Anxiety recently replaced depression as America’s most common mental health struggle. The American Psychiatric Association ran a poll in 2017 that revealed two-thirds of Americans were “extremely or somewhat” anxious about health safety for themselves or their families and millennials were the most anxious generation.
Fast forward three years and already anxious America is experiencing an unprecedented pandemic with a growing tab of those who have died from Covid-10 continually running on social media, the stock market has entered into record-setting volatile swings affecting everything from capital liquidity to individual 401(K)s, and the unemployment rate could jump by double digits. We are nervous and worried. Rightfully so.
The eventual solution to the Coronavirus will most certainly be the development of a vaccine, and history shows that the economy will eventually recover. However, if as Christians we believe that God uses trials to mature us (James 1:3-4), and the ultimate sign of our maturity as a human being is our love for one another (2 Peter 1:5-7), then we are compelled to ask a very important question. How can we love those dealing with anxiety?
A few weeks back my seven-year-old granddaughter, affectionately nicknamed Punkie Jane, was experiencing some anxiety regarding playing the piano for me and her grandma. Technically it's a keyboard, but you get the point. Anyways, her grandma and I were watching her while her mom and dad were going out on a date. Punkie has been taking piano lessons and her mom and dad suggested she play one of the songs she had learned for us once they left.
Enter anxiety. The thought of playing the piano in front of us caused her little body to have a physiological reaction. Anxiety wasn’t something completely new. She really doesn’t like to perform in front of people, isn’t excited about having her picture taken in front of people, and recently informed her mom she was going to opt-out of the holiday school performance.
So how did I respond to her anxiousness? I want to share what I did with the hope that it might serve as an example of how we all can love those around us who experience anxiety, especially during times such as what we are experiencing now.
Respond with Empathy
The first thing I did was tell her a story about a time when I had experienced anxiety about performing. It wasn't just any story. It was a story that would allow me to feel with her. This is called empathy. I had to connect something about myself to her.
The Bible discusses the concept of empathy. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that our High Priest was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). The Apostle Paul commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). The Greek word for with is the preposition met-ah. When we feel with people we are accompanying people. We are with them. I was going to be with Punkie, accompany her, and connect with her in her emotion.
The Apostle Paul commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
My story involved me performing my alto saxophone piece in the 5th grade for what was then called Festival. I remember practicing and having to learn the piece by memory. I remember the room I performed my piece. I can still feel the coldness of the room, see the piano sitting in the corner, and recall the judges sitting at a table (#flashdance). I remember my fear, my worry, and my hands trembling when I finally performed. I didn’t recite all of these details to Punkie, but recalling this experience allowed me to recall my own anxiety. I told her a condensed version of the story emphasizing how I too became anxious when I had to perform musically. She listened. Connection made.
When people come in for counseling they are deciding if the counselor is safe enough to trust and smart enough to help them. But here is another important item people are deciding from the first session. Do they believe we care? That's empathy.
Before you help someone with anxiety they will have to believe you care.
Respond with Perspective
Unfortunately, a lot of people end with empathy, but empathy is only the beginning. I then told Punkie about how everything turned out okay. By okay I mean I overcame the anxiety and performed my piece. I didn’t get the highest mark for my performance (I got the equivalent of a B), and there was no future musical scholarship waiting for me later in life. But I did it, I was glad I did it, and nothing bad happened.
This isn’t some type of manipulation where I then strong-armed her into performing for her grandma and myself. That wasn't my goal. My goal was simply to give her a sense of perspective. I would then trust her seven-year-old cognitive processing to decide what she would do with the perspective I had just given her.
Oftentimes in counseling, we are guiding clients to find perspective. This involves a lot of questions and sometimes some stories. There was another counselor who walked on the earth about 2,000 years ago that used questions and stories to guide people to new perspectives. (#jesusalwaystheansweratchurch). Jesus invoked the idea of “considering” when dealing with anxiety (Matthew 6:28).
If you want to love people struggling with anxiety you have to introduce new perspectives.
Jesus invoked the idea of “considering” when dealing with anxiety.
Respond with Help
After empathy and perspective comes help. Once Punkie felt safe with me concerning her anxiety, and once the executive functions of her prefrontal cortex kicked in to contemplate a different perspective, she was ready for some practical help.
If you have ever heard a good life coach, counselor, or trainer you have most certainly heard the phrase “action items.” We don’t just implement change without doing something. While empathy targets the emotions, and perspective targets the thinking, we eventually have to incorporate some “doing.” What would Punkie’s doing involve? I would play the piano with her.
Now to be honest, what I did with Punkie involved some tactical maneuvering. Later that night I attempted to play the sheet of music that was on the keyboard. It had probably been over 30 years since I had sat down and read music. I wasn’t faking my incompetence, but at the same time, I wasn’t trying to nail the song either. Eventually, she saw I was struggling and came over to help me. She was doing an “action item.” By helping me learn to play the piece, she eventually played it for me and her grandma. Of course, we both followed up with excitement and positive reinforcement stuff. But here is the point. She had to feel connected (empathy) and she had to see things differently (perspective) before she would do some things that, with time, will realign the neuro-pathways of her mind.
In the end, I wasn’t overly concerned that she played the piano well. But I do love that little girl with all my heart, and I do want to connect with her relationally, feel with her emotionally, and see her have enough courage in this life to ask for help with any anxiety she might experience.
The moral of my story is this. If Punkie could just “stop being anxious” she would. And if the people around us could just “turn off their anxiousness” they would. No one chooses to be anxious. If we want to love people who are anxious we need to connect with them through empathy, guide them through introducing different perspectives, and help them with tangible action times.
Punkie taught me a lot with that piano lesson.
If we want to love people who are anxious we need to connect with them through empathy, guide them through introducing different perspectives, and help them with tangible action times.
Dr. Jeff Cox currently serves as the Wellness Pastor at Abundant Life Church, where he oversees Abundant Life Counseling Center and Abundant Life Leadership Institute (ALLI). Jeff is passionate about inspiring and equipping future leaders and counselors to be emotionally well, theologically centered, and influentially leveraged. Jeff is a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a DMin in Counseling and Calvary Theological Seminary with a MA in Theology.