For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11
If you were to ask me to identify how God has worked in and through my life, it would not take long for me to rattle off a number of ways God has been actively challenging, shaping, and blessing me. God tirelessly taught me patience, humility, and contentment, as I failed to reach my goals, struggled to keep jobs, and wrestled with how to provide for my family. God kept showing up when I was ready to give up. He showed up when we were trying to have children and instead, received heartache. He showed up as I found myself jumping higher and higher hurdles to pursue the unique career He laid on my heart. There are so many experiences that I can now see where God was at work. In the moment, however, I was often filled with doubt, fear, and anxiety.
God has allowed me to walk alongside people, young and old, rich and poor, believers and unbelievers, as they attempt to navigate stress and lessen their anxiety. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, and my office is in a pasture with my therapy team of horses. Through my experiences in God’s creation, beside some of His remarkable creatures, I have begun to understand anxiety as something far greater than the illness we so often perceive. Anxiety is simply a built-in early warning system that engages the body by increasing breathing and heart rate and concentrating blood flow to your brain. Anxiety can occur in response to excessive stress due to an unpredictable social interaction, an impending deadline or an uncertain outcome. Stressors are present everywhere in our lives, and our response is the key to a healthier outcome.
A stress response is simply to fight, flight, or freeze. Let’s begin with “fight” or “flight,” which describes a body's automatic stress response triggered when we encounter a stressor that we perceive as a threat. We get what is often described as “a rush” of hormones to prepare us to take action. We engage, persevere, fight back, or we avoid, escape, run away depending on how we perceive our ability to overcome the stressor.
Conversely, “freeze” is often described as “being paralyzed by fear.” When we perceive the stressor as too great for us to overcome or outrun, our emotions often escalate to intense fear, panic, and dread. We feel helpless in the face of overwhelming odds. In the midst of a traumatic event or dire threat, this freeze response may be the only option to cope with the situation. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of a "freeze" response, we may continue to experience symptoms that manifest through anxiety, panic, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
So what do we do about stress and anxiety?
First, we have to recognize not all stress is bad and can often be motivating to help us grow as long as we perceive the stress as being within our coping abilities. Both as a professional and as a parent, I have been challenged with the discomfort of walking alongside children and teens as they struggle with stress and anxiety. I, like so many parents, have a strong desire to see them happy and successful in their efforts, whatever they may be. I have to fight my urge to fix their mistakes, to drag them (kicking and screaming, if necessary) down the path of least resistance, and to save them from the hard lessons. It is in those moments that I consider the fascinating metaphor used several times in the Bible about how God strengthens us in the same manner as a blacksmith refines metal (Psalm 66:10-12, Malachi 3:2-4 1 Peter 1:7). The metal is placed in the fire to remove impurities and softened so that it can be shaped. Pressure is then applied to form the metal into its intended purpose. The process is repeated, hammering, and reheating until the metal is ready to be cooled and strengthened by the water. Stress and pressure is a significant part of the process. When I reflect on my own life, I find some of the most stressful times in my life were also the most formative.
So what is our role as parents?
The most common statement I hear from parents is they just want their child to be happy. Parents often prioritize happiness over healthiness. A parent's role is not to bubble wrap their children, making sure they never experience sadness, fear, or failure. Instead, we should encourage them to keep moving forward despite the hurdles they face. Rather than trying to fix their problems, parents can model responsible ways of dealing with our own challenges and help their children develop healthy skills to navigate the struggles they will encounter. Most importantly, share with your children how God has and continues to carry you through your trials.
Wherever your child is in their refining process, be there to love and support them as they live, learn, and grow. For some, healing may include seeking out a professional Christian counselor to help identify and navigate the healthiest approach to addressing their anxiety. Ultimately, I would encourage every parent to help their child aim for success, beginning with some simple steps:
- Prioritize a healthy sleep schedule and diet
- Seek out healthy friends and community
- Spend MORE time outside in God’s creation
- Spend LESS time in front of screens
Give it to God