, Christians tend to avoid engaging with the discipline. Whilst that is understandable, it’s not necessarily the best response. Psychology is a genuine science that is focused on human behaviour and can bring together insights from different fields to help us understand conduct in human beings. A better response for Christians is to engage with psychology and to do so in a discerning manner. That’s not unlike how Christians are called to function in many other fields. As Christians we consider that there is no truth and no freedom when we function outside the teachings and prohibitions of God, his Word, and his law. We need to take that foundational position in relation to psychology too and, when we do, we can make good use of it in our lives. In this article I want to share some thoughts from the field of psychology in relation to anxiety, a rising phenomenon in our time, also amongst Christian people, affecting all ages.

In doing so I want to draw on the insights of Dr Lisa Damour, an American clinical psychologist [1]. In a TED talk Dr Damour outlines several key psychological and physiological elements around anxiety and how they interrelate. She points out that anxiety can be healthy in that it is a protection against threats. It becomes unhealthy when it kicks in without there being a threat and when the anxiety is out of proportion to whatever threat may be out there. She explains how the body and the mind react when anxiety kicks in and outlines ways that we might combat the reaction when it’s out of proportion to the reality. She encourages controlled breathing to reset the body and provides a very simple technique that she calls square breathing or box breathing.  She explains further how this not only helps to reset the body but also how nerve receptors on the lungs send messages back to the brain urging it to calm. Damour also encourages alternative and more moderate language to describe what is happening in our minds. Not everything that is labelled anxiety is really anxiety; it might be excitement or nervousness, and over thinking and over stating it is not helpful. She warns against catastrophic thinking and urges instead thinking that is more in proportion to the threatening situation. Damour’s insight breaks down what may be considered a very complex matter to a more easy to understand phenomenon; she claims, in fact, that anxiety is one of the more systematic human reactions [2]. 

The first part of Damour’s presentation is around 9 minutes; the remainder of the talk is responding to questions and is also very insightful. In the second part of the presentation, she speaks about how to help people who struggle with anxiety by breaking it down into a simple phenomenon that can be mitigated or controlled. She describes anxiety as coming at different levels of intensity, where a 1 or a 2 on a scale of 1 – 10 is a reasonable and normal reaction and a 5 or 6 problematic. She references this as an anxiety dial that can be turned down by using some of the strategies that she outlined earlier [2].

She also speaks about the aspect of avoidance. When people are anxious about something, they tend to shy away from it, to avoid becoming overanxious. Interestingly, she notes how avoidance feeds anxiety in that the mind is encouraged by the anxiety going away. Avoidance provides affirmation when it shouldn’t. Exposure reduces anxiety in that the mind comes to understand that the fear is un or less founded than originally thought. As clinical psychologist she would encourage graduated exposure as a means of overcoming the anxiety, rather than avoidance [2]. I couldn’t help thinking of children who stay away from school because of anxiety about one or other school related situations. I also thought about church members missing church because of anxiety related to church attendance. Both (attending school and church) are important and positive things to be doing for people generally and for Christians especially. It’s good to understand that avoidance is not a good response.

Damour encourages nuancing and moderating the language around anxiety. She makes the claim that teenagers use the term ‘anxiety’ a lot when they really mean that they are not as calm as they otherwise might be. It also helps to speak of being anxious rather than having anxiety and thus distinguishing between an ongoing condition or something that you are impacted by at that moment. Broadly Damour insists that people who are anxious have the capacity to reduce their sense of risk and increase their sense of control [2].

This is a refreshing presentation. I encourage people to view it and if it should be relevant to their situation to start working with some of the ideas that are put forward. I caution against using this to make those who struggle with anxiety feel worse about themselves than they already do. That’s not the intent of raising awareness around this phenomenon. When people are genuinely struggling, an understanding, patient and caring approach is always necessary. 

Be encouraging and supportive, draw on the teaching of our LORD Jesus Christ who shows how we have no need for anxiety as our heavenly Father extends his care and protection over us in all situations (Matthew 6: 25 – 34). Be willing also to draw on the sound insights, understandings and approaches that arise out of sound research into human behaviour. That too comes from God.

Alwyn Terpstra
Trellis Counselling

 

  1. Lisa Damour. 2023; Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_Damour.
  2. Damour, L., 3 steps of anxiety overload – and how you can take back control 2023, TED.

 

*This article was originally published in the Una Sancta on March 24, 2024.