Slice me open, and I bleed anxiety. I always have. I grew up in ’80s and ’90s Northern Ireland, a place riven by chaos and conflict. If fear was a contagion, back then we were all infected.
At the same time, the headlines (those I remember) were full of the AIDS epidemic—a terrifying and fatal disease with no cure. My child-sized skull echoed with warnings: you can’t be too careful. You can’t be too safe.
At age 13, I developed anorexia. Over the next few years I also developed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), self-harm tendencies, anxiety, and depression. I starved myself to the point of extinction. I washed my hands with bleach until they bled. There were many reasons for this, not just those I’ve mentioned. But underpinning them all was fear—fear that my body and my world were out of control. So, I developed strategies to cope. I fought my fears with hunger and hand soap.
OCD takes different forms. For me, it was a fear of contamination and a fear of running out. I hoarded soap and toilet-paper rolls. I refused to touch surfaces for fear of catching an infection or passing it on to others. Unless I washed my hands, over and over, in a certain order, I believed that something terrible would happen to me or the people I loved.
This wasn’t an overdeveloped sense of good hygiene. It was a life-dominating obsession that caged me. I spent hours washing in a set pattern; even the slightest deviation from routine meant that I had to start again. Left hand first, finger by finger, under the nails, 26, 27, 28 times. My skin broke apart, and I had to have my wrists bandaged. My fingers were raw.
Thankfully, I’m no longer dominated by OCD. But let’s imagine that my teenage self was experiencing our current moment. How would she see the world?
We’re facing a new crisis—an epidemic that no one knows how to handle. She’s terrified by germs, but stores have run out of toilet-paper rolls and hand soap.
The one thing that will stop the plague is handwashing. And not just any handwashing: proper handwashing. Serious, lengthy, ritualized handwashing.
She lies awake, obsessing about endangering her loved ones unless she gets things “right.” Now, her cough could kill Granny.
All around her, people—grownups, online friends, world leaders, neighbors—are panicking.
Grocery store shelves are empty. The whole world is taking on a scarcity mindset.
Everything is broken.
That’s not the whole truth, but it’s how she sees it.
So, what can you do to stem her fear? As pastors, parents, coworkers, and friends, how do we love those with vulnerabilities such as depression or anxiety?
“Social distancing” has become the phrase of the day, but what we really need is physical distancing. Socially, we need to be reaching out, more than ever before. We take our cue from our Savior:
When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matt. 8:1–3)
In biblical times, enforced distancing for leprosy went far beyond what we’re seeing today. It was a life sentence of total isolation. Yet Jesus doesn’t flinch. He reaches out to those in need and spreads cleanness instead of contamination. As his people, we’re also called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) and spread peace instead of panic.
As pastors, parents, coworkers, and friends, how do we love those with vulnerabilities such as depression or anxiety?
Appropriate medical and therapeutic interventions are vital for struggling people, but the body of Christ can lovingly come alongside them as well. If your neighbor or friend is paralyzed by fear, or if your spouse or child is brought low by depression, or if your fellow church member seems stuck in a loop of anxiety, you can help in a few practical ways.
Get them talking (Prov. 20:5).
Many destructive behaviors are coping strategies for thoughts that need expression. Offer your friend a safe place to speak, and reassure them that you won’t be shocked: “We’re all under extra pressure; what are your fears?”
Check on their self-care (1 Tim. 6:8).
Do they have food and supplies? Are they taking their medication? If they’re overwhelmed, can you make an appointment for them with a medical or mental-health professional, accompany them to get help, or assist them to articulate their fears?
Break down their worries (Luke 12:32).
Listen. Don’t promise them that the worst won’t happen. But do encourage them to think in gray instead of black and white. They may focus exclusively on the worst-case scenario. But what’s the best possible outcome? And what’s most likely—given all the facts?
Break down their tasks (Matt. 6:34).
Instead of planning weeks ahead, the current crisis is forcing us to depend on “daily bread.” You can help your friend make that transition. When the big picture feels overwhelming, break large tasks into little steps.
Jesus reaches out to those in need and spreads cleanness instead of contamination.
Get specific: “Start your computer. Do 15 minutes of work. Go for a walk to the end of the street. Do 15 more minutes of work. Text a friend.” Then, celebrate as each one is achieved.
Help them build new routines (Prov. 15:22).
Loss of routine and control is frightening. Remind them that Jesus is still Lord. Help them to create new routines and encourage them to stick to what they can. Prompt them to get up and get dressed as usual, even if they’re not going out. Remind them to eat regular, nutritious meals, even if they have to do it alone.
Make a “coping bank” with them (Rev. 2:4–5).
A “coping bank” is a list of people and activities to turn to instead of destructive behaviors. Post it in a prominent place so they can turn to it when they feel desperate. Instead of self-harm, your friend can read positive options on her bathroom mirror: “Phone Dad. Take a hot bath. Listen to a favorite podcast.”
Don’t offer false reassurance (Jer. 6:14).
Struggling people may want continual assurance about particular obsessions, but this can heighten their fears. Emphasize their coping ability and remind them of God’s faithfulness in concrete examples from their past. Your goal is to help them acknowledge their anxiety and allow it to pass—not to rely on you to manage it for them.
Ask about their mental diet as well as their physical needs (Phil. 4:8).
Encourage them to limit social media or news to reputable sources and times. Watch the news only once a day, for example.
Challenge false guilt (1 Pet. 3:6).
For the scrupulous, there are extra regulations to heed, with potentially serious consequences. Those battling anxiety can question all of their choices: “Was it wrong to go for that walk? To visit that friend?” We need to foster the spirit of Sarah: “Do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Pet. 3:6). Encourage your friend to follow the recommended guidelines, but not to add extra requirements.
Make the spiritual simple (Matt. 6:7).
Encourage them to read the Bible, but to be aware this may feel impossible. Remind them that they aren’t condemned; the Lord knows our weakness. Be creative: pick one verse they can pin up or read when anxious. Or read a simple Gospel story, even something from a children’s story Bible. Offer to pray with them, provide short prayers written by others, and model specific petitions.
Communicate hope (John 16:33).
We look eagerly at news images, hoping to see faces of people who have recovered from disease, people in other parts of the world now free to gather, doctors and nurses headed home—their work done. We need hope after suffering. In the Bible, we have a trustworthy source, and this is its headline: a day of liberation and celebration will come!
Remind them that they aren’t condemned; the Lord knows our weakness.
Here’s our message to our suffering friends: Jesus, not this virus, is Lord. And he will bring his people through. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10).