Almost everyone can relate to anxiety. Anxiety is a normal human response. However, sometimes it takes more control of us than we would like. And if you ask a teenager what anxiety feels like, they might say it feels like…
an elephant sitting on my chest
someone else is controlling me
there are 1,000 thoughts in my head
We are living in a time where various degrees of anxiety are affecting young people at alarming rates. Research consistently shows that anxiety is the number one mental health problem in America and possibly the world. In fact, for the first time, historical mental health diagnoses trends show that anxiety disorders have outpaced depression disorders.
As ministry leaders, we see the effects of anxiety on our students. Maybe you know a student dealing with excessive thoughts that seem to be on a constant loop, regardless of how often someone reassures them. Or perhaps you know some students who are dealing with stress that is showing up in their bodies in the way of headaches, stomachaches, and frequent muscle tension. You might know a student who recently had a panic attack that seemed to come out of nowhere.
We know the Bible is filled with wisdom and promises to help us overcome fear and worry. But we also know we need better solutions than telling students to “pray more and worry less” (James 2:14-17). We need practical tools that we can give students to help them move beyond the spiral of anxiety.
After years of research, Dr. Chinwe Williams and I compiled 6 practical truths and tools to reduce anxiety. These are grounded in scripture and supported by scientific research.
1. I Won’t Always Feel This Way.
What can I do? Breathe. Deep breaths when our brains are experiencing high stress can remind us that we are safe.
2. My Emotions Matter.
What can I do? Feel My Emotions. Anxiety likes to lie to us that we can just ignore it. But that never works. Emotions come out eventually, either as an explosion or an implosion. Instead of letting all that emotional energy build up in our brains, it’s better to “emotionally exhale” through prayer or journaling.
3. My Mind is Connected to My Body.
What can I do? Build Healthy Habits. The brain is an organ, so we must remember that while our thoughts matter, there is also a physical part of anxiety. For instance, if I am struggling with anxiety and ask God to help me with my anxious thoughts, I know He will. But if I continue to drink 6 cups of caffeine daily, I’m missing an important piece of practical wisdom. Caffeine increases anxious feelings. Can God work miraculously despite that? Sure. But He has also given us directions on caring for our physical bodies.
4. I Can Change My Thoughts.
What can I do? Reframe Negative Thoughts. Perpetuating negative thoughts will fuel anxiety’s energy like giving Mountain Dew to a 6th-grader. So negative thoughts need to be challenged and countered with practices like affirmation cards and gratitude journals.
5. I Need a Break.
What can I do? Rest. No one wants to be left out, especially when we know our friends are eating at Chipotle without us. Social media tends to increase the feelings of needing to say yes and be a part of everything. But we were not wired to live at such a fast pace. It’s important to teach teens and young adults how to slow down and allow our bodies, minds, and souls to have rest.
6. It’s Okay to Ask for Help.
What can I do? Talk to Someone. Connection is the most important element in reducing anxiety. We can help teens with this by creating weekly opportunities to have meaningful conversations. In our churches, small groups are the best tool available to us to foster connection and resilience.
While we can know these brain-boosting truths and practical tools, the only way for them to work is by revisiting them often and guiding our students to develop new habits. That’s why we wrote Beyond the Spiral: Why You Shouldn’t Believe Everything Anxiety Tells You. It’s a practical field guide to help teens and young adults apply truths and tools to manage anxiety beyond the spiral.