Am I a Bad Christian Because I Deal with Anxiety or Depression?
"Am I a bad Christian because I deal with anxiety or depression?"
It’s a question I get asked often as a counselling psychologist at a Christian college and seminary.
Maybe not outright. Sometimes it’s phrased as wrestling with faith when a client feels helpless and hopeless. Sometimes it’s a frustration with verses about “not worrying” or “having hope” when they long to feel that way and are crying out to God.
Sometimes it’s a shame in attending church or chapel when their hands are shaking or there is a sob just being contained behind their withdrawn expression.
I see it too in a reluctance to talk about struggles that we associate with a non-Christian lifestyle. Before my time at Briercrest, I worked at a Primary Care medical clinic. It was a place where individuals who don’t have a family doctor could come for medical care. Naturally, the clients that I saw there came from all different backgrounds, ages, and stages.
I loved it as much as I love working with emerging and young adults. My clients at the clinic struggled with the same things my clients at the college struggle with: social anxiety, suicidal ideation, shame, depression, trauma, obsessions and compulsive thoughts. My clients at the clinic felt shame around their mental health, too—however, as Christians we seem to tell ourselves we shouldn’t have these afflictions, and if we do it somehow translates to a lack of faith.
If this adds to our suffering, why do we do it?
In my practice, it breaks my heart to see the shame clients carry around because they wrestle with anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness. They don’t want people to know. They don’t want people to judge. They are fearful fellow students or churchgoers will judge them.
Sadly, sometimes it’s because they have been judged.
Did you know that social isolation activates the same centers in the brain as physical pain? We are in literal agony when we feel alone.
I cannot tell you how many students have shared with me a sense of isolation they have, I believe in part because of this shame. And I don’t see students physically isolating themselves so much as I hear them describe this sense of emotional loneliness or isolation.
As someone who hears these stories, I want to call out this lie (cognitive distortion) and others associated with it. Christians are afflicted with depression and anxiety, too.
Lie: I am a bad Christian because I struggle with mental illness
To break this distortion, let’s point out some flaws in the logic of this lie: “I am a bad Christian because I have depression.”
Cognitive distortions are thoughts or beliefs that we carry around, unchallenged, that falsely shape the way that we think. Cognitive distortions, though not the only cause of anxiety and depression, contribute to it significantly.
I once took in a live therapy demo where Dr. David Burns, an expert in cognitive behavioural therapy, took on a similar question. A very common theme that comes up for mothers is ‘I am a bad mother.’ (We as moms sometimes do things that aren’t good, and therefore, we believe we are ‘bad.’)
During his demo, Dr. Burns stopped after the client expressed this belief. He challenged it, asking “What is a bad mom, anyway? Don’t we move from choice to choice, making good ones and bad ones, and learning as we go? Are we ever forever deemed a ‘good (or bad) Mom’?”
You could see the relief flood this woman’s face. The lie upon which she was basing a large part of her identity was false. She wasn’t a ‘bad mom’ after all; there was hope for her.
With this hope, she was in a healthier mindset, and thus was better equipped to make better choices. Let’s, as Christians, do the same. Let’s let go of this cognitive distortion of ‘bad Christian’ when our mental health isn’t at its best and then look at ways that we can get healthier.
Truth: We all have the ability to improve our mental health
Our bodies and minds are not perfect. They can become injured or ill.
But we also have the gift of free will and conscious thought, and with that comes a battle of the mind.
We all as humans are waging a war to keep our thoughts healthy and our bodies well, Christian or not. There is freedom in shifting our perspective from being ashamed of our mental health struggles to seeing them as a normal part of being alive. I’m not 'messed up,' or at least not more than anyone else.
That also doesn’t mean we need to stay mentally unwell. Just as we all have the potential to be mentally unwell (like our bodies can be physically unwell), we all have the ability to improve our mental health. (In fact, there are seven human connections that we can heal, individually and in our communities, to decrease rates of anxiety and depression.)
One of the most effective forms of mental health therapy for depression and anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. (“Cognitive” refers to thoughts and “behavioral” looks at actions, so this is just a fancy way of saying ‘changing your thoughts and actions.’”
CBT operates with one very important premise: thoughts come before feelings. In other words, what we think determines how we feel. Even the quickest responses, like a split-second realization that we are in danger, begin as thoughts before the feeling of panic sets in.
Our thoughts and our actions are the two things in our lives that we have conscious control over. We may not be able to change the events that happen in our lives, the families that we were born into or brought home to, or the things people around us do. But we can pay attention to our thoughts and redirect them when they aren’t serving us or change our actions when we know they are unhealthy. This, in turn, can change how we are feeling.
No, not in the least. This is so hard to do.
When we are in a period of depression or anxiety, it feels awful, torturous even. There is a way out or back out, but not without what can be a minute-by-minute effort to keep going sometimes.
Feelings are powerful things. Getting out of bed or facing a fear can feel nearly unbearable. This is why it can be so helpful to have a team of social supports and professionals there to provide care and instruction without judgement.
Lie: Bible verses about anxiety are there to shame people who struggle
The Bible does talk a lot about worrying and sadness. A Bible app search on “verses about worry” brings up dozens of verses telling us not to worry: Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything,” Matthew 6:26 “…do not worry about your life,” 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you,” and so on.
There are mentions of hopelessness, sadness, and anxiety all over the Old Testament and New Testament.
However, I don’t believe all this talk about anxiety and depression is meant to shame us. To me, it shows us how truly normal it is. Over 2,000 years ago, people from all over the world and a variety of faith backgrounds were struggling with it, too!
The Bible, in all those verses pertaining to mental health, tells us to change our thoughts and actions, too. Let’s take Philippians 4:6-7 for example. It says “Do not be anxious about anything [thoughts], but in every situation, by prayer and petition [action], with thanksgiving [thoughts and actions], present your requests to God [action].” The next verse mentions the result that follows: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Verse 6 tells us what we are supposed to do and then verse 7 tells us the outcome.
Can the feelings of fear or hopelessness return? Absolutely. And when they do, we repeat the process. Again and again and again. And gradually, we can actually train our brains to release fearful thoughts and hold on to thoughts of hope to stir up feelings of calm and wellbeing more and more.
Truth: You can still grow spiritually if you have struggled with mental health
In addition to accessing professional mental health services, there are ways that we can seek discipleship during a mental health struggle.
One thing I have noticed in my own life and mental health struggles is that when I have not felt the presence of God, I have had to learn how to grow in other ways.
I have walked through periods of grief where I felt absolutely numb. In those times, I had to lean on my faith in more an act of bravery than of certainty.
During those times, I learned from my peers around me that there were other ways to continue developing as a Christian. For me, this meant learning spiritual discipline, intentionally studying the bible, and seeking after God when I didn’t feel Him near. I refused to isolate myself, joining a small group (terrified as I was) so that people I didn’t know got to know me.
Finally, serving others (in my case, in the area of mental health) has been the best thing for my mental wellbeing. It has helped to shift my focus outwards rather than inwards, which feels refreshing and erodes away the sense of isolation and purposelessness.
Our minds are incredibly complex, and while I am not saying that simply changing how you think will make every mental illness vanish, there are many things we can do to improve our mental wellbeing.
Not only does the Bible normalize mental illness and injury, it also tells us what we can do about it. On top of that, the instruction in the Bible is supported by mental research of today.
If you are in a place where you know your mental health could be better, I urge you to let go of the lie that you should be ashamed, seek out social and professional help, and bring all things to God, knowing that through your actions, the feelings can change.
Some good cognitive behavioural at-home resources for further study:
- Anxiety Centre
- “Feeling Good” by Dr. David Burns
- “Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health” by Dr. Caroline Leaf