There was a time when I was nearly powerless against my own emotions. Growing up as a sensitive person in a household made confusing by my mother’s schizophrenia, I learned to mask my feelings well—but that was the only way I knew how to handle them. And when bad things happened, my plans didn’t work out, or I got negative feedback, I would quickly plummet into discouragement, darkness, and sometimes self-pity. It was amazing how quickly I could drop from fine to really, really not fine.
Things have changed. I’ve changed.
A Christian counselor helped me understand the power of my “cognitive distortions”—negative and false messages I was habitually telling myself. I used to say, You’re a loser. You always screw up. You’re worthless. Sometimes I didn’t even put these messages into words; I just directed hatred toward myself. I didn’t even realize I was mistreating my own soul. And because I sent myself these messages so often, my spirit believed they were true.
Now my spirit believes something different. In addition to participating in counseling, I started telling myself messages in keeping with biblical truth. I also started reading the Bible more, taking risks in Christian fellowship, and reaching out to develop supportive friendships. Now I can recognize those old messages as false, and when they do come to mind, I recognize them and tell myself what is true: I have purpose, I’m a beloved child of God, God is much more capable than me, and he loves me.
This change in self-talk affected more than my mind. It made a difference in my entire life. I’m not as prone to feeling depressed, I’m more peaceful, and I have more love to offer others. And I’ve noticed another change: I don’t worry as much as I used to. When I start to worry, I remind myself that God has transformed me into a new person by changing my mind.
Romans 12:2 is a commonly quoted verse, but we often focus only on the idea that we are not supposed to be shaped by the world, that we are supposed to be transformed. I don’t think we’ve given enough attention to the idea that this transformation happens through a renewal of our minds. It is not merely a soul change or heart change. As the New Living Translation puts it, it’s a matter of letting God “transform you into a new person by changing the way you think”. And science is now catching up to what Scripture teaches us is possible.
Our Changeable Brains
My story is one of many success stories demonstrating the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy. According to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, “Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things. The benefit of this fact is that we can change the way we think to feel/act better even if the situation does not change.” Rather than live at the mercy of outside forces, we have a choice. And the most effective way to change our habitual behaviors and emotional patterns is to let God change the way we think.
In addition to social science, there is strong, if emerging, physical science behind this. Brain science has transformed our understanding of the brain’s capacity for change through neuroplasticity. It turns out that our brains are moldable long past childhood; they can and do change throughout our lives.
“Brain plasticity is a physical process. Gray matter can actually shrink or thicken, neural connections can be forged and refined or (conversely) weakened and severed. Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities,” says Dr. Michael Merzenich, noted neuroscientist and expert in brain plasticity. “Often, people think of childhood and young adulthood as a time of brain growth…but what recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances the older brain can grow, too.”
Thanks to neuroplasticity, changing our thoughts (as well as our behaviors and experiences) causes us to form new synaptic connections, strengthen existing ones, and weaken others. These new and altered connections result in changes in our behavior. In his book Soft-Wired, Dr. Merzenich writes, “As a skill is developed (such as whistling, or doing a pirouette, or identifying bird calls) the specific neural routes that account for successfully performing this new skill become stronger, faster, more reliable, and much more specific to—specialized for—the task at hand.”
This is as true of habitual worry as of anything else.
Worry Is a Problem
So many of us need this kind of change. In a 2010 survey of the American Psychological Association, 40 percent of people said that in the past month, stress had caused them to overeat or eat unhealthy foods. Nearly one-third said they had skipped a meal because of stress, and more than 25 percent said they had been unable to sleep. One survey found that more than 60 percent of American workers worry they will lose their jobs, with 32 percent saying they worry about this “a lot.” Parents commonly worry about their kids, and big worries start when children are small. Worry is not only common in our society; it’s woven into our cultural fabric, an expectation of responsible people, a fashionable accessory whose absence seems suspicious.
In thinking about worry, we often confuse it with two other states of mind: fear and anxiety. The three concepts are often mentioned interchangeably, but they are different and should be thought of as such. Fear and anxiety are normal, healthy, and productive capabilities God has given us—but they are not meant to be permanent states of being.
Fear is a response to an immediate (real or perceived) threat. Anxiety usually appears in anticipation of something that will or might happen. In general, fear is a response to an immediate and known threat. Anxiety is a response to a possibility.
Unlike normal anxiety, worry is not an involuntary physical response, but a pattern we choose to indulge. It rises not from outside ourselves, but from within. It’s a choice we make, to stay in that place of anxiety that was designed to protect us from immediate danger, not to see us through everyday life.
For some, staying in a state of anxiety is not a choice. It’s a disorder that rises when the body’s healthy, helpful biological process works overtime. An anxiety disorder is, essentially, too much of a good thing, and it will happen to 29 percent of us at some point during our lifetimes. This condition is very different from voluntary engagement in worry. An anxiety disorder requires treatment with medication, counseling, or both.
For those of us tempted to worry (and who isn’t?), our world provides plenty of reasons to indulge. But followers of Christ are called to live and think differently from the worried world around us. Voluntary worry is a direct contradiction of the way God has always commanded his people to live, and if we’re not careful it can lead to sinful behavior. Hence Jesus’ words: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). As we look through the Bible, we discover that same message holds true throughout: a countercultural lifestyle of faith and trust is affirmed from Genesis to Revelation.
Worry can injure our bodies and minds. It can cause shortness of breath; heart palpitations; pain and damage in the back, neck, and shoulders; muscle tension; nausea; headaches; and other physical problems. In his illuminating book The God-Shaped Brain, Christian psychiatrist Timothy R. Jennings describes how the effects of ongoing stress look in our brains. As we spend more of our lives in a state of fear, anxiety, and stress, our neurons don’t function as well as they should and don’t produce as many healthy new ones.
But the damage isn’t limited to our bodies. It injures our relationships with other people, and like all sin, worry forms a barrier in our relationship with God. It keeps us focused on ourselves, our agendas, and our own capabilities. It keeps us peering into the future, which is God’s domain, and clinging to people and possessions that belong to God. The solution must include spiritual transformation. Voluntary worry ultimately cannot be overcome with sheer willpower—its solution is rooted entirely in who God is.
In their 2009 book How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman used neuroscience to establish this startling concept: Belief in God—and religious activity itself—physically changes our brains. This is true regardless of the religious system one follows. “Faith tempers our anxiety and fears, and it may even temper one’s belief in an angry God. The beauty of Job’s story is that it reminds the suffering believer that God is ultimately compassionate. And from the perspective of medicine and neuroscience, compassion can heal the body as well as the soul.”
The discovery of neuroplasticity is a startling affirmation of Christian belief, in keeping with the idea that we are to let God transform us through the renewing of our minds. And the power of cognitive change is affirmed as well. “Guard your heart above all else,” the wisdom of Proverbs tells us, “for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23). Jesus Himself spoke of the true source of our behavior: “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you” (Matthew 15:17-20). Likewise, Paul told the Roman church, “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6). Therapy can help us believe God’s truth, but no therapeutic technique has the power to transform us as the Holy Spirit does. And acknowledging the neurological changes that happen with a change in belief does not diminish the mystery or power of God’s work in us. But we do have a choice—we can welcome this transformational work or we can resist it. God graciously gives us the freedom to believe.
Changing worry means changing what we believe about God and ourselves. If we don’t really believe God is any bigger or better than us, we have every reason to worry. But if we believe He is all-powerful, trustworthy, righteous, and good, it just doesn’t make sense to waste our lives in worry. It’s all about really believing and embracing what we know to be true about God and ourselves.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.