As I drove to work the other day, I heard a segment on the Christian radio station about anxiety. My guard always goes up when the anxiety conversation surfaces, but I was curious about what they would say. They shared, not maliciously, that gratitude was the best cure for anxiety. And they offered the advice that in moments of worry and anxiety, we should start listing our blessings and the things we’re grateful for. The logic behind this thought is that gratitude will put things in perspective and make our worries seem smaller.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the idea that gratitude is an antidote to anxiety. If you’ve run in Christian circles for a while, you’ve probably heard it too. And I’m sure in some ways, gratitude can lessen anxiety. It does put things in perspective. It can take your mind off your worries. It might distract you for a little while.
But I’ve found there’s a danger in equating an abundance of gratitude with a lack of anxiety because it infers that the anxious person is an ungrateful one. That assumption can cause a level of guilt that increases anxiety that causes more guilt that increases. . . you get the picture.
On top of the guilt this assumption might cause, the bigger question I find myself asking is this: what if it doesn’t work? As someone who struggles with anxiety, I’ve tried many different ways to manage it, including intentionally practicing gratitude. And yet, it’s still a struggle. I still need medicine. I still need counseling and exercise and support from my family and friends. Does that mean my gratitude is not big enough? Am I not grateful enough? Maybe you find yourself wondering the same thing.
I recently shared these concerns with a counselor, and she used this illustration that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
She said to imagine Jessen, my one-year-old son, scared and crying out during the night (assuming he could talk in this scenario––we’ve only mastered mama, dada, and doggy). So, I run into his room, turn on the light, and look him in the eye. But then, I respond to his fear by saying, “Don’t be afraid. You should be grateful that you have a bed to sleep in. You should be thankful for your cozy pajamas and a warm house on a chilly night. Don’t you realize how lucky you are?”
Though things like a bed and a house and warm pajamas are very worthy of our gratitude, a reminder to be grateful is not what he would need at that moment. I would never demand his gratitude in his moment of fear. I can’t imagine any mother or father would.
Neither would our heavenly Father.
Rather, what Jessen would need from me at that moment is simply my presence. For me to be with him in his fear. To sit down on the bed with him. To hold him close and whisper, “I know you’re scared, so I’m here. I’m with you. I love you, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Likewise, when we are anxious, God doesn’t hit us over the head with a list of things he’s done for us and demand our gratitude. Instead, he says,
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.”Isaiah 41:10
As I would with my son, God comforts us with his presence. He reminds us of who he is. And he assures us of his love, even in the hardest times.
That’s why we can say,
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”Psalm 23:4
Even as we walk through the darkest valleys of anxiety, we don’t have to fear. Why? Not because we are grateful (though that’s a beautiful thing). Not because of his many blessings (though they are countless). But because he is with us.
Scripture is full of these reminders of God’s presence in times of trouble. How he draws near to us (James 4:8). How he comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:4). How he becomes a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). The list goes on and on. Anxiety might always be something we struggle with, but that’s okay—God isn’t going anywhere, either.
Gratitude is indeed a wonderful thing, and it can at times help our anxiety. But we must remember that the greater source of peace comes not from the blessings we have but from the one who gave them to us. It’s in his presence and nearness to us that we find peace. No gratitude list can compete with the presence of the living God.
So, maybe we don’t need to change our perspective with gratitude but rather lift our perspective back to Jesus. In doing so, we realize that even in the thick of anxiety, he is still present.
And that is enough.
- This week, seek to spend some time committing a few verses to memory that remind you that God is with you (maybe starting with the ones noted in this blog!). Write them on your mirror, hang them on your fridge, put a sticky note on your laptop . . . just something to remind you to rejoice in the gift of God’s presence, especially in the hard moments.
- This week, also consider setting aside some time to practice being in the Lord’s presence. Even just spending five minutes a day in silence and stillness can be enough to recenter you and remind you that God is near. It’s important to be intentional about spending time in his presence when things are good so that in moments of anxiety, he is the first place we turn to.
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Hannah Jessen Conway intentionally pursues themes of faith, women's empowerment, motherhood, and justice in her writing. She also works in communications and marketing, telling the stories of local nonprofits in the Raleigh area. She's a wife to her college sweetheart, boy mama of one, rescue dog owner, and Jesus follower. You can usually find her reading a book, cheering on the Tar Heels, enjoying the North Carolina sunshine, or writing in a local coffee shop.