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Dealing with Anxiety and Stress Realistically and Biblically

We often hear pastors and preachers telling us that happiness is dependent on our circumstances, whereas joy is not. Joy is supposedly an internal force that you can have all the time regardless of what’s happening in your life.

While I agree that we can experience times of joy in the midst of terrible trials, I believe it is the exception during those times. It’s not the rule. Most Christians are not walking around full of joy all the time right after their spouse cheats on them, when their career is destroyed, or when they’ve just lost a loved one. It’s amazing that we can experience joy at all during those times, and those moments of joy are certainly a gift from God.

But I think sometimes pastors accidentally give us the wrong impression—that we’re supposed to be able to walk around full of joy even when circumstances are terrible. Before I give too much more of my opinion, let’s explore a scriptural example.

Was Jeremiah Full of Joy?

Jeremiah lived through some of the worst times in human history. Things got so bad during a famine caused by the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, that Jeremiah witnessed women cooking and eating their own children. And these were women who would formerly have been described as compassionate and caring individuals. Jeremiah was a prophet of God, a righteous man in the midst of terrible tragedy. Was he supposed to “choose joy” during that time? Was he supposed to have joy regardless of his circumstances? Here’s what he says about it:

Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.” (Lamentations 5:15 NIV)

Yes, this is a very extreme example, but extreme examples are effective in illustrating a point. In this case, the point is that joy is clearly going to depend on our circumstances to some extent.

For a New Testament example, we can look to Paul. He seems to have been a master at finding joy in the midst of suffering, yet he also acknowledged that he wasn’t living life in a perpetual state of bliss. In fact, Paul tells us plainly that there was a period during which he no longer wanted to live:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” (2 Corinthians 1:8 NIV)

Joy in the Midst of Suffering: Where is the Line?

So if the goal is not to walk around joyful literally all the time, the question then becomes, how much joy is realistic? How much is attainable? In other words, where is the line? When times are really hard, we can certainly break away from the difficulty, stop thinking about the problem, focus instead on praising and worshiping God, and try our best to focus on being thankful for whatever we can find to be thankful about. Doing any of those things will help us to experience joy and peace in the midst of difficulty and pain.

But it’s hard to stay there all the time. After our devotion time, when we head off to work, the reality of our situation is still with us. Besides that, anxiety, worry, fear, and sadness all have a chemical affect on our bodies and our brains. That chemical effect is real, and it can be quite difficult to overcome. When we’ve lived in stress long enough, our adrenal glands can get “stuck” pumping out cortisol, a stress hormone. Our brain and body has become sort of locked into a high stress, high worry, fight-or-flight kind of mode. This creates a vicious cycle which can be extremely challenging to break out of.

Breaking Out of Stress, Worry, and Depression

So what is the answer? Obviously, a person mourning a loved one has to go through some significant period of mourning. But anyone who feels stuck in a dark place—no matter the reason—should consider that there are chemical reactions happening in their body. And they need help changing those chemical reactions. This is why God gave us things like St. John’s Wort, Fenugreek, L-Tryptophan, GABA, and other such herbs and supplements to combat stress. It’s why we have medicines that will help us break out of those damaging and destructive chemical loops that can keep us trapped. Sometimes even certain vitamins can make a major difference.

Apparently, gut bacteria and probiotics can play a big part too, as described in this video by Dr. Eric Berg:

Brain and body chemistry imbalances are physical problems that demand a physical solution. And taking care of the physical need first is a biblical principle. In Luke chapter 8, Jesus miraculously resurrects and heals a dead girl, and the first thing he does after that is to order a meal for her. In the next chapter, we find Jesus preaching the Gospel to a crowd. The text tells us he healed all who needed to be healed and then he had the disciples feed everyone. Jesus didn’t address just the spiritual needs. He took care of the physical as well.

Once we take care of our physical need, we can also work to change our thoughts and our behavior so that we break free permanently. We can declare God’s Word, exercise, and eat better. Another thing we can start doing is to meet with others more regularly. Then we can open up and share about the challenges we’re facing. But it might be a lot more difficult to do any of those things successfully if we don’t take care of the chemistry problem first. If you’re stuck in chronic worry, stress, sleeplessness, and other such difficulties, get yourself away from the stressful situation first. Take a break. See a doctor. Get an action plan that involves proper nutrition, vitamins, and supplements.

Address the Physical Needs, and then Immediately…

Start saturating your mind with God’s Word and staying in close relationship with Him through prayer. Spend more time worshiping with music and listening to relaxing worship instrumentals. You’ve already tried to change the situation, and it hasn’t worked. So change your behavior instead. Maybe that’s all God is waiting for. Maybe once you step back from the situation and start taking care of yourself, He will step in and start to make changes to the situation.

Either way, you need to deal with your stress before it brings some type of irreparable damage to your situation, your health, or your life.

Chris McKinney