The Antidote to Anxiety: As Taught by Jesus and Explained by Positive Psychology

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Have you ever had a phrase or a word pop into your mind over and over again and have no idea where it came from?

For years now--I can’t actually remember the exact time that it started--I’ve had the phrase:

“Don’t be afraid. Just be grateful.”

come into my mind about a million times while I was just going about my daily tasks.

I’d be going into the pantry to get something while packing my kids’ lunchboxes and, “Don’t be afraid. Just be grateful.” would pop into my head.

I’d be changing out the laundry and...Don’t be afraid. Just be grateful.

I’d be putting on my makeup to go out somewhere and...Don’t be afraid. Just be grateful.

Wait a second, I’m Not Afraid

My initial response when it first started happening was to wonder where the phrase even came from. Was it some amalgamation of something I’d read or studied during my prayer time? I honestly can’t be sure.

I’ve read somewhere that some form of “Do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible--once for each day of the year. So clearly, I’ve been exposed to that particular phrase quite often, as you probably have been too.

But the second part always baffled me. What does being grateful have to do with being afraid?

And furthermore, I was hardly feeling what we would typically define as “fear” when the phrase would come to me.

I mean, sure, it was usually when I was in a bit of a time crunch, or rushing to get something done, or feeling a little nervous about a social situation that I was preparing for, or...wait.

I wasn’t feeling “fear” in the sense that I was about to be chased by a tiger or have to jump out of an airplane (I’ve only done one of those things in real life, btw, and I was definitely feeling real fear then).

But what I was feeling was the standard, run-of-the-mill, low-level anxiety that characterizes much of our modern lives.

We aren’t (typically) in life or death situations, but our sympathetic nervous system--that “fight or flight” response--can still be triggered by any number of situations that we face in a given day.

Even just the pressure of warding off constant kid-snack demands while trying to make dinner can be stressful. Just trying to find the other shoe before you’re late for Mass can be stressful. Trying to write that one email while everyone in the office decides they need to come by to tell you all their problems guessed it, stressful.

You’re probably well aware of all the damaging effects that chronic stress has on your health, both physically and mentally (if you’re not, here’s the cliff notes version: It’s bad for you). But what can you do about it?

What Jesus Said about Fear

After some quick research on Google, I counted at least 22 instances in the Gospels where Jesus says some form of “Don’t be afraid.”

Instead of listing all of them here, I’m just going to choose one of them to highlight from Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” ~Jesus (John 14:27)

Jesus explicitly tells us not to let our hearts be troubled or afraid...which means that we can do something about fear and anxiety. After all, God is perfectly just and would not command us to do something that is impossible for us.

Of course, what may be completely impossible for us to do alone is certainly possible for us to do with God’s help.

What’s Faith Got to do With it?

One trend that starts to emerge as you read the Bible (thank you Fr. Mike Schmitz and The Bible in a Year Podcast ;) is that when God tells someone not to be afraid, he usually reminds them of who He is.

So it’s not just: “Don’t be afraid because I said so.” Rather it’s more like,

“Don’t be afraid, because I’m God and I can do anything...and I’ve got you.”

When we open ourselves up to the reality that God is a loving Father, that even the hairs on our heads are numbered, that he sees us, and knows us, and loves us intimately--well, then we can start to live and move and have our being in Him. We start to realize that we can always be connected to Him.

But how is the peace that Jesus offers us different from the way that the world gives us stuff?

How Gift Giving Works

Normally, i.e. “in the world”, when you get a gift, someone just gives it to you and you open it and then admire it (or pretend to…) and the gift has been given and it's over. (And then you say thank-you...manners).

But when God gives us gifts, it’s more like the rain falling (on both good and bad alike). He is constantly showering us with “gifts” in the form of every good thing that you can possibly imagine.

But unlike in the example of worldly gift-giving, it may not be as clear who the gift is from. God rarely uses gift labels.

And what that means is that it’s really easy for us to miss who we’re supposed to be saying “thank-you” to.

Another interesting feature of God’s gifts (aka graces) is that you sometimes need some kind of a vessel to keep them in. After all, the rain can either get absorbed in the ground or be collected in barrels to be used for something else.

Your gratitude is the vessel.

Gratitude is what will allow you to 1) Recognize that you’ve been given a gift from God and 2) Savor the gift and hold it in your heart.

And because God is an unusual gift-giver, a third thing often happens: The gift grows when you’re grateful for it.

It’s like this:

God gives you a deep sense of consolation. You recognize said consolation and say, “Wow, God, thank you for this deep peace.” God replies, “I’m so glad you like it! Here are heaps more. Btw, I love you.”

I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea…

But What does Gratitude Really Have to do with Fear?

I was sitting in a virtual conference over the weekend when something that the presenter said finally put that mysterious phrase that’s been coming into my mind (remember? "Don't be afraid. Just be grateful") into context.

He was talking about what Positive Psychology teaches us about gratitude and how it changes the brain. (FYI, Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and an applied approach to optimal of my favorite subjects ;)

This is what I heard that made me sit up straighter and pay attention:

“Gratitude and anxiety are binary emotions in the brain. It’s impossible for the brain to feel both grateful and anxious at the same time.” ~Danny Iny

Eureka! Yes! Of course, gratitude is the antidote to anxiety! Hasn’t God been telling me that for years?

Now it makes sense. Jesus commands us to not be afraid...and then he tells us how we can “hack” our own brains to actually do what he commands.

The Practical Application

I could go on and on about gratitude and all the myriad benefits of a grateful heart on all aspects of your health--but that’s a blog post for another time!

For now, I’d rather leave you with some practical ways that you can use this knowledge to help ease your own anxiety today:

  • Ask yourself the question, “What am I grateful for?” Even if you can’t come up with an answer right away, just asking the question changes your headspace and will help you start to feel less anxious.

  • Reframe what you’re anxious about into something you’re grateful for. For instance, if you’re feeling frazzled about getting out the door on time, try instead to choose to be grateful that you have somewhere to go (remember 2020?)

  • Start your times of prayer by thanking God for his many blessings--and be specific. As I learned this year from Fr. Mike Schmitz, “Praise goes first.” So try to open your times of prayer with heartfelt gratitude.

Now when I hear the phrase, “Don’t be afraid. Just be grateful” (which I still almost invariably do, at least a few times a day) instead of responding, “I’m not afraid!”

I try to respond:

“Yes Lord, I am grateful.”
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