The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that it really does come down to the way it is seen by some people . . . and, unfortunately, especially the way it's seen by some people in the church. We talk often about the stigma associated with mental illness in our society, and our need to remove it. We've made great strides in this - both inside and outside of the church.
But, there have definitely been times when it has been easier to let the stranger in the grocery store or the coffee shop know what was going on when I'm struggling with anxiety when I'm out, then it has been to let someone at church know. This reality saddens me. The place where it should be easiest to admit my struggle is often actually the most difficult.
So, why is this the case? What is going on here?
I'm going to say that most of the challenge comes from the multiple meanings of the word anxiety. It's a word that is used to mean anything from the worries of everyday life to crippling fear and worry that interferes with the ability to live a "normal life." Most of the people I've talked to about this in the church understand the first definition, but they miss the other possible definition.
When someone is talking about the worries of everyday life, then it is perfectly reasonable to talk to them about praying and giving them over to God - about how Scripture tells us not to worry about tomorrow - and leave it at that. Scripture's prescription for this kind of anxiety is abundantly clear.
But, when it's a life-altering level of anxiety? When it's anxiety that interferes with the ability to live and do the things everyone else does?
Absolutely, the truth of Scripture still applies. But, when we stop there, we leave those who live with this type of anxiety feeling less than, or like their problem isn't seen as being real. It can make you feel like less of a Christian because the "solution" that people are giving doesn't work for you.
I don't want to discount the truth of Scripture, or the role that doing what Philippians 4:6-7 says plays in my ability to manage my anxiety. The truth of Scripture is powerful to change thinking and I don't want to minimize it.
But, when I'm struggling with my anxiety in the moment, I don't need Scripture basically just thrown at me as the solution to my problem. It's not actually going to help.
I also don't want to make it sound like the church always gets this wrong. Many in the church handle this well. They truly care and support and try to understand. I get that it's hard to understand what it's like and I might not always be able to explain it well. But, I'm appreciative of those who try.
So, how do we fix this?
1) Don't assume you know what someone means when they say they're struggling with anxiety. Ask questions to get a better understanding of what they mean.
2) Don't rush to offer you solution to their problem. Even when you feel like you have a suggestion that might help, offering it right away will actually be counter-productive.
3) Listen to what they're saying and care about what's going on. A listening ear makes a big difference. Often just being there makes all the difference.