My Anxious Brain
My brain likes to trick me, and it’s good at it. If you have an anxious brain, like I do, maybe you can relate. My brain sends my body danger signals when there is no danger. My body believes my brain and reacts by initiating safety protocols of fight, flight, or freeze (along with physical symptoms such as sweaty palms, racing heart, nausea, paralysis, etc.). My clever brain also likes to trick my spirit. I used to assume my anxious and fearful feelings were the Holy Spirit trying to warn me of a threat. I would get on an airplane and think, these fools don’t even know we’ll probably be dead soon (and it was up to me to pray us all the way to a safe landing). Once Dave (my husband) and I left the kids home with popcorn and a movie. As we drove off, I remembered a story about a child who choked on popcorn and got brain damage. I was certain the Holy Spirit was speaking to me about this and I began to fret. Then something wonderful happened. A different thought slipped through a crack in my brain: What if I’m worrying about nothing? I prayed for their safety and then added, “Lord, if this is from you, please tell me. If it’s not, then help me forget about it. Replace my fear with peace.” I soon became distracted and had a lovely evening (nobody choked, either). That particular fear-thought-loop got broken. After that night, I started to “test the spirit” (so-to-speak) and ask the Lord to redirect worrisome thoughts that were not from Him.
It took more time to realize I was dealing with an anxious brain and to learn coping skills. What I discovered is our thinking creates pathways in the brain. The more we think in a certain way, the deeper those pathways become. It is much the same way rain creates rivulets in soft earth. The more it rains, the more water funnels through them and the deeper they get. Coping with anxiety requires us to create new pathways by forcing our brain to think new thoughts. For example, when I fly now, I imagine happily getting off the plane at my destination and focus on what I will do when we arrive. Then I try to immerse myself in a book or movie. (Also, if I am near the window, I keep the shade down from take-off to landing.) Another skill is to oxygenate the brain. When I feel my anxiety rising, I breathe in slowly to a count of four, hold for four and exhale to a count of eight (repeating three times). For some of us, counseling and/or medication will help us retrain our brains most effectively.
Being able to name a thing gives us some power over it. That first thought of “what if I’m worrying about nothing” helped me begin to name my anxiety and stop spiritualizing it. God is not a God of fear. He is a God of peace. Our brains are powerful, and they can be tricky, but not so much that they override the peace the Holy Spirit can bring. Philippians 4:6-7 speaks to this.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.