Every effective small-group leader knows the importance of creating a safe environment where members can speak freely. This involves discussing the expectations of the group and laying out ground rules. Plus, great leaders model authenticity by sharing themselves.
Being able to speak freely simply isn't all that common. As I travel across the country and speak to groups, I'm constantly reminded of how people are looking for permission to be honest about their struggles. Too often we create Christian communities that are so concerned about looking good, we completely miss opportunities to truly connect for the kingdom. People connect when they're real and transparent about their struggles, doubts, and issues.
My struggles started in college. At first, life was pretty carefree. It was about happy hour and designer jeans, with a little bit of studying thrown in when necessary. My life changed abruptly, however, the moment I had my first panic attack. I was suddenly filled with fear and wondered where God was hiding. Doctors and counselors were of little help as they tried to identify the source of my trouble.
As my doubts grew and the doctors struggled to find answers, I began to do my own research, replacing happy hour with time spent in books on philosophy, history, and religion. I pored through medical journals and studied the merits of psychology, all in a manic search for answers.
It would be more than a decade before a heart condition would be diagnosed and treated—a condition that released uncontrolled adrenaline into my system and fueled my panic attacks. I remember the relief I felt on the day of my diagnosis. On the other hand, it was unsettling when my life was reduced to two words on his notepad: panic disorder.
In my embarrassment, I did my best to keep my struggle private. These days, though, quite the opposite is true. Nothing about my struggle was easy, but in the sovereign hand of God, it all became very useful. It became the impetus for my learning and ultimately the source of my teaching today. I've become a strong advocate for what it means to come clean about our struggles, particularly among fellow believers.
As a small-group leader, you can help. Anxiety disorders are incredibly common, with over 18 percent of American adults affected—42 million people in all. With these statistics, it's likely that some of your group members are struggling. By creating a safe environment, understanding anxiety disorders, and helping group members get the help they need, you can help break down the stigma around mental health issues in the church.
Anxiety disorders can have both spiritual and emotional components. Examining our walk with God is essential. Investigating the environment from which we've originated and the circumstances in which we currently live is also crucial.
But more often than not, mental problems flourish for physical reasons. There are a plethora of physical causes to panic disorder, including genetic predispositions, unhealthy brain function, and head trauma. Hyperthyroidism and hypoglycemia have also been linked to adrenaline problems that can cause acute anxiety. Medicine withdrawal is also a major contributor, as is the use of stimulants including amphetamines, cocaine, and caffeine.
Many people who struggle with serious depression are surprised to discover its strong physiological links. But, as Dr. Matthew Stanford writes, most cases of clinical depression are shown to be the direct result of chemical imbalances, which is why so many of them respond well to medication. Chemicals that carry signals to the brain—or neurotransmitters—can become out of balance as the result of illness, stress, trauma, or even genetics.