Online Conversation | Hope in an Age of Anxiety with Curtis Chang & Curt Thompson

We are in an anxious age. By some estimates, a third of all Americans will struggle with anxiety in their lives, and nearly 20% currently suffer from an anxiety disorder. For those suffering the mental distortions of anxiety, life can be difficult, and hope elusive. And for many Christians who have tried and failed to stop their slide into fear and worry by simply “laying down their burdens,” they may feel an added sense of spiritual failure as well.

In this Online Conversation, Curtis Chang, the author of The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry is the Doorway to Your Best Self, joins psychiatrist Curt Thompson, to discuss the challenge of anxiety as well as the invitation it presents for spiritual growth.

Thank you to our Duke Divinity School for co-hosting and to Susan Larson for her support of this event! 

Online Conversation | Curtis Chang + Curt Thompson | May 12, 2023

Cherie Harder: Good afternoon and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Curtis Chang and Curt Thompson on “Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” I’d like to thank Susan Larson, who has generously sponsored today’s Online Conversation, as well as our friends at Duke Divinity School who are serving as our co-host today. We so appreciate you both.

And we’re delighted that we have over 2,500 people who have registered for today’s Online Conversation. We just so appreciate the honor of your time and attention. I’d like to give a special shout-out to the over 300 people who have registered for the very first time for a Trinity Forum Online Conversation—great to have you here—as well as the more than 265 international guests joining us from at least 41 different countries that we know about, ranging from Angola and Australia to Tanzania and Taiwan. So welcome from across the miles and across the time zones. If you haven’t done so already, you can let us know where you’re joining us from in the chat box feature. It’s always fun for us to know where people are tuning in from, from all over the globe.

And if you are one of those first-time attendees or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life and the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s Online Conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.

It was in 1947 that W.H. Auden wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning long poem “The Age of Anxiety,” a work that proved to be prophetic as well as poetic. Today, anxiety is the most widespread mental illness in the United States and even as we speak is significantly increasing. In 2018, before the pandemic, over 60 percent of American college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety at various times. And other studies have shown that both depression and anxiety have risen by almost a third globally since the pandemic started. Other studies indicate that nearly a third of Americans will experience anxiety at some point in their lives, and 20 percent of our neighbors are doing so even now.

For those suffering from the stresses and distortions of anxiety, everyday life can be difficult and hope can seem elusive. For people of faith who have tried and failed to pray away their burdens or lay them down, there may also be an added sense of spiritual failure as well. But our guests today will argue that for all of its challenges and difficulties, anxiety also presents an opportunity for growth, grace, and wisdom. In the words of one of our guests, it is “one of the most powerful opportunities for transformation we will ever encounter” and that responding constructively opens the door not only to improved mental health, but also to spiritual growth.

It’s a provocative claim and a hopeful summons. And to help us unpack and explore it, I’m delighted to introduce two expert and insightful guests, Curtis Chang and Curt Thompson.

Cherie Harder: Curtis Chang is a nonprofit leader, consultant, and professor who serves as the executive director of the faith-based nonprofit group Redeeming Babel, as well as the co-founder and CEO of Consulting Within Reach, a firm serving nonprofits and government agencies. In addition, he teaches strategic planning at American University School of International Service, is a consulting professor at Duke Divinity School, a senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary, and the former senior pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church in San Jose, California, as well as the author of the brand-new, not-yet-out—coming out on May 16th—book The Anxiety Opportunity, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.

Joining him is Dr. Curt Thompson. Curt is a psychiatrist in private practice and the host of the Being Known podcast, which explores the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation. He is, I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum, as well as a sought-after speaker and consultant. We figured out today that Curt has actually appeared more on our Online Conversations than any other guest. So, Curt, it’s great to have you back. And he’s also the author of several excellent books, including The Anatomy of the Soul, The Soul of Shame, and his most recent work, The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community.

Curtis and Curt, welcome. Great to have you here.

Curtis Chang: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Curt Thompson: Yeah, it’s great to be back.

Cherie Harder: So, Curtis, I want to start with you. One of the things that I have found in the course of even just doing these Online Conversations is that in every book there is not only a story within it, there is a story behind it. And so I wanted to ask you what led you to write The Anxiety Opportunity?

Curtis Chang: Oh, thanks, Cherie, for asking that question. And I feel like this is a book that I was being prepared by God and by life to write because one of the things that is true about me that many people don’t know is that I am deeply anxious, and I’ve been anxious for all of my life. I grew up in the 70s, and I grew up in the Chinese American community, and I grew up as an evangelical. So those three things— if I had just one of those three things, they would have not prepared me to identify and help me realize that I was anxious. I think all three of those sort of communities, at least, you know, back then, didn’t recognize anxiety, especially childhood anxiety. You put all three of those together and there was almost no chance that my childhood anxiety would have been recognized and named in any recognizable way. So I grew up anxious, but not even knowing it, and other people not knowing it, but really actually developing what some psychologists call highly functional anxiety, where anxiety is present and is actually driving a lot of very functional behaviors, like staying on top of things, planning, anticipating, and so forth. And that led to a fairly successful life. 

But even highly functioning anxiety, especially when it is not named and recognized and responded to healthily, can become dysfunctional anxiety. And that explains one of the items that you read in my bio, which was you said “former” pastor of an Evangelical Covenant Church. So the reason why there’s a “former” attached to that title is because in my 40s, my highly functional anxiety under the pressures and stresses of being a pastor became highly dysfunctional, and I ended up having a catastrophic breakdown, including two weeks where I did not sleep at all, at least consciously, because of anxiety. And that led to— that’s why that’s the “former” there on the pastor.

And so I know anxiety from the inside out from all of my life. And if there’s anybody that would, I think, have some ability to say, yeah, anxiety is a horrible problem, we should try to make it go away, I think I have at least some claim to make that point. And yet the point of my book is to say that anxiety is not just a problem. It is, as the book’s title says, it is an opportunity. That’s why I wrote it as the anxiety opportunity, and the deeply Christian response to anxiety is one of deep hope because anxiety isn’t just a problem. It has certainly problematic aspects to it. But it isn’t just a problem. It is also an opportunity for profound growth.

Cherie Harder: You know, of course, anxiety manifests itself differently in different people. And so as we start off just sort of laying the groundwork to know even what we’re talking about, Curt, I’d love to hear from you as a practicing psychiatrist, what is anxiety? And one of the things I have noticed in really both of your books is a link between anxiety and shame. And so I would be interested in your thoughts on how these two disparate things are linked as well.

Curt Thompson: Well, one thing that really strikes me just right out of the gate of our conversation is we tend to think that, oh, there are people in the world who are anxious and people in the world who are not. And the real thing, the question that I would be curious about is to what degree— I think if you’re a human, you’re anxious. The question is not “Am I anxious?” The question is “What do I do with my anxiety in any way, shape, or form?” Because fundamentally, I would say that anxiety, first of all, is an embodied experience. That’s the first thing. I think it’s important. Like, we don’t know that we’re anxious apart from our physical experience of it. Now, we might think, “Oh, it’s just in my mind,” like my cognitive thinking, but my level of distress that accompanies this thing that I call anxiety is something that I only experience in my physicality, even if only in very, very minor ways. Whether it’s my uptick in my heart rate or it’s the tension in my face that I often don’t even know that I carry with me and so forth and so on. So to be human is to be anxious. That’s the first thing.

I think the second thing is to recognize—and this gets to Curtis’s point about it being an opportunity—anxiety, we often claim that it is a problem. When I’m talking with patients, I describe anxiety as simply being a signal. If I’m cooking bacon in the kitchen and the smoke detector goes off, which it frequently does if Curt is cooking bacon in the kitchen, I don’t like it. I don’t— I’m like, “Just please stop. I don’t need your yapping. I’m just cooking bacon. It’s not on fire. I’m just cooking bacon.” I don’t like it, but it is actually doing its job. And so when we are anxious, what we’re really saying, when people think, like, “my brain isn’t working well because I’m this anxious,” I want to say, actually your brain is doing exactly what it should be doing under the circumstances in which it finds itself. The question is, are you aware of the circumstances under which you’re living? And so from a neurobiological standpoint, it is this sense that it’s a signal, it’s a distress signal.

And then I would say where I think psychiatry in the modern West doesn’t really take this into consideration. And this is where anthropology, I think, plays a huge role. And I think that when you look at the second page of the Bible and you read that this first comment that it’s not good for the man to be alone, that ultimately anxiety is a signal that tells, that is portending, a catastrophic departure of connection with human beings. Now, I’m not thinking this consciously, but that’s what my body, that’s what I’m sensing, that there’s something going on here, the end point of which is going to be I’m going to be cut off. And that sense of being cut off is the signal that’s telling me “I really want to do something that’s getting me back connected to people.” 

Where shame plays a role—it’s a unique physiologic response. It’s a unique cognitive response. It’s a unique emotionally felt response that is related to anxiety, and in some respects, we might say is anxiety’s nuclear option for us, in terms of the particular felt sense of isolation, me turning away from myself, turning away from you without the ability to reverse that process. And so both interpersonally as well as neurophysiologically, it’s a signal that I would say is built into the system. And when Jesus comes along in the Sermon on the Mount and says, “Don’t be anxious, don’t be anxious,” he’s not saying turn your brain off. He’s saying when the anxiety comes, this is what you’re called to do. It’s the signal. It’s the opportunity that I think that Curtis is talking about.

Cherie Harder: You know, it’s so interesting to think about it as a signal. And of course, that sort of begs the question [of] what is going on and why is anxiety increasing so much? I mean, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt essentially said that when it comes to Gen Z, this is the most anxious and depressed generation in history. Anxiety and depression, particularly among teen girls, has just significantly increased since 2012. If anxiety is a signal, why does it seem to be increasing so rapidly?

Curtis Chang: Yeah, I can jump on that. I’d love to hear Curt’s thoughts on that. I would say there’s two ways to answer that question, and I liken it to answering the question, “Why did Katrina happen?” Right? When you ask the question, “Why did the disaster of Katrina happen?”, you can answer it on two levels. You can answer it on, “Why did the storm build up as powerfully as it did?” And there’s all sorts of high-level, complex, atmospheric, and climactic sort of factors that go in there. And similarly with anxiety, I think there are a lot of long-term structural societal factors in play that we can explore, from the rise of smartphones to the rise of deep loneliness and social disconnection, to get to Curt’s point about the connection between anxiety and shame. So there’s a lot of high-level structural factors.

There’s also another way you can answer the Katrina question, which is “Why did the levees break?” Why did the structures that we set up to prevent huge upsurges of atmospheric anxiety, why did they not hold the line? And that’s really what my book is about, because what I’m trying to argue and show in my book is that the ways that we have constructed, especially in the Christian church, our understandings, our conceptual understandings, and our pastoral practices and personal practices—the levees that we have tried to erect conceptually and in practice—have actually been deeply, deeply flawed, and that this upsurge is exposing the fact of their deep flaws. And that’s one of the reasons why this upsurge of anxiety all around us is flooding into our lives with such damaging consequences. And at the heart of that structural flaw is this belief that anxiety is just a problem that we are supposed to make go away, that it isn’t a normal human condition the way that Curt just described, but that it’s actually a problem we have to push away.

And I liken it and I sort of categorize that there’s really two main ways that Christians are tempted to make anxiety something that we make go away, a problem we make go away. One is we are taught to either pray it away or, secondly, we prescribe it away. So the prayed-away avoidance is that we’re supposed to pray, have faith. That categorizes anxiety as a sin in the extreme or as a lack of faith or as a character flaw. So it’s a problem. We have to pray it away, make it go away. Or, in other Christian cultures, maybe they don’t go to that root, but they will just say, well, it’s purely a secular mental health problem that we outsource to secular mental health and we have them prescribe it away, either through medication or through therapy. Now, let me be clear. I am a believer in medication and in therapy. I myself have benefited from both of those things. But I think, as Curt will agree, that secular mental health in the West has a strong tendency to pathologize anxiety into a mental health problem that they’re supposed to just try to make go away. And it isn’t really well set up, it’s not set up from its own fundamental origins to treat it in the way that I believe the Bible and Jesus’s own life invites us to treat it, which is not as a problem to make go away, but precisely as a signal. A signal, an invitation, what I call an opportunity, an invitation to walk through anxiety, to actually experience it in the way that actually we were designed to by God for spiritual growth in Jesus, where we actually meet Jesus more deeply, precisely in our anxiety. It’s not that we have to make anxiety go away and then, finally, then we’re qualified to somehow be with Jesus. It’s that actually, in our experience of anxiety, that’s where we encounter Jesus most deeply and encounter the truths about ourselves most deeply.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Curt, did you have anything to add to that?

Curt Thompson: Well, I just think, you know, to Jonathan Haidt’s point, when we talk about this particular generation, Gen Z, being more anxious and depressed, there is a sense in which we would say, “Oh, this shouldn’t actually surprise anybody,” in that we’re watching culture develop in a particular way such that the very way we then respond to anxiety by, for instance, pathologizing it or praying it away, both of those tend to be ways in which we are actually avoiding the signal. We’re not really paying much attention to the signal. This is different than what happens when the signal is so strong that I absolutely can’t function and therefore we’re going to intervene with some kind of medical intervention. This happens with patients of mine all the time. But what we’re really saying to them in that instance is that what we really want to do is to provide your neurological system with a support until we can really help you begin to see that this is a signal that’s trying to tell us something about your life. And part of the challenge is that the way we have conceptualized and then approached our anxiety culturally—and by cultural, I mean in the church, in the clinical community, in culture in general—the very ways that we approach actually reinforce the anxiety. Actually strengthen the signal that we then think is still the problem getting bigger because we still think it’s a problem instead of—. 

So I’m like, “Why is this smoke signal in my bacon-cooking kitchen louder when what I’m trying to do is just not pay attention?” I’m trying to get rid of the signal instead of asking the question, “Oh, what’s actually happening in the story? What’s happening with my body? In what ways am I actually cut off, have I stopped paying attention to Genesis 1:18, and then in my attempt to respond to my distress about being alone, I do things that make me even more alone.” And so I think to Curtis’s point, in his beautiful book, there is this way in which we’re even thinking about the nature of it. Before we even get to “what are we going to do?”, we have to pause and just be aware that I’m telling the story about it in a way that is not actually consistent with the real world. And so until I’m willing to pause and reconsider that, as Curtis’s book invites us to do, it’s going to be difficult because otherwise I’m just going to continue to want to repeat what I’ve always been doing and waiting for my brain to get to an even louder signal.

Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. You know, Curtis, one of the things I was really intrigued by in your book is you talked about the vital importance of naming. You know, of naming the voices in your head, the stress responses in your body, even the anxiety in different relationships, as a way of helping to differentiate one’s anxiety from one’s identity. And one of the things I noticed, a theme that could be inferred from your book, as well as from yours, Curt, is the role that deception and deflection can both play in our emotional and mental struggles. That we’re either prone to kind of fuze our identity with our anxiety—which you kind of, I think, likened to Stockholm syndrome—or to deflect it, which has actually been linked to the rise in conspiracy thinking, which I thought was just fascinating. So I’d love to hear you say a little bit more about why naming anxiety is so important and how one begins that process of differentiating and naming our anxiety as apart from either our core identity or even external reality.

Curtis Chang: Well, this gets to how tricky anxiety really is as a thing that we deal with in our lives. Because, picking up Curt’s point, he’s exactly right that anxiety is a signal we’re supposed to pay attention to. And one of the ways we pay attention to anything is by naming something. It’s like, “Oh, that’s what that is. That’s the signal.” And so the problem when we make anxiety a problem to go away is, rather than actually facing it and naming it, if we try to just suppress it or make it go away, it actually grows louder. And then it does this weird thing where it actually becomes us. It enters us. Or we’re tempted to fuze with anxiety because we’re not actually looking at it and naming it and recognizing it as a phenomenon that is somewhat in us, but is also not exactly us. We become absorbed with it. And this is where we— this is the fusion that I’m talking about.

So one of the ways that we actually establish some ability to both recognize it, but not fuze with it, not get completely captured and hijacked by it, is by actually looking at it and naming it. And for me, I actually, what’s been really helpful that I write about in my book, is I actually name my anxious thoughts. I give it a name because it’s a way for me to establish some direct recognition, some understanding and also some differentiation so that I don’t fall prey to this hidden hijack that happens.

And I really love Curt’s callback to Genesis in thinking about the basic human condition, because what is the first human command that God gives us? It’s to name the beasts. It’s to name the animals. And it’s the way that we differentiate I am not a beast and I actually have some authority over the beast. And so anxiety is like a mental beast, right? We are encouraged by God to actually give names to it. So I, in my book, I write about [how] I have a radio station in my head that I call K-Fear. It’s the radio. So it’s a way for me to recognize, “Oh, I’m playing that station, I’m playing my anxious thoughts on.” And once I actually, like, tune in—not become it, but tune in kind of from an observer, a listener standpoint—I discover all sorts of kind of insightful things like, oh, actually my anxiety, which seems so overwhelming and complex, actually plays kind of the same song over and over again, for instance. And once I can recognize that song, I can start paying attention. Oh, this is what this song is. That’s what that signal, what that radio signal is trying to tell me. So I actually, I give all sorts of different names to the station, to the songs that my anxiety plays. And it’s a way for me to recognize, “Yep, I’m anxious.” I’m not trying to make it go away. I’m not trying to pretend it’s not there. But I actually have some authority as well. I can pay attention. I can pay less attention. I can turn the volume up, turn the volume down. I can’t make it go away entirely because it just is a station in my head. That’s what it means to be human, but I am not subject to it. I actually have some authority over it. 

Curt Thompson: Yeah. And I think to that point, even—Curtis, you’re right—when when our anxiety is not seen as a signal that we then turn toward and want to have a relationship with, and then it becomes part of us and we become fuzed with it, it leaves us in this place where I am my anxiety. I’m by myself. Once again, it’s going back to this— We’re replaying Genesis 1:18 over and over and over again. You know, the work of Richard Schwartz and internal family systems, some of our listeners may be familiar with this, has been a really helpful model in giving us the opportunity to consider that, “Oh, we have different parts of us.” I have the part of me that is a husband, a part of me that’s a father, a part of me that is a friend, a part of me that— the angry part of me, the anxious part of me. These different parts. Such that when I’m anxious, it could be that I— you know, Curtis, I think I’m anxious because I think actually you have more anxiety than I do, and I want to say that I think I’m more anxious than you are. I want to compete here.

Curtis Chang: We could have a contest.

Curt Thompson: Right? Right. But I’m anxious about that. But this sense that, like, I can think that I am anxious when what I want to say is there is a part of me that is anxious and there is a part of me that is anxious about particular things. But as long as I am left alone with that, I have a very difficult time differentiating my anxiety part from other parts of me. And this is why our connection to other people is so critical whereby which they can be curious with me about this and give me some distance between this signal that’s going off in my kitchen such that I am not the signal: “Oh, it’s the signal that is in my kitchen.” But sometimes it’s so overwhelming that I need someone else to help me look together at this signal. And their very presence can reduce my anxiety enough to then look at it so that I can see it for what it really is, rather than me thinking that it’s the problem, that it’s the pathology, that somehow needs to be treated and gotten rid of, as Curtis has been so rightly emphasizing.

Cherie Harder: You know, that’s so intriguing in that one of the things that you both have written about is not just in terms of like attention and movement, but the role that embodiment plays, that just even moving our body, much less moving towards other people, that— And, Curt, maybe we can start with you—is this largely because it shifts our attention or is there something also just in terms of being more present, moving, or relational that has such an effect on anxiety?

Curt Thompson: Well, I think that, again, when we say that anxiety begins as an embodied experience—and researchers would differentiate between anxiety and fear, for example, but there’s a hairbreadth difference between these things. And I can be anxious about a range of different things, some of which feel overwhelming, some of which are not that overwhelming. When it gets to the point where it is overwhelming, it really has crossed into a point where I can feel paralyzed. I can feel like I’m not moving. And so the only way out is to move rather dramatically. And so I avoid. I move by, like, I don’t pay any attention to the anxiety. I’m just going to bury it. I’m just going to pretend it’s not there. Or I move with any number of my different addicting, idolatrous activities, or I become paralyzed and overwhelmed by it. But again, if someone says—this happens all the time when we’re in therapy, and you think of therapy is like, oh, you go into an office and you sit down, but we are frequently up on our feet doing things. We are moving in the office. And of course somebody is like, “Why are we standing? Why are we marching in your office? Why are we marching? This is weird.” I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s march in our weirdness for a little longer.” And then when I say, “Now I want you to tell me what has become of your distress? What has become of your anxiety? Locate it now.” And they recognize that movement changes not just my attention, but it changes what I am doing with my body in the presence of someone else who is allowing my brain to know that it is now no longer alone with this so that I can begin to, as Curtis says, again, name that I am anxious. And then further name what is the story that I’m telling that is behind it?

Cherie Harder: You know, Curtis, going back to something you’ve talked about a little bit earlier, just the spiritual opportunity that anxiety provides. And you’ve talked a little bit about what that means for the people suffering from anxiety. But of course, when someone suffers from anxiety, it’s usually not just they who suffer, but also their loved ones, sometimes their colleagues and the like, and would be interested in what you would say to those who live, love, or work with those struggling with anxiety, and what, if anything, you see is the the anxiety opportunity for them as well. 

Curtis Chang: Well, I write about this in the book, and I think the audience I most want to speak to are the parents of anxious children. The CDC just recently released a report that shows 60 percent of teen girls suffer from very severe anxiety or depression. Thirty percent in the last year have considered suicidal thoughts. So that’s an alarming statistic, not only for the depths of suffering of those girls—and it’s lesser for boys, but it’s still rising for boys as well—but also behind every one of those girls or boys, of course, is a parent who is the parent of an anxious child. And if you’re a parent, you know that being the parent of an anxious child, if you’re at all aware, if you’re at all facing your own signal, means you’re anxious. And so you have in all of these families, parental anxiety with childhood anxiety. And so if we don’t have the correct way to think and respond to anxiety, we’re going to get into this horrible case where everybody’s anxieties is pinging off of each other in unknown and unnamed ways.

And I know as a parent, when my child is anxious, it’s actually activating that anxious self in me, like the anxious child in me is getting activated. And this is sort of just how parenting works. Our children kind of reactivate our own sort of childhood experiences. And because my childhood was raised in this Chinese American culture that really both shamed anxiety and tried to suppress it and say, “Why are you so anxious? Why are you so anxious?—would be the response—and want to make me not be anxious, that gets activated when my own kids are getting anxious. I want to problem-solve it away. I want to make them not be anxious. And really the driving motivation there for me that I’ve had to come to realize—and this is part of another example of my own spiritual growth through anxiety—is, as I’ve paid attention to my own parental anxiety, I realize that, you know, it is, of course, some of it is concern for my kids, but a lot of it is I want to quiet and suppress my own inner anxiety. And so when I’m going to this problem solving mode, when I’m trying to actually kind of make them feel less anxious by making the problem go away for them, I’m actually acting quite self-centeredly. 

And my kids actually pick that up. They consciously realize, “Hey, this is no longer about me. This is something else.” They can’t name it exactly. But the term that we’ve named in the Chang household is it’s when Curtis dad becomes “consultant dad.” And that’s when I’m in consultant mode with my kids and I’m just trying to solve their problems and I’m not actually making room for them. I’m not actually being present to their true selves because I’m actually treating them like a consultant, like a problem to solve. And so I’ve had to learn— the spiritual growth for me there has been to move from what I call consultant dad to grieving dad. And grieving dad is just somebody that makes room for my kid’s pain and grief. And rather than switching to problem-solving mode, I’m just trying to suffer with them and be with them in their pain.

So that’s one example, I think, of how we move towards others in embodied fashion, which is sometimes, rather than intellectually solving a problem, it is patting them on the shoulder, it is giving them a hug, it is nodding and showing physical expressions of sympathy. And that is what parents can offer their kids that no one else can offer is that deep parental, unconditional acceptance that all of us, all children, crave most deeply from their parents, especially, especially when they are anxious. And so more than— and this is something that no medication, no therapist, no one else can offer, that you as a parent of an anxious child, this is what you can offer them, is you can offer them deep, unconditional acceptance as you move towards them and make room for their suffering, their anxiety, not trying to make it go away for them, but actually being willing to be in it with them, to accept them in it.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Go ahead, Curt.

Curt Thompson: I was just going to say, we often talk to patients who talk with us about the distress that they have about their children. And as we remind people that any human being’s anxiety, any distress, my distress is always, always, ultimately about me. My distress about my children is still always ultimately about me. It’s not only about me, but it is always ultimately about me. And so one of the reasons that we say that the single most helpful thing that we can do to create secure attachment in our kids is for us as parents to make sure that we’re taking care of our own story, that we are making sense of our own story, that we are responding to and resolving the anxiety about what’s going on with me. In order for us to then, you know, create that space that Curtis is talking about for our children. Because then our children can read: “Oh, I’m talking about all my stuff that’s upsetting me. And my dad’s listening. And he seems to be okay with this.” And what it trains our children to learn is that, “Oh, I can be okay with not being okay.” But I have to learn that by having an experience in which my not being okay is being received and giving me the space, then, to work through that and discover I can be okay on the other side of this.

Cherie Harder: That’s great. We’re going to turn to audience questions. There’s so much more I’d love to ask you both, but I see that our first question from Betsy Kodak basically is along the lines of something I wanted to ask anyway. So, Betsy, I’m going to embellish upon your question. Betsy’s question is, “What is the role of the church in serving an anxious world?” And what I wanted to just sort of ladle on top of that is the fact that we know that anxiety is growing. We also know that pastors are increasingly anxious. There is a Barna survey that found that last year over 40 percent of pastors seriously considered leaving the pastorate because of just the increasing difficulty within their congregations. And so would love really to kind of get both of your thoughts. And, Curtis, maybe we can sort of start with you on what the church, not just the leadership, but us corporately as the body of believers, can do in serving the anxious both within the church and the broader world.

Curtis Chang: Yeah, well, this is why I wrote the book was because I think the church actually has the best, most important answer to anxiety. But it’s gotten— It needs to reground itself on that true answer. And this gets to, at the existential level, “what is anxiety?” So the way I describe it, which is very congruent with the way that Curt describes it, is anxiety is about loss. Anxiety is about some feared loss we have in the future. And most deeply at the center of it, I agree with Curt, is the loss of presence with another. It’s the loss of relationship. But there’s other sort of corollary losses: loss of our self-esteem, loss of our self-image, loss of financial security, loss—. There’s all sorts of losses that if we pay attention to the signal, if we listen to anxiety, at the heart of it is some feared loss. Right now, if any of our listeners, our audience, could even do this exercise and just like name an anxiety that they’re currently feeling, if they drill down enough, they would be able to name there’s underneath it some loss that they fear. And this is why the church actually needs to get the message right about anxiety, because a message about anxiety is really a message about loss.

So if we’re saying you cannot, you should not experience anxiety, anxiety is a problem to make go away, you are saying to the world and to yourself—this is the story that you’re telling—that you should not experience loss. That’s really what you’re saying when you say you should not experience anxiety. You should not experience it because loss is anxiety. And this is where the Christian misunderstandings of the gospel, I think, is coming to the fore because too many Christians, too many churches, essentially teach that if you’re a Christian, you should not experience loss, that God is some cosmic insurance broker in the sky that is there to insure us from ever experiencing loss. And this is the prosperity gospel or other less sort of obvious versions of this. And this is simply not true.

Actually the Christian message that the church is meant to bring to the world is not “God will save you from experiencing loss.” It’s that God will accompany you through loss. And on the other side is the hope, the ultimate hope, of resurrection. That’s what the gospel is. It’s not you will never die, in other words. And death is the loss of all losses. It’s that, no, you go through death in and with Jesus, and on the other side you participate in the resurrection promise of Jesus, that all that we lose, including all the people and relationships we lose, are restored to us one day. But that’s a very different message. It’s a totally different message to say, in Jesus, we go through loss and with the hope of restoration in the ultimate resurrection of all things, the restoration of all things. We have the hope of restoration. That’s a very different message than, yeah, just pray anxiety away and God will make sure you never lose anything valuable in the world.

And so I think the church needs to reground itself—this sounds simplistic to say—but on Jesus, on the gospel, on the one who himself experienced loss, and by the way, also experienced anxiety. And this is why we know definitively anxiety is not a sin, because Jesus himself experienced anxiety as he faced his loss. Just read all the gospel passages of the Gethsemane passage. They’re so rich as a story of anxiety. It’s Jesus facing his loss, experiencing anxiety, and by the way, what does Jesus most want and most need in his moment of deepest anxiety in Gethsemane? What does he most crave? He craves presence with his disciples. He wants his disciples to be with him. Right? And so that’s how we’re supposed to go through anxiety, is go through it with others, and then ultimately in the hope that as we go through it—not avoid it, not try to make it go away—but as we go through it, there is the hope and promise of resurrection, which is the restoration of loss.

Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Craig, and I’m going to direct this to you, Curt. And there’s a couple of questions essentially on avoiding passing on anxiety. So Craig asks, “How can a very anxious parent not pass on his anxiety or her anxiety to his or her children?” And then there’s also an anonymous viewer who asks, “What would you tell a newly married couple to consider if they want to create a household that is a haven from anxiety?”

Curt Thompson: Well, you know, I think that both of these questions are related to the question that you just asked Curtis about the church, the role of the church. And I would respond to both of these questions that you’re posing to me now, reflecting—. And there are a couple of passages that actually come to mind. And the first is the second sentence of the Bible, because when we read that the world was chaotic and without form and dark, and the Spirit of God hovered over the deep. And God spoke and brought order and purpose. That God is a God who is not afraid of distress. God is a God who is not anxious about our anxiety. God is hovering, God is present, God is with. And he enters into those spaces for the purpose of—he turns toward the anxiety—for the purpose of speaking and bringing order and purpose to those things. And then you get to John’s Gospel, the middle of the farewell discourse, and Jesus says, “I’ve said these things to you so that in me you will have peace.” Notice he doesn’t say, “Now that you have this knowledge, you will have peace. Now that you have this information, you will have—. Now that you have this correct theological understanding of the gospel, you will have peace.” [He says] “so that in me you will have peace.” Not peace like the world gives. In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer because I have overcome the world.

And to answer the question about what the church can do and what parents can do, one of the things that we would say [is], like, we are a very wordy people, and we think that telling people things and giving them information is the place that we start. And we like to remind people that the brain operates bottom to top and right to left. First I sense things and only then do I make sense of things, of what I sense. I first sense, then I make sense of what I sense. And so I need to have an embodied experience of being with someone who will with me turn toward my anxiety. So to the parents, I would say, who are the people who are in your life with whom you are exploring your anxiety so that your children won’t have to do that for you? That’s really what we’re inviting them to do. That’s how you help your children not receive your anxiety. You do the work of looking at it yourself.

The church as a whole as well. It’s not just preaching it from the pulpit. It is also about what does it mean for us to provide literally embodied contexts in which our stories are being so deeply told and told truly that we can name our anxiety and that we can be God’s presence in the chaos and hover. And be receptive to what’s happening and to say, “Tell me more about what’s making you anxious, and for you to have the experience of telling me about your anxiety and sensing that I’m not anxious about you being anxious. Let you borrow my brain,” which is what Jesus is saying to the disciples. You borrow me. This world, you got tribulation. You borrow me. You don’t borrow a philosophy. You don’t borrow just a theological concept. You’re borrowing real embodied experience in the world as a way to create beauty and goodness in the very space where chaos reigns, where you think, “Oh, nothing beautiful can come out of this.” Who would have thought that in Genesis 1:2, beauty would have come out of the chaos? But this is exactly what happens.

Curtis Chang: Cherie, if I could just add that, on a very practical note, one way to put into practice everything that Curt just said is to look for relationships and settings in your church precisely where you can do this naming experience. So actually, the precursor to my book was a small-group curriculum, a video-based small-group curriculum that I created on This is the platform that I have for distributing much of our content. It was actually started as a small-group course, video-based, small-group course, and it’s still there. But what we realized is that it’s actually most helpful sometimes for the small group leader or for the pastor to absorb this content first. And so that’s actually why I wrote the book, was to actually get these ideas out to people first and then they can decide, “Oh, I think I’d like my small group to go through something like this.” And then we actually have a course on You can go on to, anybody can sign up and take that course. But I actually recommend people to read the book first to get the concepts and decide, “Yeah, is my small group ready for something like this? Is my small group ready to have a naming conversation where we actually name the anxiety in each other’s lives so that we can actually be present with each other in it?” So I encourage folks at a very practical level, if they want to bring this into their community, to go through this process of read the book and then come to to see if that small-group course could be something that your own small group could go through.

Cherie Harder: So I’m seeing a bunch of questions basically wrestling with the biblical admonition to be anxious for nothing. And so I wanted to read a few of them out to you. And, Curt, maybe I’ll toss this to you first. Michael asked about the fact that, he says when he was a resident physician, a favorite attending used to say, regarding anxiety, “You have to have a certain amount or you just slide right out of your chair. To what degree should we be anxious and why, without violating the admonition to be anxious for nothing?” Sarah Cloakley asks, “Could you expand on what you’ve said in relation to Paul’s crucial teaching about do not be anxious about [any]thing. Something important seems to be captured here. My fear is that we might, in our effort to pray anxiety away, be confused about his teaching and not fully embody that.” And then Kevin Offner asks, “It seems both Jesus and the apostle Paul are fairly direct in telling people, ‘Don’t be anxious.’ Is it sometimes appropriate, out of love, to simply tell one another, ‘Don’t be anxious.’ I realize we all need empathy, encouragement, and coming alongside one another. But are there ever times lovingly just to tell one another, ‘stop being anxious’?” So a lot of questions about what that means, that biblical injunction, and how it plays out. Curt, maybe we can start with you.

Curt Thompson: Invoking the Bob Newhart form of therapy: “Just stop it. Just stop it.” Well, I think, again, I think I’d like to acknowledge that I would want us to read the texts in the context in which they were written. We read these texts through a modernist perspective, through a logical linear lens that says, “well, [it says] don’t be anxious, therefore, I’m not supposed to be that,” as opposed to recognizing that it’s not so much a matter of like, oh, I don’t be that or I don’t be that ever, it is a matter of, when I sense it, am I going to sit in this? Am I going to sit in this anxiety? Am I going to continue to allow the signal to become the problem, to become my identity? Or any time I sense it, what am I going to do? What’s going to be my choice in this moment? Remember, it’s a signal. Am I then going to choose to move toward it and respond appropriately in such a way that I’m actually becoming more integrated, more whole, more like Jesus, because I’m paying attention to what the signal is pointing me toward, or am I simply going to ignore it because I’m reading the text as some instruction that says, “Stop that. Don’t ever do that.” As if Paul would not, you know— In all of his distress, right, he talks about “when I have plenty and want,” all these things. “Oh, Paul, I thought you said that you weren’t supposed to be under duress or in distress. Like, what gives?”

I think there’s this question of like, look, anxiety is a signal. It is part of who we are. The question is how do we respond? Do I respond to it as an invitation, as Curtis has been talking about? Do I respond to it as an invitation? This is my inbuilt system, my God-given system. It is inviting me to be curious about the fact something else is going on here. And the moment that I start to explore the something else, my anxiety reduces because now I’m actually taking anxious on the very— like, so I’m responding to the signal.

So I think it has a lot to do with how we read the text and assume that the writer is saying, “Don’t ever let your neurophysiological system behave the way it was created to behave.” That’s not what the text is saying. The text is saying every time you encounter this, you have a choice of being overwhelmed by it and then giving in to it and becoming it—cognitively, behaviorally, physiologically—or being curious and choosing what is the signal telling me and how can I respond? What is Jesus, what is the Spirit trying to get my attention about here? And how can I act on that?

Curtis Chang: Cherie, let me just jump in here because I get this all the time. And this is why on the 12th page of my book, I deal with Philippians 4:6 because it is the “clobber verse,” that I call it. It’s what Christians wield as “you shouldn’t be anxious!” And so for those who are interested in an in-depth exegesis of Philippians 4:6, I encourage you to read the book. Two quick points I’ll make for free here—you don’t have to buy the book to get this—is, first of all, Philippians 4:6 does not say, “Hey, don’t be anxious, and if you do these things, you will never feel anxious again.” What Philippians 4 says is “don’t be anxious” and, really, if you want to exegete that, [it’s] don’t actually, like, stew in your anxiety, but in everything, prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God— and here’s the promise—”and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” You’ll guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. That’s not the same thing as “and then you’ll never feel anxious again.” Because, actually, if we look at what it means to have our hearts guarded in Christ Jesus, we see in somebody, in Jesus, somebody who experienced anxiety. So it can’t be that actually this means all anxiety goes away. There’s something else going on in Philippians 4:6 that is not just a a Bob Newhart injunction of “just stop it.”

And then if you’re really doubtful, if you really think, “No, I still think anxiety is a sin here,” in Philippians just go a few paragraphs earlier in Paul in Philippians. So 4:6 is that “do not be anxious”; Philippians 2:28 Paul says—he’s talking about his concern about Epaphroditus—he says, “So make sure you send him to me again so that my own anxieties will be laid to rest.” So Paul has just said a few paragraphs earlier, “I’m really anxious right now about my friend Epaphroditus.” It would be very odd having just confessed his own anxieties so clearly to then turn around and say, “Anxiety is a sin, just stop it.” So there’s something— So I’ll just say that to invite people to look at anxiety the way Paul does as something much more interesting and invitational than just a simple “stop it; don’t feel this.”

Curt Thompson: Well, and I just, to follow up on that, I just want to say that whole notion, Cherie, of someone saying “please just stop” or preaching from the pulpit or saying to someone, “don’t do that,” what it does even interpersonally and neurobiologically is that if you’re the anxious party and I say, “No, you don’t need to be; don’t be anxious,” I now put you at arm’s length from me. I further isolate you as the one with the problem. I don’t have the problem. I’m telling you, “don’t have the problem.” And what I’m doing is I’m actually ramping up the very signal that you’re trying to reduce, but I’m doing it by my very action. For me to say instead, “Wow. Tell me more about what your anxiety is. Tell me more about that,” I am making a bid for connection. I want to hear more, not less, about your anxiety. And in so doing, we get to, as we’ve said, we get to the story that is underneath this that we are telling ourselves, out of which my anxiety is emerging. And if you then get to the point where you are less isolated because others are more curious and being with you—again, here’s Genesis 1:2: “and God was with the chaos.” God is with us. That with-ness presence in and of itself becomes the primary load-bearing effort, if you will, at reducing our anxiety in the first place. So again, another reason why what our embodied material world experience is, is so reflected in this beautiful exegesis that Curtis has just shared with us.

Cherie Harder: Curt and Curtis, this has been great. Just really fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us. And in just a moment, I’m going to give Curtis and Curt the last word. But before that, a few things to share with you. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around a feedback form. We really encourage you to take advantage of that. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions whenever we can to make these programs ever more valuable. And as a small token of appreciation for your time and thoughtfulness in filling that out, we will send anyone who does a link to a free download of a Trinity Forum Reading, so we encourage you to take advantage of that opportunity.

In addition, we’ll be sending around an email tomorrow with a video link of today’s edited Online Conversation, along with a bunch of different recommended resources and readings to go a little bit further. Some of the readings that we would recommend include Augustine’s “Confessions,” our “Brave New World” Reading, “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day, “Wrestling with God” by Simone Weil, and many others. And we encourage you to share today’s Online Conversation with your friends and family. Start a conversation about what has been said here today. We hope that these discussions will be helpful not only in real time, but for some time afterwards as well.

In addition, we’d love to invite all of you watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help further Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. There are many benefits to being a Trinity Forum Society member, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a very special incentive for those of you who join the Trinity Forum Society or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Curtis Chang’s book, The Anxiety Opportunity, so we hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation and become part of the society that furthers Christian thought in the public square.

There’s a bunch of activities coming up that we want to let you know about. Next month, we’ll be hosting a number of Online Conversations, including one with Felicia Wu Song on social media and Danny Carroll on caring for refugees. Perhaps others to come as well. Stay tuned on that. And also wanted to let you know about our most recent podcast series on “Living Wisely and Well,” the most recent podcast released with our guest here today, Curt Thompson. And our new one coming up, released on Tuesday, is “Strength in the Second Half” with Arthur Brooks.

Finally, as promised, I wanted to provide the last word to Curtis and Curt. Curtis?

Curtis Chang: Well, I’m going to take a last shameless plug and then a last word. So here’s the last shameless plug. I think that we evaded a little bit about why anxiety is rising so much. And I think there is one factor, which is the world is sending us anxious signals. The world is actually sending us and we need to actually pay attention to those signals and make sense of it. So I actually want to invite listeners, if the particular anxiety they are feeling is about what’s happening in the world, to consider joining a conversation that we’re having every week on the Good Faith podcast where we’re trying to make sense of the world. We’re trying to actually look at the world and make sense of it. Because I think until we do that, we will be vulnerable to the anxiety that the world sends us. So invite listeners, the audience, to check out the Good Faith podcast.

And then in terms of the last word that is actually a word is very simple—is that, if you’re feeling anxious right now and you’re like, this just feels like, why is this happening to me? I just want to give a personal word that there really is an opportunity for you. I, in the depths of my anxiety myself, when I was suffering from a breakdown as a pastor, I just felt utterly abandoned by God, by others, and abandoned of hope. And that was probably the most hopeless moment in my life that I remember was when I was in the depths of that anxious breakdown. And yet here I am 15 years later, and I’m with Curt Thompson and you and talking to 2,500 people about anxiety and offering what I believe is a redemptive opportunity here. Let my example be just a little sign of hope that really deep redemption is possible. Not only possible is promised by God. That promise is true in Scripture. I am a living embodiment of that, and I invite you to lean into that opportunity.

Cherie Harder: Curt?

Curt Thompson: I would say—well, first of all, I’m just so grateful to have had the chance to be with you again, Cherie, and with Curtis. And I just want to say to all of our listeners that Jesus is not worried. And I don’t say that flippantly. I say that he’s not worried because he’s too busy working on our behalf. And his longing is for us to have embodied connection with others, to remind us that he and we can be present and hover with each other, looking for those places where our anxiety rests in order for that to become the very space where beauty and goodness can be created and not where our lives will become catastrophic.

Cherie Harder: Curt and Curtis, thank you so much. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.