Roots of anxietyTo understand the roots of anxiety, we need to look 3 ways. First there is what is coming at us – the effects of a fallen world. For many young people in the West, this is their first big crisis. For months it hasn’t been safe for schools to open, for them to see their friends, or even to hug their nan, and that has taken its toll. Even if, statistically, they are not at the highest risk, life has been couched in terms that engenders feelings that they are not secure – and, now, suddenly it’s time to go back to school with a raft of new ways of doing life to learn. Couple that with disrupted education, dropped hobbies, less contact time at church and – for some – questionable exam results, increased pressure in the home, and maybe even grief as loved ones pass away, it’s bound to have an effect. But it’s not just what’s coming at us that fuels an anxious mind, it’s what’s happening in us that matters too. There can be genetic or familial factors in the experience of worry and fear. Sometimes the side effects of medication can amplify anxiety in difficult ways. For many young people, hormones are a powerful force and that tension between being a child and wanting independence a confusing flow. Things that are small feel big, things that are big feel utterly enormous – it’s hard for young people to interpret events through a healthy, biblical lens. Poor results feel life-ruining. Difficulty engaging in online learning isn’t perceived as normal but a personal failure. Thirdly, however, there are the things that come out of us that stoke anxiety’s fire. All human beings have desires – and many of those are good – but sometimes we over-desire things. Good things become idolatrous things and it is our own hearts that make our anxiety worse. Rather than wanting to be a faithful friend, we want to be popular and affirmed. Rather than developing contentment, we want what others have. Rather than accepting pain as normal in this fallen world, we want ease now. Young people (and adults too!) set themselves unrealistic expectations of how life should be and feel crushed when they are impossible to attain.
Hope in anxietySo, what is the way forward? Coping strategies such as breathing techniques, putting structure in place, ensuring exercise is taken and healthy food consumed certainly have their place. Focusing on the now rather than the future can be helpful. Limiting screen time and encouraging face to face relationships can lighten many a struggling soul. There is certainly wisdom in encouraging young people to be gentle with themselves, acknowledging that struggle and exhaustion is perfectly normal though, one day, will pass. Apps that promote a sense of calm can be a helpful structure for managing pressures. For some, medication has a role to play. But, as Christians, isn’t there more? Surely, God makes a difference to anxiety – to the way we love those around?
Laments and LensesIn the face of the tough stuff coming at us, God’s word gives us and those in our care rich fodder for hope. We don’t need to hide – the Lord who has searched us (Ps 139:1) knows and sees our pain. We don’t need to be silent, alongside Habakkuk and others we can shout “how long?” (Hab 1:2). God welcomes our prayers, our laments, our confusion and offers answers to many (though not all) of the questions that we bring. We can encourage young people to pour out their hearts – express not suppress – putting words to their pain. But we will do well to think carefully about the lens through which we view this fallen world. Life may feel as if it is spiralling but, in reality, it is under the perfect control of the Lord God Almighty (Ps 89:8) and nothing slips his gaze. It might feel as if things are too hard to battle but if we are following the Mighty One (Ps 132:2) there is hope in the fight. Feeling lost and not sure where to turn? The Shepherd of Psalm 23 is calling us to follow him. Scared? Where better to run than the fortress (Ps 91:2) or the shield (Ps 84:11). Exhausted? Rest and provision is something he loves to share. Our experience of pain changes depending on the lens with which we view it – the world’s or God’s – it matters where we put our eyes. Calling Scripture to mind – one verse at a time – can reframe our experiences. Putting the verses together can be a picture of hope. Even sitting awake at 2am can be redeemed if we openly remind ourselves that we are ruled by a King, indwelt by his Spirit, led by a Shepherd, covered by his wing – all while in community with our church family. It doesn’t take away the hardship but it reminds us of the context of the pain – a world ruled by a loving God who is leading his children somewhere good.
Patterns and ProgressMost people – young or old – have go to patterns when life gets hard. Sometimes we panic or withdraw, get angry or self-destruct (via food, alcohol, self-harm to name but a few). Spotting our “go to” patterns can be liberating in itself. Once we see that road from “trigger (that hurts) – through assumption (I’m useless) – to response (I’m going to withdraw)” it’s easier to turn away. But it’s never entirely easy to change. Ephesians 4:22-24 gives the Bible’s simplest model of change. Here it’s described in terms of changing clothes – deliberately identifying things that need to be taken off, choosing news things to do in return and fuelling that transformation by prayerfully reminding of what’s true. We can help our young people look at facets of their struggles one by one and begin to change. Maybe, to start with, it’s just a case of them catching the thought “I can’t do this” and quietly replacing it with the thought, “in God’s strength I can take the next step”. It may involve them actively praying “Lord, help me not to run”. It’s important not to try to change too much in one go but change they (and we) can. He who has begun a good work is not going to stop now (Phil 1:6)
Expectations and EnduranceBut as well as showing them the beauty of Jesus, we can be role models for them too. We can model lives that expect hardship and commit to persevering through it with our eyes on Christ. That doesn’t mean pretending we’re sorted (we’re not) or consistently triumphant (as if!) but rather being age-appropriately honest about when we get scared and what has helped us to get through. Identifying with their struggles, testifying to God’s goodness in the easy days and the hard will build a sense of “this is possible” without pretending it’s easy or that there won’t be days we fall. There is no promise in the Bible that anxiety will disappear this side of the new creation. But there is a God who we can turn to and, as we do, that anxiety can be replaced by increasing trust. So let’s keep inviting our young people to turn to him – to cast their burdens on him – because he cares … for you too.
Helen Thorne, Director of Training and Resources, Biblical Counselling UK