I grew up in a Christian home, moving from reformed churches to non-denominational churches in my youth. I chose a charismatic/Spirit-filled church to attend for many years as an adult. During my college years, my theology changed from being unexamined/whatever my church said to a more middle of the road approach on the theological spectrum. Several traumatic events happened (one right after another, from 2016 – 2017), and they sparked a move towards deconstruction, feeling betrayed by bad theology, and rediscovering who I am and who God is and how we might connect. I am still very much in this process.
I refer to “the church” many times in this article. I may be referring to little c church — local churches I was involved in or capital C church, the global community of Christians. Not all churches are alike, so most of what I say will be a broad generalization based on my personal experience in several different kinds of evangelical churches in the United States.
The Church and Mental Health: A New Perspective on Anxiety
by Corrie Mannion
Panicking in Illinois
We boarded the plane and found a seat together towards the rear, near where the stewardesses were bustling about, preparing for take-off. We were leaving Chicago after a complicated trip to visit my family. As the noise around me increased and the sides of the plane seemed to close in, I felt my heart begin to race. My stomach turned over and I felt like I might throw up. My head felt fuzzy, confused — what was happening? At first, I told myself everything was fine, but I was scared I would need to throw up and it didn’t seem like a good time to force my way to the bathroom. Was I even allowed to stand up right now?
I lowered my head into my hands, stared at my lap, and tried to slow my breathing. My husband had realized something was wrong and I felt the pressure of his hand on my back. I raised my head, and with the last bit of self-control I had before I knew I would burst into tears, I asked a passing stewardess for Dramamine. She rolled her eyes but came back with a small pill in foil and handed it to me without a glance. I noticed it was expired but I didn’t care. I swallowed a quick sip of water and hoped that it would help.
And then I started sobbing as a wave of fear and dread washed over me. I wanted to get the hell off this plane, but my fear was tightly bound behind a cage of “don’t make a fuss” and “you’re overreacting” and “this is not the time to ask for help.”
I cried into my hands, hoping that no one could hear me over the roar of the engines. I tried to explain to my husband but I didn’t really know what was happening. He bent his head and prayed in my ear, asking God to be with me and to bring me peace. As he pulled away, leaving his hand on my back, I silently begged God, asking if he would stand against this demonic attack and rescue me. I had not felt desperation like this in a long time.
My body was shaking from deep inside, vibrating with adrenaline, fear, and anxiety. Why was this happening to me?
The plane took off while I continued shaking and crying in despair, but eventually, my body settled into an uneasy truce. I was not okay, but I wasn’t about to explode out of my skin either. I don’t remember the rest of the plane ride, but something had changed inside of me….
* * *
It took me a few years to identify what had happened to me on the plane as a panic attack. I had had a few panic attacks when I was younger, but nothing like what I felt on the plane. At the time of that trip, my husband and I were attending a church that put a priority on sensing what was happening spiritually, and I had attributed that awful experience on the plane to something dark and evil coming over me. It never occurred to me to connect it to a panic attack or a physiological event brought on by trauma.
But I don’t remember feeling a relief from God’s hand on the plane either. It stuck out as an incongruent experience. As a Christian, I believed that when I needed something, I could pray, and God would hear me and act. To be sitting on a plane and suddenly be blindsided by such a physically and emotionally intense experience seemed like the perfect time to pray and receive help.
One could argue my husband was the hands of Christ in that moment — he rubbed my back and prayed for me. It did help to have him close. But I felt very much alone in my terror. It was as if God was very far away and instead I was being assaulted by some evil that He allowed.
Panicking in Virginia
At the charismatic church I attended as an adult, I served on the prayer team for both the main service and the young adult group. I was also on the ministry team at my college for various events. I was excited to serve in this way and my compassionate heart was a good fit for it. At the time, I also felt I had received a gift of healing and could sometimes operate prophetically (two distinct gifts of the Spirit).
One night at church, a friend from college came to me with tears streaming down her face. I don’t remember what she wanted prayer for, but as soon as I started praying, she began having a panic attack. Trouble breathing, feeling faint (we grabbed her a chair to sit down in and offered her some water), and issues speaking clearly about what she was feeling and what she needed.
Again, I interpreted this as a spiritual attack. Perhaps Satan didn’t want me praying for her, perhaps she was being overwhelmed by evil….the list of spiritual possibilities was long. I waited, giving her some time to catch her breath, and the intensity of her panic soon lessened. But my perspective was not a trained one. I do not know if she remembers that night, nor do I know if she knew it was a panic attack. I can only hope she felt safe and loved.
Realizing I Was Part of the Problem
I cringe at what I have just written. It is embarrassing. But I just didn’t know — because NO ONE, not a single person in the church or at college, told me someone might have a panic attack while receiving prayer.
I had received training for my role and provided training to others on prayer teams. Someone may cry, they may confess a secret, they may feel shame or guilt or fear. They may experience relief, peace, or joy. They may feel the Holy Spirit so strongly they need to sit or lie down. They may even suddenly shake or jerk or fall down – this is to be expected. We had “catchers” present – people who kept an eye on those receiving prayer and could gently guide them to the ground if they were overtaken by the Spirit. I was proud of the way in which I had been taught to minister. My goal was to make people feel safe, heard, loved.
And yet…..no matter what reaction someone would have to prayer, it was to be purely considered as SPIRITUAL. Yes, they could feel intense feelings in their mind or body, but it was spiritual. If someone did feel panic or anxiety, it was a spiritual attack. Satan was trying to prevent them from receiving healing, peace, or comfort. The church I went to (though this was kept as a more low key belief) also believed that evil spirits would be present during these times – either inside the person or near them. If the evil spirits were going to be cast out, they would protest, and the person may feel that clash.
As I write this, I have a battle inside of me. And it is the constant refrain of my deconstruction. I cannot deny the powerful spiritual experiences that I have had. I have seen people healed by my prayers and the prayers of others. I have cried and held people while they were vulnerable and felt new hope wash over them. I had nerve damage in my knees that was healed during a conference and to this day my knees are healthy and strong. I still believe that God exists, that God interacts with us and our physical world, and that spiritual things are real. In fact, the ONLY reason why I still believe in God and have not completely given up on the beliefs of my childhood is because I cannot deny the evidence of the literal healing of the damage done to my knees. It is a story for another day.
But the other side of the battle is my anger and sheer disbelief at how the church mishandles mental health and mental illness. Why is mental health not preached about? Why is mental illness not better understood in the church? Why are pastors, teachers, small group leaders, prayer team members, and other facilitators in the church so woefully unequipped to deal with mental illness? Where are the lines between spiritual and psychological?
How did I come to understand this better?
I went to therapy. To non-Christian, licensed, educated and properly trained, actual psychologists. I started reading about mental health, following informational Facebook and Instagram accounts, and practicing what I was learning in therapy. I started sharing how I really felt instead of keeping it locked inside. I practiced finding my voice. I allowed myself to explore, to feel, to go outside the boundaries of what had been preached at me for so long.
My cry to God on the plane was not answered until a few years later. I realized, during a therapy session, that the visit to my family was extremely triggering of my childhood trauma. Despite feeling “fine” on the way to the airport and glad to be leaving, those triggers finally rose to the surface and culminated in a panic attack. I continued to have panic attacks while flying and eventually quit wanting to fly, ever. I chose one therapist who specializes in EMDR and worked through my issues with airports, traveling, and plane rides. I had my first successful plane ride without a panic attack this summer, after several years of dreading trips.
Why Is This Happening?
Why does the Church that I know have such little regard for mental health?
Why is mental health not talked about more in church?
What I have noticed is:
-Churches teach a duality between body and spirit. The body = bad, the spirit = good. Look up Gnosticism, it is an ancient heresy that has been around for a long time.
-Churches teach a very narrow definition of what it means to be a good Christian, what it means to follow God, and what Christians should and should not do.
-Church leaders do not pursue education in mental illness and mental health, while claiming to be able to be all things to all people for all problems.
-Church leaders who are not educated in mental health offer inaccurate information to people who ask them for help.
-Pastors constantly preach messages of “do better, be different, work harder.” This is damaging to those who are already struggling with mental illness.
-Verses are weaponized against Christians to shame them, control them, and strike fear in their hearts if they don’t……..(you fill in the blank).
-Christians are taught that they are morally and spiritually superior to those around them, thus further causing confusion when they struggle with the same problems that non-Christians do.
-Christians are taught to be suspicious of their emotions and their experience. We are supposed to police ourselves constantly, putting away any evil, unkind, bad thought. This further complicates and intensifies our depression and anxiety.
-Christians are told to stay inside the church for their needs, even explicitly instructed to NOT go to therapy or consider medication. They are also often warned NOT to see any therapist of a different faith or belief system. This limits Christians from receiving the help they are brave enough to ask for in the first place. Christians are then shamed for seeking therapy, going on medication for mental illness, and for generally struggling.
-Churches circle the wagons around those already in power, while marginalizing those who are in need. #ChurchToo.
I don’t usually find myself with any “package with a bow on top” type conclusion when I think or talk about this topic. I feel exhausted, still sad for those in the church who have not found the help they need, and wondering what the future may hold.
However, I do understand my own mental health much better now. I have been able to identify unhealthy patterns, allow myself to heal from bad theology, and recover from my panic attacks. My anxiety has moved from being a constant low grade thrum to a bodily experience in certain moments. I now have resources to continue improving my mental health. I can avoid sinking down into depression and continue to better understand my anxiety. I had important people in my life encourage me to take initiative, be brave, and ask for help.
If you don’t have that, let me be the one to say:
The church may have failed you. You may be hurting and in a dark place. Going to someone you respect may have made you feel worse. You may feel worse after a church service. That happens. Sometimes you need to go outside the church for what you need. It is not heretical, blasphemous, or damaging to do so. In fact, you may discover the truth, healing, and peace that you have been longing for. You never know until you try.
Resources to find a therapist:
*I used both those sites to find my therapists.
Some music that has been healing to me in this process:
Let It Go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsPq9mzFNGY
My Church: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouWQ25O-Mcg
It’s Gonna Be Okay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjF9IqvXDjY
You and Me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzTYO63OC_0
Simple Gospel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRQIa2fCkhQ
Met By Love: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HX2_LGQc7ZE
Let It Happen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvsAV-MgGao
Corrie Mannion is an equine barefoot trimmer, writer, and ever gleeful feminist residing in the Greater Seattle area with her husband, foxy dog, and twin kitties. She received her Bachelor’s in Biblical and Theological Studies from Regent University in 2013. She spends her days working with horses and their owners, has a lot of time to think in the car, and revels in stunning Washington nature on Sundays.
You can contact Corrie here