A racing heart and tightening in the chest

Couple familiar with high anxiety and depression help ‘1001’ leaders cope with the physical trauma of 2020

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The COVID-19 pandemic. Record-breaking natural disasters. Racial injustice and unrest. Rising poverty. Fear of election violence.

So, with all of this trauma and extra stress 2020 has unleashed, how does one cope with anxiety or depression?

This was the topic of a Sunday evening conversation hosted by 1001 New Worshiping Communities.  Their guests were Dena and Jason Hobbs, who are familiar with the struggle of anxiety and depression, both professionally and personally.

Jason is a licensed clinical social worker at an outpatient mental health clinic. Dena, a campus minister at Mercer University, which has three campus sites in Georgia, experienced her first panic attack while studying at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Unable to breathe, she went to an emergency room. The cause of her racing heart? Quick, shallow breathing.

She was diagnosed with having anxiety disorder.

Seven years ago, during a particularly dark time in her life, Dena was experiencing high anxiety.  Unable to find a helpful resource, she and Jason decided to work on what they were looking for.  What began as a devotional turned into a book that was published in September.

“When Anxiety Strikes: Help and Hope for Managing Your Storm” combines Jason’s knowledge as a therapist with Dena’s experiences dealing with an anxiety disorder.

the Rev. Dena Hobbs

“We wanted a resource to help Christians learn how to cope and manage their anxiety and depression,” Dena said. “Not only with therapy and medication, but also with great spiritual tradition that we have in Christianity.”

Jason stressed that anxiety, which many of us are feeling in 2020, produces a very physical body experience. Common symptoms can be a racing heart and the tightening of chest or other muscles.

Additionally, he said, the human brain begins to imagine what the stress might be and then feeds it, which also produces a similar physical body experience related to what many people are going through in 2020: that so much of what is happening seems outside of our control, which can create even more anxiety in a person.

“So, we talk a lot with patients and in the book about a way of tuning up our stress response,” he said.

As an example of what a stress response tune-up might look like, the two presenters took participants through a deep breathing prayer exercise. Settling into a state of body relaxation, 1001 leaders were asked to repeat these words as they breathed in: “Know that I am God.”  And then on the exhale: “Be still.”

As they breathed in again, Dena said, “Receive the gift. Know that I am God.”  And on the exhale, “Release anything that keeps you from being still.”

During breakout room discussions participants were asked to consider four questions:

  • How are you listening to your body?
  • What are you doing to care for your body, mind and soul?
  • What are some of your barriers to self-care?
  • How can you get around those barriers?

One participant described herself as “an escape artist” who tries to avoid any pain she feels by keeping herself busy. During the pandemic she’s learning how to manage the high anxiety and depression in her life, through a daily practice with The Welcoming Prayer, which includes these words: “I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person, or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and the healing action and grace within.”

Jason Hobbs

After the breakout conversations, there was a final breathing mediation employing the gospel. Using the story of Mark 4:35-41, where Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the stern of boat in the midst of a great storm that is threatening the disciples’ lives. Jason asked participants, “Why are you afraid? Why are you afraid?”

“Notice whatever fear or anxiety is coming up. Then return to your breath and say to yourself, ‘Peace be still,’” he said. “Who is this who calms the winds and the waves?”

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