[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series, we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.
Today, we are sharing our conversation with Keith Verburg, B.A. B.C.ED, MACP, RP, EAGALA Certified, who is the Executive Director of the Christian Counselling Centre. Keith lives in St. Catharines with his wife Miriam, and they have been blessed with five children and two grandchildren. A staff member of Power to Change – Students recorded this interview.]
P2C-Students: Some Bible verses say “Do not be anxious.” Yet, even Christians experience anxiety and struggle with anxiety disorders. Should Christians never struggle with anxiety?
Keith Verburg: I would say that the words “Do not be anxious” is meant to be comforting. But if you’re in an anxious state, it can feel like condemnation. If it comes across as a command, it can feel like there’s a lack of compassion from God. The problem when someone who struggles with anxiety hears these words is that underneath, they have the thought, “I don’t feel safe.” Also because anxiety has become an umbrella word, I think we have to break it down.
There’s a difference between anxiety and anxious thinking. Regular anxiety is actually healthy. It’s the fight/flight/freeze reflex. We don’t think to do it, it’s like breathing. You don’t make a choice about anxiety. It occurs within your body in response to sensory perceptions. For example, if a ball is thrown at your head, you flinch. You don’t think. Your body moves you out of the way because it says “We’re under threat, we have to move.” Your heart rate goes up, and everything in the body says to fight or flee.
Your brain gets flooded with anxiety so that you can do things that you normally don’t do. The problem comes when you don’t relax after that, or if something like a trauma occurs. What we’re realizing is that if trauma interferes with the brain structure, it actually changes the biology of your brain. So what happens to people who have anxiety disorders is that their body never actually rests. It’s constantly in protection mode. Sometimes people who’ve experienced a lot of trauma, their body goes into protection mode and their emotions don’t regulate normally.
Anxiety is something that’s normal and has a function. It’s recognizing when it is not operating helpfully. With counselling, we can take what we know about how the body works and help people do calming, grounding techniques, or mindfulness. Which is helping people be more aware of their present circumstances so they can relax and calm the emotional centre of their brain and think properly again. Because when you’re flooded with anxiety or anger, you’re impaired. That’s why, when people are very angry, they’ll often say exactly what they think.
P2C-S: I wonder, how can we approach anxiety with a balance of grace and truth as Christians?
Keith: Truth is proportional. You can’t just say, “Accept me for whoever I am,” that’s not the biblical concept of love. If someone has an addiction issue, they often want you to do a lot of things that are actually harmful since you may be enabling their addiction. So you can’t just say yes, if that something is harming them. We need to create a safe space where truth is upheld but not at the expense of grace. Even the Bible qualifies that—it says, speak the truth in love. A lot of the paradoxes in Scripture help us find this balance between the truth of sin and grace. Those two concepts cannot be separated, for only together can you really understand the whole gospel message.
If somebody’s suffering, you start with the love-mercy side of the spectrum. You come in gently. The righteousness side of things has more of an expert mindset and a teaching top-down approach. That is also the fix-it/solve-it dynamic, and if I simply see others as something I need to fix, that’s more about me. I want people to fit in my framework of how I think they should be. The love-mercy side of it involves a bit of surrendering to care for others.
P2C-S: How can we be better at supporting those who are experiencing anxiety?
Keith: I think you seek to understand first, since you want to become a learner. Anxiety can be a very different experience for each person, so a listening posture is very important.
In that posture, a person will be more apt to tell the truth. There’s a really good book I was given when I was going through the grief of losing my mom. It’s called Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart. The author gives the metaphor of a house, because a lot of time helping someone with their pain is like visiting someone at their house for the first time. You start by knocking on the door Now if you’re a perfect stranger, someone is not going to let you in. But if you explain that a mutual friend said you should come over and visit, they might invite you in to talk more. Likely, they’ll lead you to a more public place, like the kitchen. But if you start letting yourself into other more private rooms, they’re probably not going to invite you back.
When people don’t feel safe, they’re protective and don’t open themselves up readily. So you have to wait until they’re comfortable. But that won’t happen if you’re trying to dictate the pace of the conversation or if you’re trying to move them on. It’s like saying, “You’ve got me in the kitchen, but we need to move to the other rooms now and really find what’s going on.” Helping others is about being present and available, but not pushing your agenda.
P2C-S: For those who are experiencing anxiety, aside from going to professional counselling, what can they do in anxious moments?
Keith: It’s largely a matter of learning how to physically relax. For example, if my body is tense, breathing techniques come in handy. Focusing on your present situation—your chair, the things in your room, sounds you hear—will put you in the present moment. If you’re in a safe place, anxiety shouldn’t be activated, so this slowing down to breathe reminds you that you’re in a safe space.
A lot of people with anxiety only think of worst-case scenarios. But with most people, even those who have experienced traumas, if you ask them, “Well, how often in your life has the worst thing possible happened?,” for a lot of people, that’s going to be lower than 10%. So sometimes it’s learning to think about probabilities. Am I looking at the real math or just the anxious statistics that I like to look at?
Finally, a safe memory—recalling when you did feel calm—can bring those calm feelings into the present moment. I think that’s why the Bible talks about blessings—“Remember the Lord of your youth.” Recalling the past in a positive way can offset the feeling of fear when things don’t go our way.
P2C-S: What’s one thing we can do for someone who is struggling with anxiety?
Keith: Sometimes, the starting point is acknowledging, “That makes sense—I can get why that would be a difficult situation.” Empathy, feeling that with them, even starting with “I’m sorry you had to experience that.” This doesn’t change it or fix it, but acknowledging it can be powerful. Sometimes just recognizing someone’s hurt, even the truth that it happened, or that legitimate injustice occurred. We have to do it in a compassionate and kind way. Whereas sometimes the advice is “Suck it up, ignore it…” It can be puzzling for the other person, who would probably love to not worry about it but simply cannot not worry about it.
P2C-S: What role does community have in our mental health?
Keith: What are the two greatest commandments? Love God and neighbour. So neighbours are essential. God has created us to be in groups of people; family, friends, etc.
It’s the irony of things like depression that people often want to isolate, even though that’s the opposite of what they need. We need people to be looking out for us and to say, “Hey, I’m seeing you less.” But if you feel like there are no “others,” then it may also be a matter of thinking differently—usually there’s at least one person who can be that safe person.
Again, you’re going to have people in your life that are more helpful at some stages than others. Sometimes that’s life; people come and people go and serve different purposes at different times. In a rough spot, you may find one of three different people.
If I share something and someone changes the subject, that person is giving a cue that this person is not interested or is unable to talk about that thing. This doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person, they’re giving you a quick signal that no, we’re not going into that territory.
The second type of person is the type that listens but then they list off a to-do list, giving a self help fix-it process. That’s usually not helpful early on.
The third person is the one you’re looking for. If they put the coffee cup down after you’ve shared and say, “Whoa, what’s going on? Tell me more,” that’s the listening ear, the person that’s putting you ahead of them, and that’s the person that is probably more apt to be able to hear more of your story.
It’s a big topic, I’m sure we could talk a lot more!
P2C-S: Definitely! We’ll leave it at that, but thanks for your time!
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.