During a tense meeting some years ago, I became conscious that my friend Kevin, who was sitting beside me, was experiencing a silent suffering.
Ordinarily so jovial and gregarious, I saw something that I had never seen on Kevin’s face before: utter panic. His face was snow-white and his hands were clenched into fists underneath the table. Before I could inquire if he was feeling OK, the meeting mercifully ended and we were free to leave the room.
Approaching Kevin after the meeting, he shared that he struggled with anxiety and regularly experienced panic attacks. “I never know when they’re going to strike,” he explained. “Sometimes it feels like a vice has gripped my heart and I feel like I am suffocating.”
We talked for some time and he thanked me for reaching out to him “because it helps me to realize that I’m not alone,” he shared.
What Kevin experiences is becoming more common, and while all of us may struggle with bouts of anxiety from time to time, chronic and persistent anxiety has become a major mental health problem for many Americans. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects approximately 18% of the population and it is a rising trend, especially among children between the ages of 13 to 18, where it affects 25% of children.
Many Christians struggle with anxiety and are afraid to seek help or treatment in case it is seen as a sign of weakness, failure or lack of trust in God. If you struggle with anxiety or any mental health issue, please don’t be afraid to reach out for help and care. Anxiety is a serious issue and often needs professional treatment. It is not a sign of weakness or a lack of belief.
While the treatment of anxiety is highly individualized, many people ask if faith has a role in the conversation about anxiety and fear. Absolutely, and the medical world has become more open to how critical faith is in helping us with physical, emotional and mental health. While it is certainly not helpful for Christians to tell people who struggle with anxiety “not to worry” or “believe more” or to “just trust more,” our faith does have a part to play in helping us to face our fears and anxieties.
All of us live with some degree of fear and anxiety in our lives, so what does God tell us in the Scriptures that might be helpful for us?
Fear does not come from God:
“God has not given me the spirit of fear. He has given me the spirit of power and love and of a sound mind” 2 Timothy 1:7.
For anyone who is struggling with anxiety, please know how much God loves you. Fear does not come from God. He does not want us to be entombed in prisons of doubt, anxiety, fear and despair. God loves us and wants the best for each one of us. You are not alone! Why we struggle with certain conditions and not others is a painful mystery. Why God allows suffering is a mystery that is hard to comprehend and understand, and beyond anything that we can humanly explain. But for those who are living with anxiety, you don’t have to suffer or struggle alone. The Catholic Church does provide options for treatment, counseling, support and guidance from a multifaceted and thorough perspective.
God gives us strength to endure:
“When I am weak, He gives me power, when I am powerless, He gives me strength” Isaiah 40:29.
During times in our life when we feel especially weak, God is walking with us, beside us and sometimes holding us even if we do not realize it. God never leaves or abandons his beloved children. If you are struggling, ask God to lift the weight of your burdens from you and to help strengthen you to reach out to others or to send opportunities your way for people to help.
There have been times in my life when I have faced moments of despair, desolation and sadness. Sometimes I wondered where God was in my suffering, but as I look back now, I see the people who God sent to love and care for me. What we see now is not always the full picture of what God wants for us. Where there is pain, God is also there with us.
There is absolutely no shame in struggling with mental health. None! God wants us to be at peace and feel his loving presence. While treatment for anxiety and other mental health issues is a complex puzzle, our faith can help us to endure all kinds of suffering and can provide comfort, especially when we are feeling anxious and afraid. God himself tells us that he will never leave us or forsake us and urges us to “not be afraid, do not be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Where there is joy in our life, God is with us. Where there is pain and sadness, he is there with us, too.
Stanz is director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay. Her new book, “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church,” is now available from Loyola Press.