By Heidi Goehmann
Life was pretty good. I was in the kitchen fixing dinner. There was a pot of goodness boiling on one burner and a pan of goodness sautéing on another. My daughter was reciting her memory work to me. My two littlest children were playing with a racecar track on the dining room floor nearby, and my eldest son was holding on to my wrist to let me know he had something to say. It was all good…until someone turned on the music. The theme track of Star Wars barrels into the anxiety already bubbling up!
I forgot to mention that it was 4:30pm.
What I just described is the impact of the sensory system on anxiety. Anxiety is not just a mental health experience. It can be a very real physical conundrum. Folks often tell people that something is “getting on our nerves” or we talk about “frayed nerves.” These are real things, all related to our sympathetic nervous system. (I won’t bore you with all the neurological details, but if you’d like to know more, I’ll happily give you some fun research articles to peruse.)
What you need to know is that our sensory systems and our anxiety are intimately connected. Take your average day with its normal life stresses: running people around, trying to help my husband organize a new church program, someone who needs to be visited on my to do list. Then enter 4:30pm. In the above scenario, I can deal with the stress of making dinner and the sound of boiling pots and sizzling pans. I can even add in my daughter’s sweet voice reciting the Catechism, and my son’s light touch on my forearm. Add in the zooming racecars and I’m about at the top of my game. All hands are on deck in my nervous system for managing life in general and it’s all about the bubble over. Someone turns the music on, and by the time my husband walks in the door five minutes later, I’m a mess. Things go south quickly. My chest is tight. My shoulders feel heavy. I am desperate to unload my anxiety burden.
Can you visualize the anxiety stacking up through each individual sensory thing?
- The swirling thoughts – so much to do, so little time. This is the part we usually label as anxiety.
- It’s 4:30pm – do you ever get hangry? The perfect marriage of hungry, tired, and a bit cranky?
- The noise – noise has a huge presence in our life, whether it’s the pleasant noise of children playing or the noise of tragic violence on the media, any of it will impact our anxiety because our body takes in the information and stores it, not just as thoughts and memories, but “on our nerves” as sensory reminders.
- The smell – dinner cooking, another meal, or a bad trash can. These can impact our systems. The argument with our husband may have a little more to do with the smell of our trash can than we think.
I think you get the idea. Sensory awareness can go a long way in alleviating our anxiety.
More importantly, Jesus always knows what He is talking about. It sounds silly or even trite, but it’s true and sometimes we need a reminder. In the Bible, He gives us an answer to an overwhelmed sensory system.
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Mark 6:31 (NIV)
We need a moment. We need a moment with Him. We need to be by ourselves. We need a quiet place. Do you have a quiet time in your day for meeting with him? Is there a refuge spot in your home that’s a restful place to take a breather from life and it’s troubles? God invites us to rest, even if it’s just for a breath. We have a giant cushy chair in our living room. When the day is long and the anxiety builds, I sit there quietly, even if for 5 minutes. I ask all the wonderfully loud, small people to go outside and run around the house 10 times. I sit and imagine the chair as Jesus’s arms around me. I flip through a few of my Scripture cards, and pray “Lord, it’s loud. Lord, I’m tired. Lord, that smells weird. Lord, help.” I take a deep breath. Then, I get up and go back to life.
I’m not asking you to look like me. But what I’m hoping you can gain from this is a little insight into your own experience of anxiety. How do sights, smells, sounds, and touches affect you? What thoughts and to-do’s pile up and meet with those nerve-fraying senses to create the perfect storm? Hand it to Him. Let Him bring you quiet, even if it’s simply for a breath. His grace invites us to unload it on him, literally unpack every little thing in prayer with Him, and lay it at the cross.
The ESV translation actually uses the seemingly more accurate translation of the Greek for quiet – desolate. A deserted place. A place all by ourselves. Just me and Him. As impossible as this sounds, He will help us find it.
He created us so intricately! I just love finding out all the ways in which we are knit together and made whole in and through Him. Let Him give you a moment of healing, a moment of calm. He is our quiet place.