In Part I, we saw that there is a biblically and scientifically important distinction between discursive thought (associated with the brain) and emotional intuitive awareness (associated with the heart). We also saw that a major cause of anxiety and depression is obsessive thinking about an anxiety-producing thought. Such obsessive thinking digs a deeper and deeper grove in the brain, which all but makes it impossible to stop such obsessive behavior and start on a road to recovery from anxiety and depression. But by sifting to a biblically and scientifically warranted form of meditation in the heart, one can find the sort of relief one needs.
With this in mind (and, hopefully in your heart!), I want to offer a practical technique for meditatively handling anxiety and depression, first presented by stress researcher Doc Childre, and here adopted to take into account biblical teaching on the two strands mentioned earlier in the chapter and our own practice of this form of mediation.
Note again, that when one is anxious or depressed, one tends to obsess, to think over and over again about certain fearful/hurtful thoughts. We do this to try to anticipate a bad or worst case scenario and to reassure ourselves that we are safe, that we can handle it. We also relive traumatic events and their associated emotions, we replay our depressive, anxious fears and thoughts and their associated emotions. Sometimes we do this for a thought/emotion that we can handle. We can’t face all of our fears and worries, so we project all of them onto one or two issues that are “safer” for us to dwell on.
In the early stages of my own depression, while I had suffered a number of different stressors in ten months, I began to think over and over again about two of them. This let me set aside the remaining stressors and try to manage my anxiety with a more limited, “controllable”focus. The problem with this strategy is that one gets into a rut that becomes increasingly hard to escape. Indeed, studies have shown that obsessive thought/emotional patterns and behaviors literally create a neural pathway, a groove in the brain, that becomes habitual and contributes to a situation in which a person is literally stuck on a pattern, stuck in a rut.
Among other things, this means that trying to battle anxiety and depression in the head by obsessively worrying is a losing battle. After a while, if one tries to keep from repetitively entertaining the worry, one has to exert considerable energy inward to suppress the worry and this can deplete the brain of needed chemicals and lead to depression.
Four Meditative Steps to Attend to Our Heart
Rather than battle anxiety and depression in the head, we recommend a four-step meditative strategy to deal with it in the heart. This strategy is a life-enhancing form of meditation all through life with or without anxiety/depression, but it is especially useful to form it as a habit during a season of mental suffering.
Step 1: When obsessing on an anxious thought or stressful feeling, freeze-frame it. Take a time out. If you have an anxious thought or stressful feeling right now, recognize it, and bring it before your mind. Suppose it is the fear of financial ruin. As this thought and its associated emotion run over and over again in your awareness, freeze it, that is, stop your mental engine from running over and over again, and like stopping a film projector, stop in mid-thought and freeze it. Step one helps a person to obey the biblical injunction to cease striving and stop fretting (see Psalm 46:10, Phil 4:6).
Step 2: With all your might, shift your focus away from your racing mind or troublesome emotions and focus the center of your attention on your physical heart muscle. Attend to the center of your chest where your heart is and stay there for about 10-15 seconds. The goal is to feel the area around your heart. There are two ways to help you in this. First, pretend you are breathing in and out of your heart muscle.
Second, try to “feel” and attend to the front surface of your physical heart, then the back surface, followed by the right then the left side of your heart. When first learning to practice this meditative activity and form it as a habit, you should take as long as necessary to focus on the heart area. At this point you may feel little emotion there or you may get in touch with a feeling of embarrassment, fear, grief, sadness, loneliness, helplessness, hurt or some other anxiety producer. Step 2 is an aid in internalizing Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Rather than mulling things over and over again in your mind and trying to solve your worries in the head, turn to the core of your inner life, your heart, and learn to trust God there. Step 2 is a way to practice not leaning on your own understanding. Step three is a way of learning to trust God in the heart.
Step 3: Using the acrostic CFAN, recall a memory emotion associated with the relevant memory and let that emotion dwell and dominate the heart area. With your attention on your physical heart area, you want to bring a new positive emotion, a healthy intuitive awareness to dwell there and replace the feelings already there from the worrisome thought you have frozen. To do this, you want to meditate on something positive in order to recall a memory emotion that is positive. CFAN stands for Compassion, Forgiveness, Appreciation and Non-judgmentalism. You want to recall a specific occasion that you can picture in which you either gave or received compassion/love, forgiveness/removal of guilt feelings, appreciation/joy, being non-judgmental/accepting.
The important thing is not to do all four of these, but to pick one of these that is most effective for you and constantly return there. For example, recall a time when you gave real love to God, a friend or family member or received the feeling of love from God or someone important to you. Recall a time when your gave appreciation to someone—a special time of worship when your really felt God was there or a time when you gave heartfelt praise and adoration to someone—or a time when you drank in appreciation from the taste of coffee to a spectacular answer to prayer or an endearing biblical truth. And so on. The goal here is not simply to recall the relevant incident, but more importantly, to have the associated emotion fill and remain in your heart area.
Step 4: While holding this emotion in your physical heart area, return to the anxious thought and melt it piece by piece into the heart area and, with full sincerity, ask your heart “Next time, what would be a less stressful, less anxious, more effective response to this thought and the situation to which it refers?” Listen to the heart area for an answer. The goal of step 4 is to so trust in the Lord with your whole heart, that you form the habit of responding there to a worry with compassion, forgiveness, appreciation and a non-judgmental attitude towards yourself or others.
By breaking the worrisome thing down into pieces and melting it into the heart, we mean this. Take the thought, for example, that I am going to be ruined financially, break it down to its parts (my children will be embarrassed at school by their clothes, I will be out of a job, my family will look down on me), and by taking that part to the heart area, you allow the anxious thought (I will be out of a job) to be overwhelmed by and newly associated with a positive emotion and not negative ones. If done at various times each day, a habit will be formed that will allow you to come to set the thought aside and not be stuck on it. In the process of setting the thought aside, it will allow you to be able to entertain it without being overwhelmed by negative emotions. You can literally learn to have the thought while feeling, say, joy and compassion.
Now, while your heart is not a second person from you, we all talk to ourselves throughout the day. Indeed, our self-talk is an important aspect of a healthy or dysfunctional Christian life. So as a part of step 4, you want to ask your physical heart area (literally address the area of emotion surrounding the heart) about a better way to respond, and look for a mild intuitive insight that comes from the heart area. Generally, the insight will not shout at you; it will be a soft, mild thought or feeling that can be easily overlooked if you are not attending to the heart area.
By repeating this four-step form of meditation, you can train yourself to lead a more mature, stable Christian life and you can learn to set aside anxiety/depression.