Defying anxiety

Defying anxiety

When I was sick with COVID, I had a rare opportunity to learn about coping with anxiety. My symptoms were mild. I was quarantined from my family. So I was free to focus on what was the hardest thing: my guilt and anxiety about Zion people getting sick.

I’ll get to what the bible says about worry and anxiety. But first, a personal note. Recently, my primary care physician diagnosed me with mild anxiety and depression. He prescribed medication and referred me to a therapist. This is a good thing. I’m receiving the care and help I need. It is a common and normal thing to do. I trust that through therapy and medication are two more ways God provides, heals, guides, and gives life, strength, and hope.

I want to share what I’m learning, because maybe it will help you. It certainly helped me as I was working through what I call the "What will people think about the jerk pastor who's to blame for a super spreader?” phase. Even if anxiety and depression are not a problem for you, you surely know someone who is dealing with it right now. (Though maybe they’ve not revealed it to you.) Anecdotally and according to studies of children and adults, rates of anxiety and depression have increased substantially during the pandemic. Maybe what I’m learning will help you help someone else.

There are many kinds of therapy and therapists. Mine is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Which I mention only to say, there are many ways to approach anxiety and depression. People who know way more than I do can debate what are better ways. I’m simply sharing what’s been helpful for me. And that’s this key insight of the cognitive-behavioral approach:

Negative feelings come from automatic thoughts. Change the thinking, do one or more of a handful of coping activities, and naturally the feelings will change too.

Maybe you can see the cognitive (thoughts produce feelings) and the behavioral (coping activities) working together.

Take for example, my guilt and anxiety about Zion people getting sick. You could start with the exercise I used in my Easter sermon, but focused on doubt. I could ask myself, “What is good and beautiful about my guilt and anxiety about Zion people getting sick?” I might say:

  • It shows I care about others. I’m compassionate.
  • It shows I’m accountable. I’m willing to own up to mistakes we made and make them right in future, so we can keep people safe in worship.

And so on. What’s the point of this? Well, it helps correct a common, underlying distorted thought: “There is something wrong with me.” When I can see my problem (overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety) is rooted in what is right with me, instead of what is wrong, then relief and calm follows, and with it, more capacity to take on other automatic thoughts and so become even happier and more grounded.

During my COVID quarantine, I filled out a worksheet my therapist gave me. It’s purpose is to slow down, notice the feelings, identity the thoughts that caused the feelings, push back with alternative responses, and brainstorm what to do to cope. Here’s some examples of my automatic thoughts at the heart of my COVID guilt and anxiety, along with alternative responses, and coping activities.

Automatic Thought When people find out about Zion’s COVID outbreak, they will get mad at me and think I’m a jerk and an idiot. People I care about will get sick, and it will be my fault.
Alternative Response Not true. Those who already know responded with empathy and a willingness to help, not anger and blame. One sick Zion person even said, “I could have picked it up anywhere.” Even if someone did blame me, I cannot realistically take 100% of the blame. Zion was following guidance laid out by the Regathering Task Force and the Council, and Zion people willfully participated. Many other churches did the same things Zion did. I did not intentionally give anyone COVID. I didn’t lick any doorknobs! Yes, people I care about are already sick. But I cannot predict the future. I don’t know how many more will get sick. I do know the vast majority were vaccinated. Like those who are sick now, new cases will probably be mild or at least not require hospitalization. Everyone will probably be okay. And even if they aren’t, there’s little I can do now but rest, relax, and enjoy myself as best I can, so I’m ready for whatever will come.
Coping Activities Pushing back on the automatic thoughts by working through the worksheet was itself a coping activity. In addition, I called or texted with Zion people who were sick, because I cared and also so I would know how they were, instead of letting my imagination run wild. I also did things I enjoyed, distracting me in a healthy way: I took a walk, read a magazine, watched a movie, video-chatted with my family, and so on.

This helped immensely. It didn’t always eliminate all the anxiety and worry, but it often took it from 100 to 50 or 25, which is huge. It’s been eye-opening to realize how much of my bad feelings come from my own automatic thoughts! So mean! But automatically mean, not intentionally. That could be demoralizing, but the good news is, they are my thoughts. I can learn to interrupt them and replace them and feel better. So can you.

Before I conclude, I promised to talk about the bible. On the Sunday I was home sick with COVID, Pastor Elaine read from the Gospel of John, where it says, these stories were written so you might come to trust in Jesus and through trusting, have life in Jesus’ name. To me, trust and life are like the opposite of anxiety and depression. So it’s like the writer was saying: “This gospel is meant to reduce your anxiety and depression!” (Among other things.) And naturally, for many of us, reading scripture is truly a coping activity! Trust and life in Jesus is indeed an antidote to anxiety and depression.

The problem is, sometimes words from the bible become the automatic thoughts that torture us! Remember the devil tempting Jesus with words of scripture? So let me leave you with one more example.

Automatic Thought Jesus said, “Do not worry.” So I shouldn’t worry. Real Christians never worry. They let go and let God. If I had more faith, I wouldn’t feel this way. If people at church found out I’m having such a hard time, they would judge me and exclude me.
Alternative Response No. Jesus did say, “Do not worry,” but he never judged the parents who begged him to help when they feared for their children. He healed their kids! People were afraid about where their next meal would come from, but Jesus didn’t exclude them, he fed them! Real Christians do worry. If they didn’t, Jesus wouldn’t try to soothe them by saying, “Don’t worry”! Maybe there is room for my faith to grow, specifically by choosing to believe Jesus has compassion for worried people like me. If someone from church let me know they were having a hard time like I am now, I would feel such empathy and compassion for them! I would do whatever I could for them! So probably, if they knew, church people would respond to me with love and understanding. Plus, Pastor wrote that thing in the newsletter that one time. So I don’t have to tell anyone, but if I did there’s at least one person, and probably many more, who would support me.
Coping Activities I pushed back on my automatic thoughts, now I’m going to go play.

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith