When Anxiety Strikes at Church

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When Anxiety Strikes at Church

It’s the silent plague on an exponential increase, or at least it seems that way. Anxiety is the downfall of many when they are least prepared for it. Stressors can trigger an attack or set someone up to be less resilient. Those overwhelming thoughts of not feeling able to cope with a situation unsettle millions each day. It prevents many from holding down a job they are otherwise well suited for.


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Every church encounters people with anxiety. It is important to know the signs to look out for. A happy go lucky person who is suddenly quiet and withdrawn could be undergoing an increase in their anxiety levels. They may or may not know what triggered it. But suddenly they are feeling down, low, unable to function normally and don’t want others around them to make a fuss.


Anxiety can escalate to a panic attack where the person suffering has difficulty breathing correctly. Hyperventilating they need to sit down with a supportive person helping them to feel reassured as they begin to breathe more slowly. Having an understanding supportive buddy can make a big difference in coping with anxiety attacks. However, a buddy is not always around when anxiety strikes. Raising the awareness of all church folk can help ease anxiety as it presents itself when people suffer its effects.


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Have a safe place to go to in a church building that is free much of the time as a refuge for those having anxiety issues. This needs to be where people can feel more at ease as they try to get back to normal. It serves as a  timeout space. It is just as important to support people suffering anxiety as they leave a church service. Sometimes inadvertently the focus of a sermon or a point raised can trigger an anxiety attack. The welfare of parishioners is important. It could be easy to overlook a newcomer while just trying to help those that come to your church regularly.


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Loving thy neighbor requires being there at the low times when needed. Often people like to have their own space but appreciate knowing someone cares. Whatever the case look out for your fellow churchgoer, your neighbors, and friends when anxiety strikes. Here are some practical tips to use when anxiety shows up at church.



  1. Acknowledge the person and what is happening


Being there for someone suffering anxiety can be as simple as saying hello and sitting nearby to monitor how they are going while they feel low. Acknowledge them by name in a calm friendly way reassuring that you are there to be of support while they are stressed. Rightly placed humor on yourself may be an ice breaker in setting a positive tone.

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  1. Avoid adding embarrassment


Reassuring in a low key manner is fine for many people suffering from an anxiety attack. But often they need some time to themselves. Drawing attention to people suffering from anxiety and making it a public scene worsens the attack. When people are not at their best they find it difficult to cope in public situations. Seek to void embarrassing people and be quick to apologize if your good intentions to help hinder instead. Be sure not to make a fuss over someone wanting to be alone. Respect any expressed desire for privacy.



  1. Find out the triggers


Knowing what triggers an anxiety attack is useful in knowing what to look out for if an attack is building. Reducing the triggers reduces the likelihood of another attack. Empowering those suffering anxiety to identify their triggers helps them understand the anxiety cycle and aids in looking out for future attacks.



  1. Reassure and Refocus


Reassuring people experiencing anxiety in a gentle non-threatening way can be a comfort. It is best to then refocus onto a positive experience and place the anxiety into perspective. Don’t belittle someone suffering anxiety over something you regard as being minor. Instead, allow them to explain their feelings and encourage alternate ways of viewing the matter that bring hope. Draw upon the wisdom of Isaiah where he states in Isaiah 40:31(NIV)  but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,   they will walk and not be faint.”


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  1. Reduce Anxiety Provoking Situations


No one likes to be placed in difficult situations that evoke anxiety. Seek to reduce situations in a church setting that provoke an attack. Try to see things from the perspective of those suffering anxiety. Proactively find ways that alert others about unwelcome behaviors that provoke anxiety. Give specific examples when talking with other church members implicated in anxiety-producing attacks. Be non-judgmental in explaining the impacts and setting strategies to avoid attacks.



  1. Build Resilience


The ideal situation to aim for those suffering from anxiety is to build their resilience levels. It is unrealistic to expect someone to intervene on their behalf each and every time anxieties build. Longer term building resilience within the individual suffering anxiety lets them take control and extend their ability to cope. Celebrate successes and steps toward adopting coping mechanisms. But at all times have a zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviors that bully and harass people attending church.



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  1. Be a Buddy


Simply being a supportive buddy to someone in need goes a long way in times of stress and anxiety. When they know there is someone there that understands and they can turn to for support it brings comfort at times of distress. Find a common hand signal to use to alert each other about anxiety levels. Utilize a number system to indicate the severity with 10 being the most severe level, Agree on how to debrief when an attack occurs. Find ways to boost and cheer up your buddy. Offer to pray with them and for them.



  1. Keep a Record of Patterns


When stress levels rise dramatically it is useful to keep a record of when this is happening, what triggered it and what the physical responses are. Patterns of anxiety attacks can be compared over time to determine if the severity is constant, increasing or decreasing. Recording what strategies worked best allows a toolkit to be developed for the future.



  1. Refer for Professional Assistance


Realize that your own assistance in helping someone suffering anxiety is like providing first aid. While helpful do not expect that you can resolve all anxiety issues for all people. Some of the best assistance is to refer people on for professional assistance. Engage in regular conversations to gauge how someone is coping with anxiety and what help they are receiving. Be sure not to develop codependency where you are seen as the one to save the other from their anxiety. Seek to positively point people in the direction of a skilled professional whenever you are able to know of their expertise.



  1. Establish a Support Group


When several people at a church suffer from anxiety you may be able to help them find a group to support them. When no such group exists in your community seek out those with expertise so that a new support group may begin. Finding a similar group operating elsewhere will give you a ready resource to call upon in setting up a group. Touching base on the current literature about anxiety will keep you updated on new developments in support. Share these insights with your church to help build a network of compassion.

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About the author

Garry Duncan

Garry Duncan is the Manager of a large charity shop in Australia meeting the needs of the elderly, the shut-in and the marginalized. As a church historian, he is interested in the intersection of faith and society where the vision of God’s Kingdom finds reality in transformed lives.