Several years ago we had a woodpecker living in one of the beautiful big pecan trees in our front yard. There’s one thing I know about woodpeckers: they peck wood. So it was no surprise to me to constantly hear this little guy hard at work on my tree. Very rarely did I see him, but I heard him—like a small pernicious jackhammer—destroying my tree. With every hole made, he was weakening my tree’s structure and natural defenses.
Until one day…he was gone. I’m sure he moved on to another unsuspecting tree and family. I can hear it now: “Oh, honey, look at that beautiful bird on that tree. His beak looks so sharp…almost like a little…jackhammer!”
The drama in my front yard made me think about anxiety. In all my years as a counselor, I’ve never seen an issue with so much destructive potential to a person’s all-around health. My tree—slowly, systematically, and unrelentingly pounded and weakened by the onslaughts of that woodpecker—serves as an accurate metaphor of the devil’s work in our lives as he attempts to destroy us with anxiety. The countless little holes in the tree resemble the methods he persistently uses to weaken our faith in God’s love, goodness, power, and faithfulness. Then after he’s got our “worry motor” running, he packs up and moves on to another unsuspecting person.
The Worry Woodpecker
Author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar quips that worry is “interest paid on trouble before it comes due.”
Pithy proverb aside, he goes on to write about the pointlessness of worry:
Mathematically speaking, it really doesn’t make sense to worry. Psychologists and other researchers tell us that roughly 40 percent of what we worry about will never happen and 30 percent has already happened. Additionally, 12 percent of our worries are over unfounded health concerns. Another 10 percent of our worries involve the daily miscellaneous fretting that accomplishes nothing. That leaves only 8 percent. Plainly speaking, Americans are worrying 92 percent of the time for no good reason.
Worry, or “anxiety,” as it is known by mental health professionals, affects us emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually, which is why it’s important to understand
- why we worry;
- the different levels of worry and how they affect us;
- what happens to our mind and emotions when we worry;
- the role of our thoughts and beliefs in creating anxiety;
- what God says about how to deal with worry effectively.
Why We Worry
The number one reason people worry is control. Likely they were raised in a situation that was unpredictable, inconsistent, chaotic, or traumatic. For instance, they may not have known where their next meal was coming from, or they grew up with an alcoholic parent, or someone in the family was abusing drugs, or someone was abusing or neglecting them. They may not have been able to control anything in their physical environment. But they learned quickly that they could control at least one thing: what they thought about and focused on.
Levels of Losing It
Not all worry is unhealthy. Have you ever been nervous and had butterflies in your stomach because you had a presentation due at work or were just about to meet your significant other’s parents? That worry actually helped you be more aware of what was happening around you and heightened your performance of that task, whatever it was.
However, for a lot of people the worry quickly gets out of control. Here are the different levels I have seen over the years.
1. Concern. This is a normal and rational emotion that something’s just not right. You may not fully know what it is yet, but you catch that “not OK” vibe. At this point it’s just a passing, manageable emotion—but an important indication that you need to do something to control or fix the problem in a healthy way.
2. Worry. This is a deeper and stronger emotion. It’s more than a temporary feeling, and now you’re starting to focus more and more on it. These thoughts and feelings may trouble you and may briefly force their way into your other thoughts, but they’re still mostly under control.
3. Anxiety. This is a more pronounced and deep-seated emotion that begins—like a boa constrictor—to wrap itself around your life. These thoughts are unhealthy and take up a great deal of your time. You may use unhealthy coping mechanisms to get rid of them or just keep them at bay. The thoughts and anxiety may be irrational, but they may also be grounded in very real concerns that have been exaggerated.
At this level people usually start having physical symptoms, such as
- increased heart rate,
- heart arrhythmias,
- increased sweating,
- difficulty breathing,
- difficulty sitting still,
- short-term memory problems,
- trouble focusing,
- difficulty eating and sleeping,
At this point it may be wise to use natural or prescribed drugs to get these physical symptoms under control. At the same time you need to address the core issues (the stuff that’s really causing these problems) through Christian counseling.
4. Fear and Panic. At this point you are often totally controlled by your feelings. Most people who have reached this level are captive to their circumstances and thoughts and are generally incapacitated. Obviously, this can have far-reaching negative consequences for their relationships, work, and worship.
I’ve seen people at this stage have problems distinguishing reality from imagination. They may experience hallucinations and delusions (feeling paranoid, believing they’re somebody else, or believing things that aren’t rational). If your worry hits this level, it’s wise to consider a short-term psychiatric hospitalization to stabilize you and keep you and others safe.
Don’t You Care?
Anxiety affects us most significantly in the spiritual realm. This is the culmination of all the devil’s work. He wants to discourage us and crush any hope or belief that God will save us…or that He’s even there…or if He is, that He cares!
There’s a story in the Bible that illustrates this point well. It’s found in Mark 4:35-41 (give it a quick read, and then we’ll talk about it).
Did you catch the main feeling of the disciples in response to a sudden storm that threatened to sink their boat? The disciples immediately became afraid because they lacked faith in Jesus’ power and willingness to protect them. They approached Jesus during this time of anxiety and fear with the accusation, “Don’t You care that we’re about to drown?”
Many times when we’re experiencing anxiety and worry, we react the same way. We think and feel that Jesus doesn’t care, but the truth is that Jesus cares very much about what we’re going through. All we have to do is call out to Him, and He’ll be there. But if we can’t trust and acknowledge His presence when it’s calm, how can we do it when the storms hit?
For the disciples and for us, the problem of worry starts with our thoughts. We don’t realize the power our thoughts have over us. Out of our thoughts flows everything else about us. The Bible states clearly: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7, KJV). In other words, our thoughts can become self-fulfilling: What we think ends up influencing what we believe, how we behave, and, ultimately, what we become.
Our anxious thoughts can become habitual, usually in two ways: Either we are raised in an environment of negativity and unhealthy thought patterns, or we learn it through experiencing some sort of trauma or serious life-altering situation…or both.
Uncontrolled negative, illogical, or irrational thoughts plague a lot of people (yes, even Christians). They just can’t stop focusing on negative things. Medications for depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia can help people have more energy, motivation, and focus, but no amount of medication can make them think differently. Ultimately the drugs won’t help the habitual pattern of negative, unhealthy, and unrealistic thoughts that is the staple of anxiety.
Plug and Play
But there is hope.
There is hope in Jesus, because no matter how unhealthy we have been or what kind of craziness has happened—or is happening—in our lives, if we’re Christians, the Holy Spirit can make us a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
The Bible has a lot to say about changing our thoughts and about all the benefits this change will bring us. We’re all sinful; there’s nothing in any of us that’s any good. That’s why we’ve got to plug in to an outside source other than ourselves (Rom. 8:5, 6). That’s where the Holy Spirit comes into play. Plug and play, so to speak.
I’ll share what the Bible says about choosing and controlling our thoughts in a moment. But first, repeat after me: “All psychology and counseling is not evil.” Go on, say it out loud.
Good. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you that many psychological and counseling theories are evil! They’re evil because they’re based upon the idea that human beings are basically good. Many people in the “Humanistic Psychology” camp believe that what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve—but we already know what the Bible has to say about that.
At the same time, as a counselor, I can use my discernment to recognize that there are some theories and principles of psychology and counseling that display biblical truth (praise God!), and these can be paired with what the Bible says about effective life change to help the people I work with.
To that end, I’d like to present a theory of counseling and psychology called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This is the type of therapy I like to use because it most closely matches what the Bible teaches about how we think. Bottom line is this: Fix the way you think, fix the way you act. It’s that simple!
Well, it’s simple, but not easy. It takes a lot of concerted effort, but it’s possible and very effective.
Here’s the concept behind CBT:
- Problems/events lead to
- Thoughts/core beliefs, which lead to
- Feelings/emotions, which ultimately lead to
Got it? Good!
When something goes wrong, we tend to already have a predetermined thought or belief about what that specific event represents to us. These thoughts or core beliefs are formed within us by the family we’re raised in or the experiences we’ve had in our lives. These beliefs may be negative and unrealistic, causing us to perceive the world from a standpoint of helplessness and powerlessness or a sense of being unworthy and unlovable. These disordered, distorted, unhealthy thoughts and beliefs drive us to feel a certain way—typically not good—which then causes us to act or behave in a specific way—again, not good.
The biggest problem is that many of us believe we can’t change anything, and thus we are doomed to a lifetime of unhealthy thoughts and negative experiences.
The Old Switcheroo
The truth is that we can change our thought patterns and our resulting behaviors, and here is where the Holy Spirit comes into play. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about this whole matter. Paul says in Romans 8:5-11 that the way we think and behave is ultimately determined by which spirit rules us. (Go ahead and give it a read—I’ll wait.)
He adds in Colossians 3:1-3 that we must purposely choose a positive and godly focus. In other words, we must choose to focus only on good things. Philippians 4:8 gives us more specifics: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise” (CEV).
Sounds great! But how do you actually do it? Changing our thought habits is a four-step process.
- Pray that God will give you wisdom (James 1:5) to recognize when you’re beginning to have negative, anxious, or compulsive thoughts.
- The moment you have this type of thought, immediately stop the thought and pray, giving God your concerns and the things that make you anxious (Phil. 4:6, 7).
- Examine the thought. Ask God for wisdom in this (James 1:5). Is it positive or negative? What’s the unhealthy core belief behind it?
- Replace the thought with something positive (Phil. 4:8). God has only good things in store for us (Jer. 29:11). The best way I know of to replace negative thoughts with positive ones is to memorize Scripture—both general verses about how much God loves you and specific verses dealing with whatever you’re struggling with (Ps. 119:9-11).
I don’t want you to think that just knowing this information will magically change your life overnight. Remember, your negative thoughts didn’t happen overnight, so they’re not going to change overnight. But every day you and I can make positive choices, take baby steps, and surround ourselves with positive people who will love us, care for us, be honest with us, hold us accountable, and celebrate our achievements. If need be, get in touch with a good Christian counselor who can help you.
Anxiety-Free: God’s Way
God shares a practical formula for effectively beating the anxiety problem. It’s laid out most clearly in the New Testament book of Philippians. The apostle Paul wrote this book to Christians—from jail. So if anybody knew about anxiety, panic, and worry, it was Paul. In Philippians 4:4-8 he gives us the process for overcoming them (I’ll wait for you to read this one as well).
Let’s break the process down into separate steps:
- Be glad (verses 4, 5). God wouldn’t tell us to be glad if it weren’t possible. Why can we be glad? Because we have a relationship with God.
- Be gentle with others (verse 5). When we get worried and anxious, we tend to easily and quickly lose our cool. We treat others—especially the ones we love the most—rudely or impatiently. But Paul says that we should be gentle, especially when we’re being pressed by problems.
- Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything (verse 6). Again Paul encourages us not to worry about anything, but to engage and strengthen our relationship with God. I find it interesting that here Paul invokes a standard and very effective psychological counseling principle of “replacement”: To eliminate a negative behavior, replace it with a positive one. The replacement principle is key when dealing with habitual or compulsive behavior. Translation: stop worrying and start praying!
- With a thankful attitude, tell God the things you’re worried about (verse 6). God is your Father. He knows your heart and cares about the things you’re going through. He truly wants to know what you’re worried about, so go ahead and unload. He can take all your mess and heat. I find it interesting that Paul qualifies how we should be sharing with God. Our attitude should be thankful—but many times we just have an attitude.
- Being connected to Christ through a real relationship will allow Him to bless us with peace that no one can understand (verse 7). This peace will control our hearts (our feelings) and our minds (our thoughts). In other words, God’s peace will take total control of us.
- Keep being glad (verse 8). Basically, repeat step 1. Initially, you’ll have to work this process many times throughout the day…because you’re dealing with habitually compulsive behavior. But take heart; it does work.
Know God, Trust God
Living a worry-free life isn’t possible, because as long as we’re sinful human beings in a sinful world, we’ll have problems and difficulties. However, God is ready and willing to give you a permanent cure for crippling anxiety. But you’ve got to trust Him. Before you can trust Him, you’ve got to know Him. To know God is to love Him.
God is longing to have a connection with us at all times so we can lean on, and unload on, Him (1 Pet. 5:7; Ps. 55:22). Get to know Jesus, and then tell Him your troubles. He’s ready and waiting. The choice is up to you.
Jesus doesn’t want you to be anxious about anything. If He told you not to worry, then He can help you not to worry.
God does not lie. Be patient and trust Him. His Word is true, and He’s true to His word.