Do your nerves every do a number on you? Finances, relationships, kids, marriage, work — anything, really, can set them off. Your heart races, your stomach turns on you, your chest tightens, and it’s not just your body that seems in full mutiny — your mind races to places you never want to go. It’s your nervous system on overdrive. Did Jesus ever get this nervous? Is there a secret to winning the war with your nerves?
Jesus and Anxiety
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:33).
Jesus was facing his inevitable death on a Roman execution rack. A death as brutal and painful as the mind of man could devise. The reality of the horror of it hit him like a ton of bricks.
He went to his safe place — an olive tree grove on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. Inside the tangle of trees was a garden. There, Jesus threw himself to the ground and pleaded with God. He wrestled with his destiny. Sweat was pouring off his face.
It sounds like Jesus was dealing with a bit of anxiety! Can you relate?
Seven Ways to Calm a Crazy Nervous System
I don’t mean to insinuate that anything I have experienced compares to what Jesus went through that night — it doesn’t. But, that’s the point. Jesus experienced every feeling I’ve experienced, and even worse. What can I learn from him about calming my nerves?
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it” (John 18:1).
The threat was all around him. He knew that one of his own had betrayed him and that his enemies were closing in on him. His nerves were going crazy. So, he got away from the source of his anxiety — even if it was just for a little while.
His flight to the garden — his favorite hiding place — gave him some breathing room.
It’s important to breathe.
According to Therese Borchard, associate editor at Psych Central and author of The Pocket Therapist, deep breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (PSN), which is responsible for everything that happens in your body when you are at rest. It’s the opposite of your sympathetic nervous system, which basically stimulates your body’s fight-or-flight response.
Out of all the automatic functions of your body only your breath can be controlled voluntarily. Richard P. Brown, M.D., and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., in their book, The Healing Power of the Breath, write, “By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain.”
Jesus regularly took time away from the press of life to breathe (Matt. 2:22; 4:4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21; Mark 3:7; Luke 5:16; 9:10; John 6:15; 11:54).
So should you!
2. Talk it Out, or Cry it Out.
‘Abba,Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.'” (Mark 14:36).
Jesus was struggling. He knew it. And he knew that he had to talk about it. He had to let his emotions out. He had to have a good cry. And for that he needed two things — other human beings to cry with him, and his heavenly Father to wipe away his tears.
He drew his closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) even closer (Mark 14:33), and poured out his heart to God. I’m convinced that the sweat pouring from his face was mixed with a healthy amount of tears.
Jesus had a good cry. Crying is great therapy. It washes out tired eyes, cleanses the soul, showers the heart, and washes away the pain. So, go ahead — have a good, long cry — it’s good for you. And you almost always feel much calmer after its over.
3. Find a Support Group.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.'” (Matt. 26:37-38).
When Jesus was struggling with his nerves he needed his friends close by.
Jesus was definitely a people person. He attracted thousands to his message. His genius was building community. The community he built numbered about 120 at his death — and from those original disciples, Jesus changed the world.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus’ friends were everything to him. And when he needed support he didn’t hesitate to ask.
4. Get Physical.
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him” (Luke 22:39).
The steep walk up the Mount of Olives was a part of Jesus’ routine. Don’t miss the fact that when things were getting hairy Jesus took a walk. This was a regular habit for him.
When the Pharisees were pressing in, he climbed a mountain (Matt. 17:1). When the crowds were wearing him out he sailed across the lake (Matt. 14:13). When life got too crazy, he took a journey to a foreign land, walking about a hundred miles over mountains and across rivers, to do so (Matt. 15:21).
You get the point. When trouble hit, Jesus got physical.
The physical benefits of exercise—improving physical condition and fighting disease—have long been established, and physicians always encourage staying physically active. Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress.
When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. So it stands to reason that if your body feels better, so does your mind.
Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
So, when you’re feeling anxious — get physical!
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30).
This is the only time the Jesus story records Jesus singing. And it was in the moment when he was most stressed. He turned to music.
When I’m studying or writing a sermon — it’s Chopin or Rachmaninoff. When I’m stressed, I get in my car and drive down the freeway singing as loud as I can to the Eagles or Queen or Pink Floyd (I know, I’m showing my age, and by the way — watch your speed limit and don’t close your eyes).
In a recent study, “Sing Your Heart Out: Community Singing as Part of Mental Health Recovery,” published in the journal Medical Humanities, researches discovered that there was a strong link between singing in a community choir and improved emotional health.
For this study, Tom Shakespeare and Alice Whieldon from the University of East Anglia (UEA) Norwich Medical School in the UK worked with an organization called Sing Your Heart Out. SYHO is a grassroots initiative based in Norfolk, England that conducts popular weekly singing workshops and welcomes people suffering from mental health issues.
The results of their study are telling. Their final conclusion was that people from all walks of life who participated in a community singing group maintained or improved their mental health.
The researchers speculate that the combination of singing and socializing was key to optimizing mental health because it promoted ongoing feelings of belonging and overall well-being.
So, whatever music genre does it for you — start singing it! It is really good for the soul … and the nerves.
6. Set a Time Limit.
Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Matt. 26:45b-46).
Jesus spent the latter part of the evening on the mount of Olives in anguish, pleading with God. His prayer always ended with, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
God answered him with flickering torches rising up the hill. Jesus saw the posse coming for him and he said, “Enough — my time of stressing out is over — now is the time to meet my destiny.”
It may sound strange, but Jesus seemed to allow a certain amount of time for wigging out.
There is a time to get it all out — to fret and worry and plead with God — don’t feel bad about that — allow yourself that time — it’s healthy.
But, set a limit.
At some point, it’s time to get on with your life. It’s time to wipe away the tears and get to work.
7. Refocus on Your Life Purpose.
‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22:42-43).
Jesus didn’t want to die on the cross. It was a horrifying death, beyond imagination. However, as horrifying a prospect as crucifixion was, even more horrifying to Jesus was the thought of betraying the will of his heavenly Father.
Jesus kept his ultimate life purpose in front of him and lived his life with a laser focus on the end goal — the salvation of the world. His prayer was not an attempt to thwart that end goal — it simply asked, “Is this the only way to accomplish the goal?”
Stress and emotional angst will come and go — the constant in your life has to be your life purpose.
Your life purpose should be the thing that brings harmony to your mind, body, and soul. When you slowly refocus on that purpose, your nervous system will naturally align with it.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was when Jesus prayed “not my will but your will be done,” that God sent his angels to give Jesus strength (Luke 22:44).
God will do the same for you!