325 – Caring for Anxiety and Mental Health

This Week on Soul Talks

Many people are held back in their lives by anxiety. Problems with anxiety are the most common mental-emotional disorder for American adults today. But here’s the good news: there is hope for people who are struggling with anxiety! Jesus heals anxious hearts.

Tune into this episode of Soul Talks, where Bill shares vulnerably about his experiences with anxiety. You’ll be equipped and inspired with tangible spiritual formation tools to help care for your own anxiety and mental health, and that of those around you as a wounded healer.

Resources for this episode: 

Caring for Anxiety and Mental Health Transcript

Bill & Kristi Gaultiere

Kristi

Hi friends, Bill and I are so grateful that you’ve joined us. 

We love being with you and hearing from you. 

We’ve had the opportunity to meet more and more of you through our Institutes and the traveling we’re doing to different churches around the country. 

I always feel so honored and privileged to meet you, and to hear how you’re following Jesus with us. So thank you. 

You matter to us.

You make a difference to us. 

Bill and I just got back from being together with some of the top 100 mental health Christian leaders and professionals in our nation. 

There were some of us together that were pastors that have experienced mental health issues in ourselves, our families, and ministering out of that.

The Lord has given us a special calling there as wounded healers. 

Some in attendance were professors, educators, writers, and researchers in this area who are really called to make a difference. 

To make an impact in the area of mental health.

Secrecy and Shame Are Tools of the Enemy

Kristi

Some of us there were therapists and Doctors of Psychology. 

And there were psychiatrists as well — medical professionals serving in this area. 

We all came together to pray and really seek to discern and to collaborate, How can we best partner together to serve the bride of Christ?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. 

And so we have been thinking and praying about this as well, because this is an area where we have a real concern and obviously a calling. 

When we went to get our Doctorates of Psychology, it was because we had a burden and a call to help people in the church be healthier — emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Bill 

Yeah. So in this series of podcasts this month, we’re going to be talking about anxiety, depression, addiction, spiritual abuse, and topics like this, because this is where we all live. 

We all live with various stressors and emotional distress personally, or in our family, our friends, our churches. 

And so we really wanted to remove the shame that gets put on people. 

The judgment and the isolation around mental health challenges that we’re dealing with in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. 

And to be able to talk about this and understand these issues and how they relate to discipleship to Jesus.

Kristi

It is so important because the enemy does try to come and shame us, keep us secret, and make us feel like we can’t talk about it at church or in Christian communities. 

And unfortunately there is some misunderstanding there. 

Sometimes in the church, there are people that have felt very judged and even been told that their problem is they don’t have enough faith.

Bill 

Which is so harmful. 

Throughout the Scriptures we see examples of people dealing with depression, anxiety, and other challenges. 

Having these emotions and these struggles is a natural part of life on earth since the fall, including the stress and conflict that we have in our relationships. 

And so we need to understand how to address these issues. 

How to listen with empathy and how to treat people with dignity, whatever they’re experiencing. 

We need to understand how to not exclude in a way that we make church activities, Christian activities, and spiritual life only for the neat and tidy and the well put together. 

Because as we go through the different challenges in life, it’s natural that we’re going to have  pockets or aspects of these disorders that we might experience. 

The Number One Place People Still Go For Help

Bill

One of the things that was so encouraging for me, Kristi, in the mental health collective that we were at is there’s so much that’s being done beyond the psychiatrist’s office and the psychologist’s office. 

So much that’s being done in the area of coaching for instance.

What’s great about this is that we’ve made so much progress in recent decades with people who need psychological help being able to find a professional, most pastors are very open to this and making referrals. 

And, by the way, the number one place that people still go when they’re having a mental health challenge or crisis is to their pastor or to a pastor in their community. 

It’s so important for all of you who are pastors and church leaders to be prepared for that conversation. 

If you feel like, “Oh, well, I don’t have anybody in my congregation dealing with that…”

You need to look more closely because during every sermon that’s being preached, in every church, there is somebody struggling with these kinds of issues.

It’s important that we’re conversant and that we are able to listen, care, and speak to these issues and integrate them into our discipleship to Jesus. 

I mean, just look through the Psalms!

Half the Psalms are laments where the Psalmist is dealing with things like anger, anxiety, stress, overload, discouragement, depression, and compulsive behavior. 

The are the kinds of challenges that come into a therapist’s office. 

They’re right there in the Psalms and in other books within Scripture. 

Understanding these issues is actually very central to spiritual formation in Christ.

Kristi

It is. 

And we’re talking about anxiety, particularly in this podcast today. 

20% of Americans struggle and suffer with an anxiety disorder.

Bill

And there’s another statistic that’s even bigger from the National Institute of Mental Health. 

31% of people, at some point in their lifetime, will struggle with an anxiety disorder. 

And of course, if we expand that to include not just disorders but anxiety symptoms, that statistic increases a lot more.

Kristi

Yes. At sometime in our lives, we all experience symptoms of anxiety that become troublesome, bothersome, intrusive, disruptive to our life, to our health, to our sleep, in some form or another. 

Bill, you are the wounded healer in our relationship, when it comes to anxiety, as I have struggled more with depression. 

You’ve struggled more with anxiety.

Bill 

I’ve had challenges with anxiety all my life, and it’s from internalizing stress. 

I’m very thankful that for a number of years now, my anxiety has been much less severe, even though I have more stress in my life than I’ve ever had before.

I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a long time ago and worked with a therapist to get help with my own anxiety. 

I’ve had anxiety attacks. 

I’ve had times of just being so overloaded that I don’t feel I can function very well and isolating myself because of feeling shame.

Of the many things I’ve learned about anxiety, one of them is that it’s basically a control disorder.

It’s a disease of trying to control people, outcomes, situations, my image, what people think about me… 

Usually people that deal with anxiety are people who, like me, are high functioning, highly responsible, and are really caring for other people. 

They take on too much and probably have a disease of being overly responsible. 

And so that tends to go with anxiety. 

Now it’s not so much the person we think… when we think of anxiety, we think of someone that’s sort of in the corner, trembling in fear, and not able to function. 

And we might have moments like that. 

There are people that are in that condition. 

Normally someone who is dealing with anxiety is functioning quite well. 

And they’re over functioning.

Optimal Stress

Kristi

Right.

Even in your Easy Yoke book [Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke], in which you talk about anxiety, you talk about the Optimal Stress diagram. 

And you talk about how we can have too much stress or little stress.

And when you have too much stress, that is where you tend to get prone towards anxiety. 

That’s one of the things you talk about that’s interesting, because in my work in therapy, in my relationship with you, if you hadn’t been honest and vulnerable with me about your anxiety, I wouldn’t have known how you struggle with anxiety.

I have known this is something you struggle with because it’s something that you have chosen to show me, but for anybody else that just knows you and watches you in your life, they wouldn’t know you struggle with anxiety. 

And that is true for most people with anxiety, you don’t see it. 

I’m always surprised when I am meeting somebody who suffers from anxiety. 

I never would’ve guessed. 

You know, sometimes you can see it, but oftentimes there’s a surprise there. 

They show themselves and appear to be very calm.

Bill

So that’s the optimal stress research that you’re referring to in my book, Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke.

The point there is that stress is the things that we experience in our life, events that we go through, not just hard things, even good things, changes, and responsibilities, are stressful but obviously hard things as well. 

Health challenges, conflicts in relation, things like this. 

So when stress gets internalized, that’s where we have anxiety. 

We have this phrase, “I’m stressed-out” and really, it’s “Stressed-In,” but then it gets “stressed-out” when it shows to other people. 

Anxiety is internalized stress. 

That’s why people aren’t seeing it, because someone with anxiety is very image conscious and control-oriented — responsibility-oriented. 

So they’re not showing they’re stressed.

They’re like that duck on the water that looks fine, but underneath the surface of the water, the legs are just churning like crazy.

That is what is going on with anxiety in the Optimal Stress diagram. 

This is an important coaching tool for leadership that we use in Soul Shepherding. 

And if you don’t know, we have coaches in Soul Shepherding that we have trained and we are training.

We have spiritual directors, as well. 

In coaching, we talk about the importance of “how we lead.”

Leading with Jesus in a healthy relationship with the Lord and healthy relationship with people. 

In coaching, it’s really important in terms of our performance, our work, our ministry, reaching our goals, our effectiveness, and having healthy relationships. 

We want to be in that place of optimal stress. 

Optimal stress is away from the extremes of being overstressed and anxious or on the other side, being under stressed, which can look like depression. 

Anxiety and depression can go together on both sides here. 

But sometimes when we are “under-stressed,” we’re having trouble activating.

That would be classical depression, which we’ll talk about in the coming podcast. 

So we wanna be in that place of optimal stress where we’re engaged, we’re activated, we’re dealing with the challenges in our lives. 

We’re facing our stressors, but without being overwhelmed. 

Either in depression where we’re shutting down and not functioning. 

Or overwhelmed with anxiety where we’re churning on the inside, dealing with fear, maybe having panic attacks and that sort of thing.

Stress Lives in the Body

Kristi

I think it’s important when we talk about anxiety to realize that oftentimes you don’t know, you’re surprised. 

There are people that actually, you can sense the anxiety when just being with them and you can catch their anxiety because there’s so much anxiety controlling them. 

Maybe you feel controlled by it and you’re feeling anxious in their presence or under their control, or you just feel the anxiety that they can’t contain anymore. 

Overflowing anxiety also can manifest for people in their body and in ways where they may not consciously know they’re struggling with anxiety. 

Oftentimes, people will present physical symptoms due to anxiety but they don’t realize it is anxiety.

Digestive problems, or a lot of sweating, an inability to sleep, or even some mental confusion, scatteredness and not being able to focus. 

There are other ways that anxiety can manifest physically that people oftentimes don’t realize is anxiety. 

In fact, a lot of people that show up at the emergency room, their physical symptoms are actually caused by anxiety.

Bill 

They think they’re having a heart attack, but it’s really a panic attack. 

Hearts race often with anxiety.

Mental disorders are always in the body. 

There’s a physiology, a biology associated with this, not only in terms of our hormones and our adrenal glands and all of that. 

Brain scans will show if it’s the anxiety living somewhere in our body. 

Because remember, stress has been internalized. 

When there’s an anxiety problem, there’s always a repression problem or a denial problem.

Where we’re denying the emotions that we have related to stress.

Or maybe we’re feeling them, but those emotions are on top of us because we are not able to, or don’t know how to, feel that emotion and pray it through.

Like the Psalmist does.

Or talk it through with a soul friend who gives us empathy.

When we’re internalizing and denying that stress over time, that stress will build up into symptoms of anxiety. 

The “over time” part about that is very confusing to people. 

Often when I’ve talked with people who are anxious or have a panic disorder, they’ll tell me, “I don’t know why I had another attack,”  and they’re frustrated with themselves, which is often part of the anxiety. 

Self-judging is very much part of depression as well. 

They don’t realize why they had this panic attack. They say, “Well, I haven’t really had much stress lately.” 

I say, “Well, let’s talk about what’s been going on.” 

I have them tell me about their recent days and weeks. 

Then I can invariably identify five or six things that were very stressful that they actually felt fear or anxiety about or they were ruminating about, obsessing about.

Which is another symptom that goes with anxiety. 

They didn’t pay attention to it because they were trying so hard to perform.  

They were focused so much on their work, what they were doing or what other people were thinking or feeling.

They were just skimming across the surface of their life and not realizing that actually there were a lot of emotions going on there.

It’s through naming those feelings and learning how to relax the control on my life. 

Being vulnerable with somebody is a way of letting go of control and sharing your life, your experience, and your emotions. 

Then learning how to receive and absorb the curiosity, concern, and the care that someone would show to you. 

So you’re not carrying the burden alone. 

That’s what happens in anxiety: we tend to isolate and carry our stress, the things that are bothering us, and we’re carrying it alone.

Kristi

That’s something you hear from Bill and I often in Soul Shepherding: don’t do this alone. 

We need shepherds after God’s heart. 

That’s what Soul Shepherding is called to be. 

We need people who understand, who empathize, who can validate our experience for us and help us grow.  

To bring this into our relationship with Jesus, our intimacy with him, which is why we’re growing coaches as well as spiritual directors. 

So that there’s more of you. Our mental health providers are overloaded right now, especially since the pandemic, because so many more people are filled with anxiety. 

There’s so many more stresses in our world that people are dealing with today. 

And there is help. 

Sometimes the help that you need in struggling with anxiety or a mental health disorder is from a healthcare professional. 

Sometimes you need medication because sometimes there’s biological components that play into this as well. 

There’s a lot that we can get within the body of Christ. 

Others who can guide us, lead us, minister to us. 

Who can be an ambassador of Jesus to us. 

Who can offer us coaching and how to handle some of these things. 

Providing us with spiritual direction, companioning us, and helping us connect to the Lord in our place of need.

Spiritual Formation Practices for Anxiety

Bill 

Let’s talk about some of those coaching techniques and methods —one of the spiritual formation practices that can be helpful with anxiety.

Kristi

You’ve experienced a lot of help in this area of anxiety. 

You’ve gotten probably more help through spiritual formation practices than you have through psychology. 

Although it’s hard to measure when that’s our profession.

Bill 

Yeah, it’s been super helpful to me. 

Things like meditation on Scripture. 

What we teach in our Soul Shepherding Institute is that meditation on Scripture is not just thinking about it and analyzing it. 

That’s more like Bible study. Which is very helpful and important.

Meditation gets more into our emotions and our relationship with the Lord. 

Learning how to read a scripture, linger, pause, and ask:

“Well, how do I feel as I’m reading this?” 

“How does this relate to my life?” 

“What situation is sort of like this?”

“Well, how am I feeling in that situation?” 

“What do I need in that situation?” 

Then praying about those things in Lectio Divina and Ignatian meditation, the two disciplines for scripture meditation that we teach. 

We have resources in our Soul Shepherding store on our website to help you learn how to practice Lectio Divina and learn how to practice Ignatian meditation or breath prayer. 

These are ways of interacting with scripture. 

Where scripture is guiding us in paying attention to and caring for our emotions and our needs. 

Then sharing that in a relationship. 

That’s been so helpful for me to integrate into my discipleship with Jesus, my emotions and my stress.

Kristi

One of the things we most often get feedback on is how breath prayers are helping them to calm their anxiety. 

This has been a major tool, a fruit of Soul Shepherding. 

Even just yesterday we were reading a letter from someone who was thanking us for breath prayers and how much they’ve helped her. 

They said, “I’ve learned that using breath prayers, it’s like this gentle wave in the background of my life now.” 

“That is flowing in me and through me and around me and over me and under. This current of God’s peace of connection with the Lord.” 

“And it’s helping me to tune into the Lord and to not be so reactive to the stresses in life.”

“Breath prayers have been such a helpful tool.” 

They’ve been helpful to me even though anxiety isn’t my struggle.  

As a Heart Type on the Enneagram, as an Enneagram Two, my temptation is to worry too much about what people think of me. 

Sometimes when I’m being entrusted with something that is an intimidating situation for me, I feel like I really want to please God and this person, I can feel anxiety as well. 

Breath prayers always help me really calm down my body and focus on Jesus with me. 

They help me depend upon him and his spirit and get out of this self-focus of thinking it’s all up to me.

Stop Avoiding Anxiety

Bill 

So in a breath prayer we do deep breathing, slow breathing. 

When we’re anxious, our breathing is shallow and rapid. 

So it’s a big deal to just simply pay attention to our breathing. 

Just slow it down. 

It helps me be present right here and now, when we do that deep breathing. 

Anxiety is in our body and that’s true with all of the mental health disorders and challenges that we deal with. 

In fact, it’s true with all emotions.

Friends who are listening, if you don’t know, Kristi and I are writing a book on emotions and personality right now. 

Pray for us about that. 

We’re writing that for you and we hope this will be really helpful and encouraging to you. 

One of the things that we talk about is how emotion is not just some mental thought.

It’s embodied. We feel emotions in our body. 

When we are dealing with anxiety, it is always in the body. 

That’s a reason why breath prayers are so powerful. 

That anxiety, that stress overload that we’re internalizing is in our bodies. 

  • And that’s why we’re breathing shallow. 
  • That’s why our hearts are racing. 
  • That’s why our stomach is doing somersaults. 
  • That’s why we can’t sleep. 

It’s because the anxiety is in our bodies. 

The care for anxiety, the treatment, it needs to deal with our bodies. 

We need to internalize God’s peace in our body. 

Then we need to learn how to integrate those two. 

That’s a big part of the treatment with anxiety that people don’t realize. 

A natural response to anxiety is to avoid the situation that scares us, that stresses us.

The part about avoidance that can be helpful is when we’re overloaded, we need a break. 

Sometimes we need to be able to set boundaries and not deal with things. 

But the problem is that with anxiety, oftentimes avoiding situations becomes a habit. 

It can be confusing because we’ve been talking about how people who are anxious are over responsible and overfunctioning, and normally that’s true. 

Yet even within that over responsible person’s pattern is stuff they’re avoiding. 

An essential part of the treatment for anxiety is to face the situations that you’re anxious about. 

So I used to have anxiety, very significant anxiety. 

I had fear and panic around public speaking. 

I hated public speaking. 

I didn’t think I was good at it. 

I had a panic attack when I was a keynote speaker and 2000 people were listening to me. 

I just froze like a deer in the headlights. 

My heart was racing and it was hard to find the words. 

It was miserable.

It took me some moments to gather myself and it wasn’t a great talk that I gave. 

That was a long time ago. 

The Lord has helped me and now public speaking is my favorite thing to do. 

It illustrates the point that I was avoiding how I felt about public speaking. 

Then I wanted to avoid public speaking. That’s the most common phobia that people have is the fear of public speaking. 

The problem is if you just avoid the thing that makes you anxious, it starts shrinking your world. 

The extreme example of that is agoraphobia. 

Where we actually start getting afraid to leave our house or leave our neighborhood. 

There might be certain places that we avoid, whether it’s the grocery store or church. 

Some places where we’ve had a bad experience with anxiety, we start avoiding it.

Spiritual Formation Tools are Mental Health Tools

Bill 

That makes our world a lot smaller. 

Getting free of anxiety includes facing those situations that frighten us. 

The big difference is doing it with support. 

Doing it with someone who’s giving us empathy. 

Doing it with some new techniques like we’re talking about, with scripture meditation or seeking empathy. 

Writing down all of my negative thoughts. 

Then on another column writing down the promises of God’s Word. 

What are the truths of Scripture in God’s loving presence to help me?

Rethinking some of those attitudes that are putting us into anxiety.

Kristi 

If you’re listening, you might be feeling a little bit like, “Well, yeah, but it’s, it’s hard not to avoid these things that make me so anxious.” 

And we do have empathy for you in that, when you’re anxious, it’s really hard to not be anxious about your anxiety. 

It’s really hard to not be anxious about that. 

You’re gonna feel that panic again, you’re gonna feel out of control again, you’re gonna feel those physical symptoms in your body. 

Again, it could be very preoccupying. 

And we just want you to know that we have empathy for you in that it, it is really scary. 

It is really upsetting.

It is really vulnerable to have had a panic attack or to have these anxiety symptoms and then to be facing that situation again.

Or maybe to be in a situation like a lot of people I talked to with anxiety, that it came out of nowhere.

They don’t know why they had this panic. 

All of a sudden this anxiety, these bodily symptoms, they don’t know the cause of it. 

And it makes them feel so insecure, afraid, and vulnerable in all situations in life to be in any situation where they don’t have control or they don’t feel safe. 

We do empathize with you in that, but we’re also saying that you don’t have to live controlled by that anxiety and that fear. 

One of the things that we’ve felt really called to with Soul Shepherding, and that we’ve offered, are tools that we’ve learned as therapists. 

Tools that we’ve learned in our own life and our own formation in Christ that have been the most helpful to us in this area. 

And the most helpful to the people that God has called us to journey with.

So we have all these tools that can help you with anxiety on our Soul Shepherding Network

It’s a great place where you can get tools for yourself, for your church, or for the people that you’re companioning, coaching, directing, guiding, and ministering to as a small group leader.

Practical tools like breath prayers, where you can lead your small group in meditations on scriptures. 

Journaling exercises that can help you get aware of the anxiety that you’re unconscious of and help you articulate it, help you bring it into relationship. 

These tools, these spiritual formation tools, are also behavioral health, mental health interventions, Bill, that you and I have learned, but that can be accessible to our friends. 

People don’t have to become Doctors of Psychology to learn and to use these tools. 

We’ve put these in a lot of our resources and we’ve found help from our profession and our studies, but we’ve also received some help from mentors like Dallas Willard.

To Watch and Pray with Jesus

Bill 

So you can join the Soul Shepherding Network.

It’s for you.

It’s for your friends, people that you care for. 

It’s easy to become a member of the Soul Shepherding Network. 

You can learn about that on our Soul Shepherding website. 

In addition to those tools that Kristi is mentioning, we have webinars, a growing library of webinars, that can help you. 

Many of the things that we’ve learned from Dallas Willard are in our Network and it’s because there are things that we can do. 

In closing I want to mention one more practical thing that you can do when you’re dealing with anxiety.

As Kristi is saying, when you’re overloaded with stress or when you’re afraid, on a temporary basis, avoid that situation. 

We want to give you that grace, but then we want you to seek support and care to understand what’s going on.

From that place you can do and exercise that we call, To Watch and Pray with Jesus

This is where you do a meditation on Scripture. 

Then as you are meditating on Scripture and maybe doing a breath prayer, you are learning to experience God’s peace. 

When you talk with, for example, one of our Soul Shepherding Spiritual Directors or Coaches, they will minister God’s peace to you because they have learned these things that we’re talking about. 

That’s how we internalize peace. 

The best way is through a relationship of course, from the Lord himself. 

But sometimes we need a Christ ambassador who helps us to experience that sense of God’s presence, grace, and comfort that can bring us peace. 

You can be guided in a meditation. We do this in our Soul Shepherding Institute.

We don’t just talk at people and teach stuff. 

We actually do stuff. 

We do Scripture meditation together. 

We do Soul Talk in groups. 

We do, what we call TLC time, time To Love Christ together in solitude and silence. 

We’re all practicing this together. 

Then we come back and process by listening to each other after our time apart. 

Through each other, we can receive more of God’s peace and what our Coaches and Spiritual Directors can do. 

They can guide you in this sort of Watch and Pray process. 

While you are meditating on Scripture and as you’re experiencing God’s peace, then we’ll say, “Okay, now I want you to talk to the Lord about that situation that you are afraid of, that stress in your life that you’re wanting to avoid.” 

“Just name that to the Lord and tell the Lord how you feel about that.”

Then you return to your meditation. 

Peace be still, Jesus says in the storm or In Jesus’ name, not my strain…Different thoughts that might come from Scripture or different breath prayers that we teach. 

We’re integrating the sense of peace that we can receive from God’s word, from our Coach, or Spiritual Director, from the Lord. 

We’re integrating that peace with the stress, conflict or pain in our life. That’s where we need it. 

When we can face that situation through meditation, through talking to somebody, then that helps us to face the situation in our behavior and in our actual life. 

That’s a Watch and Pray exercise, and that’s an additional tool that is in our Soul Shepherding Network.

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