The latest reports estimate that over 50% of Americans (that’s most of us!) will encounter the need for professional mental health services over their lifetime. The root of many of the mental health challenges that we face is fear, both conscious and unconscious. The Bible repeats 365 times to “fear not,” but how do we do this when there are so many circumstances in our world that stir up our fears, especially in the midst of a global pandemic?
I started studying psychology over twenty-five years ago and became fascinated with how many parallels I found between psychology and prayer practices suggested in the Bible. Here are some things to consider when approaching your own mental health and a few tips for applying Scripture to daily life in ways that can boost emotionally healthy living.
Attune Yourself to Your Emotions
Psychology research has historically focused on the brain itself, but recent attention has shifted to the reality that we are “embodied beings.” Our bodies are just as important as our brains, and it’s not all happening in your head. New studies are noting the peripheral nervous system, which runs throughout our bodies, plays a big role in our experience of emotions, stress, and trauma responses. There are 40,000 neurons around your heart alone that contribute to what you feel in any given moment.
We need to consider what’s happening throughout the whole body, not just in the mind. It means that to be more fully faithful I need to learn how an event is impacting me (like a pandemic or a conflict with someone I love) by paying attention not only to what I think, but how I feel “in my heart” and throughout my body.
Scripture refers to the “heart” over 800 times. It repeatedly invites us to welcome the emotions sent to us from our hearts and to consider the ways these feelings can help us identify our priorities or where we might be making mistakes. In Matthew 6:21, Jesus teaches that our hearts will always follow what we treasure. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that we can deceive ourselves easily. 1 Peter 1:22 reminds us that love must be deep and come not just from our minds, but also from our hearts.
Next time you feel stressed out about a situation or a relationship, pause and allow time to let the thoughts racing in your mind to slow down. Take some deep breaths to slow the physical reactions that come when we feel threatened. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling in my heart?” and wait for an answer.
Practice Christian Mindfulness
Psychologists have become enamored with the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.” However, the ancient Christian practice of meditation and contemplation has served millions of believers well over the centuries. As Christians, we have many teachers of contemplation who offer a rich practice of centering prayer and Christ-centered meditation that guide us to let go of stress in important and faithful ways.
If this is a new concept for you, here is an easy way to start: sit down in a quiet place and let yourself notice your feet on the ground, your back in the chair, and the air moving deeply in and out of your lungs. Find a favorite Bible phrase or word and slowly repeat it as you breathe in and out. This begins to help you settle into your body and notice more of what’s happening. Allow yourself a few minutes to turn your attention to Christ’s love surrounding you in the moment as you breathe in and out, enabling your whole body to enter into your experience of prayer.
Psalms 46:10 has been telling us to “be still and know that I am God” for centuries. Christ-centered meditation trains us to do just that. It’s not about saying the right words or even thinking the right thoughts. It’s about taking the truth of God’s presence and love into our whole beings.
This practice takes lots of repetition, so be patient with yourself as “progress” can be difficult to measure. This exercise is about centering your whole self on Christ and the love that is present in the moment. This is a means of living into the truth that God loves you. It is being faithful by giving your whole person the opportunity to tune into truth. And it has tremendous impact on your mental health.
We are made for this living out of our beliefs. Putting our faith into practice by creating space for Christ’s presence and love to impact us and resting in that alone for several minutes each day is deeply beneficial in our chaotic world.
Seek a Broader Perspective
Anything that threatens our safety or security triggers a physical reaction in humans. Our brains are designed to solve problems and to fill in gaps. We make lots of unconscious assumptions all through the day because that’s what our brains do to keep us safe. Our brains try to predict what’s coming, and we attempt to problem solve as a first response to everything. In a pandemic world, where our focus is narrowed by hyper-vigilance, we are sure to struggle.
All of these “fighting” strategies can be helpful, even needed, in the short-term. But they don’t focus on allowing God to intervene and become exhausting if they are sustained for too long. We have to seriously apply our faith to these responses in our bodies and minds. By following the advice of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing,” we can respond to the chaos of the world by inviting God’s perspective into our narrow mindset.
Putting It All Together
Taking time to acknowledge all our emotions and bodies are telling us is the first step. Placing these intentionally in God’s hands through simple contemplative prayer gives us practice in being still with God, and it can slowly change our responses. I recommend stepping into these Biblical practices with our whole hearts, minds, and bodies to restore us and renew our experience of being God’s beloved.