When you have an anxiety disorder you quickly learn to avoid asking for prayer because there is a huge chance that you are going to be told to cast all your fears upon Him. The trouble with an anxiety disorder is, you don’t even know what you’re afraid of. You tremble, stutter, have heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating and racing thoughts and a million other symptoms for no reason at all. So the idea of casting all of your troubles on Him is an overwhelming ambiguous thought, kind of like if I told you to lose weight by just casting all your carvings upon Him. All good and all, until someone orders a pizza!
An anxiety disorder is not just worrying about your bills, or extreme nervousness. It’s a clinical disorder that causes your brain and your body to continually fire off panic and anxious thoughts against your will. For me, panic attacks happened 5-10 times a day, leading me to complete exhaustion and despair. Living with an anxiety disorder was such a shock to me, my family, my friends and my church because I was your good Christian woman, capable, dependable and strong. You can read my full story here…
More often than not I received well intentioned advice from Christians that were trying to help me but sometimes it made my anxiety worse. As I talk and meet with many people who suffer with mental illness, I have heard countless similar stories of mental health advice gone bad. As a survivor of mental illness, I really want to help Christians know how to effectively minster to someone struggling with a panic disorder.
The 4 Worst Things You can do when ministering to someone with severe anxiety…
- Over Spiritualizing a Mental Health Issue – There are spiritual causes to some mental issues, to deny that, is to deny all the scriptures that teach us how to guard our minds. However, when you take a mental health issue, like anxiety, and mentor the sufferer through generational curses or demonic deliverances, you can add to the terror and confusion that happens when you are going through a breakdown. God did lead out of crippling anxiety through addressing some spiritual issues in my life, but not until I was mentally and physically taken care of.
When a person feels like they are one breath away from sanity, which is a major symptom of battling an anxiety disorder (the fear of going crazy) you run a huge risk of confirming their unfounded phobias.Be gentle with you words and your spiritual rationalizations, or you can run the risk of severely harming a person with mental illness.
- Blaming them for their mental health – Maybe you’re not reading your bible enough, or if you only spent more time in prayer, or worse, perhaps there is sin in your life. Listen, when I went through my breakdown it was so severe that it escalated to OCD and suicidal despair. I was very ill. However, at the time that I had my breakdown I had NEVER been so close to God. I prayed continuously, worship music always played in my home, I did bible studies, and was the Sunday School Coordinator and Worship singer. I was a mom of 5 kids, and had a great marriage. I spiritually did not deserve to break down, but I did, because sometimes, just like our kidneys fail, and our hearts fail, so do our minds.When you blame a person, or ask them what part they have to play in their breakdown you bring shame. Shame, in my opinion, is one of the most destructive mindsets a person can own and when you add that to a mental illness diagnosis you have just possibly opened a door to despair. Would you punish your child for their sins by inflicting torment, terror and panic? I don’t think our Heavenly Father would either.
- Don’t give too much spiritual home work – In my healing, it took a lot of work on my part. It was my persistence to get out of the house, exercise, create healthier boundaries, rest and spend time with God that led me to freedom. So I absolutely believe that it takes work to get better. However, when you are exhausted fighting endless fear all day long, and often into the evenings, you need rest. Added pressure to be more, or do more can really rob a mentally ill person of the rest they need to recover.
- Give Pat Answers & Scriptures – Jesus rarely threw scripture at the sick and mentally tortured, but he threw a lot at the Pharisees. If you don’t have anything realistic to say, don’t say anything at all. Meaning, if you cannot explain to a person battling fear how to tangibly take their thoughts captive, or how to let God’s love cast out fear, then just don’t. God personally took me on a powerful journey through the bible. They weren’t effective until I had a deeper understanding into the well-known fear scriptures. Before you pass on an encouraging scripture to a trembling sufferer, make sure you pass it on with full knowledge of how it applies.
The 4 Amazing Things You can do when ministering to someone with severe anxiety…
- Offer rest and help them guard it – REST. The first thing God led me to when I was in the midst of a raging mental assault was rest. Did you know that A type personalities, those ‘getter done’ people, the reliable ones, the ‘how do they do it all’ people are the most susceptible to a breakdown? Why? Because rest is for weaklings, in their opinion. I quote often on my blog, “lack of rest got me into this mess, so rest is what will get me out.” I was and still am a very driven woman. Rest is now my first defense against relapsing. Any moment I begin to feel any anxiety creeping in or negative thoughts, I make sure to pull back and find some time to rest. In churches we often preach about doing more, being more for Christ. Many church pastors display a culture of exhaustion for the work of Christ, leading to embarrassing amounts of Christians spiritually dying from burnout. Jesus did all of his ministry from a place of stillness, rest and time with God.
- Encourage them to seek a medical doctor – I won’t argue this point for long with facts, and stories and pleading, but an anxiety disorder, is a mental and PHYSICAL issue that needs the guidance of a doctor. There are many physical reasons for panic. Something as simple as an elevated thyroid issue can cause severe anxiety. When counselling a person with mental illness encourage them to seek a doctor first before any other treatment, and if they are prescribed medication- good! It will give them enough stability to work on the other causes.
- Ask them what you can pray for specifically – The prayers that helped me the most were specific prayers. Like my sleep. I slept sitting up for 4 months, I suffered panic attacks in the middle of the night. Sleep was torment for me. Specific prayers for me to be able to sleep was huge. Ask the person suffering with panic for specific prayers. They may need enough courage to go to a public event they have been avoiding, or to help with a specific fear. Giving them grace to share specific prayers will also help the sufferer speak out their concerns, and that leads to my last point.
- Let them share their experiences and don’t over react to crazy thoughts – I couldn’t even use a knife to prepare dinner for my family of 7. I loved to cook and now the thought of holding a knife brought me to tears as I ran to my room in terror. I was afraid of hurting myself or someone else. Would I have? Looking back now, of course not, but I was plagued with awful harm thoughts, also known as intrusive thoughts or the onset of Harm OCD. I was hesitant to tell my husband how bad I was, how insane my thoughts were, and how irrational my fears had become. When I finally shared with him, I felt such a weight lift off my shoulder, and my husband was able to truly understand why I was so tormented. Giving a person who has a raging battle going on in their mind a safe, non-reactive, and non- judgmental place to share can be life saving for them.
We may never know, in each case, what is spiritual, what is mental or what is physical. I believe that we cannot have one without the other, because that is how God designed us, body, mind and spirit. So I believe when it comes to treating the mind we should treat the whole self. If you have someone in your life that is struggling, I hope these suggestions help you to navigate your response to their captivity, they really need you. If you yourself are battling mental illness, know that you are not alone and there is a lot of help for you, find the courage to seek it out.
Sarah E Ball is a blogger, speaker and author of The Shame Project and the online series and book, Fearless in 21 Days- A Survivors Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (coming in 2017). Sarah lives in a small town in Southern Alberta with her bearded hubby and five children. Sarah is a passionate advocate for those bound in mental torment and is passionate to help them find hope, and freedom, because she is a survivor. You can follow her blog here and help her figure out where to put all those commas, because she still has no clue!