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May is Mental Health Awareness month and we wanted to address what is surely the most common mental health challenge among us: Anxiety. Our faith gives us some tools to deal with it: scriptures, prayers, fellowship. But often times we need some other resources.

Nathaniel R. Strenger, a member here at All Saints, a Licensed Psychologist, and the Director of Clinical Advancement at The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology helps us understand a bit about anxiety what we can do about it.

Mental Health Moment: Anxiety
May 2019, Nathaniel Strenger

I’ve been asked to take a brief moment to discuss a mental health issue that plagues many of us: Anxiety. This is a familiar topic for me as a professional therapist, but it is also a struggle for me personally

In the mental health world, anxiety and its not-so-distantly related depression, are often referred to as the “common colds” of emotional wellbeing. In its more common “run-of-the-mill” forms, anxiety is often
experienced as an emotional uneasiness, often coupled with physically experienced discomforts, that might occasionally impact one’s functioning for a brief period of time. Things like focus, sleep, social engagement, and experienced pleasure can certainly be impacted

Anxiety disorders are usually considered to be the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting upwards of 40 million adults every year. From what we know, such disorders are quite treatable, and yet only about 36% of those suffering receive treatment. This is often because people, particularly people of faith, may feel too ashamed or suspicious to seek help when it is needed

I must say this: Anxiety in our midst need not be alienating, awkward, or even unwelcomed. It can nudge us out of isolated pain and into healthy interdependency. When we feel anxious we need one another, and the struggles of daily life might ideally push us towards community, not away

For much of my adult life, anxiety–both “run-of-the-mill” and the “clinical”–has been a part of my self-understanding. In college, academic pressures and romantic challenges ballooned into what became an often paralyzing sense of worry. Worry that I might make a misstep, that I might hurt someone else unintentionally, that I am being inauthentic, or even that I may fall out of favor with God (for worrying too much). At the time, I was a visible student chaplain at a small, evangelical liberal arts college. I held my hurt in for a long time, withdrawing deeper into social isolation. Looking back, it was shame that kept me in the shadows. It was only after several months that I decided to try psychotherapy. There was one exchange I had with my therapist that has stuck with me. Tormented, I said to him something like, “I feel like a time-out from life would do me good. I just feel like I am drowning. But I look around and see that no one else seems to take the time-outs. What makes me so entitled to think that I deserve such a break?” He responded with this question, “What happens when you change the word ‘deserve’ to ‘need?’ Growing up a poster child for my smiley evangelical youth group, I had not really developed a capacity to need. Over the years, with support from family, friends, my church community, scripture, psychotherapy, and medication, I have matured my relationship with that word, “need” and it has become much less shameful to utter. As Phillip often says, we are all a mess, and therefore we all need. We need grace, we need redemption, and we need community. Mental illness should therefore strengthen the ties that bind us, not loosen them

Around that same time in college, I was finishing up my bachelor’s in psychology, taking a Psychology of Religion course. Having the sneeking suspicion that psychotherapists were trying to fill a role already taken by those in ministry, I asked a question of my professor: “So why does society need psychotherapists?” My professor responded, “Because the church does not always act as it was called.

In my own career, I have held that response persistently in mind. I share it now not as an indictment for the church, but as a call for cooperation between the church and the mental health world. We, along with schools, libraries, medical offices, and the like can work together to provide a community that reflects Christ’s grace. We each do so in different ways, from different cultural vantage points. We are each emboldened and limited by the cultural positions we hold in the present moment. But from these different cultural positions, and with different skill sets, we can work together to love those in our midst who are hurting, isolated, or anxious

If you are hurting, you need not feel shame. You need not feel isolated. In fact, you may have something to teach our community about the human experience, about community, and about our health as a society. If you or someone you love are seeking mental health help, let the clergy know. They can connect you with local resources

Thank you.