Yes, Church Anxiety is a Thing and I Have It
EASTER SUNDAY: THE BIG DAY
This past Sunday, after more than a year of being home on Sunday mornings, I pulled a dress and some heels out of my closet and escorted my family to church. And let me tell you, I was kind of an anxious mess.
Let me start off by saying that I attend The Refuge Christian Church and it's like a big family. I adore the pastor, the pastor's wife, and I know or am friends with most of the congregation. I also volunteer at church in the marketing/media department. Last spring, when things went totally virtual I was all about helping out! And then when things resumed and someone needed to stay on to moderate the comments and post song lyrics to the live videos, I was all in. As an immune-compromised individual, I needed to stay out of crowds and I felt good about being able to help out while staying healthy at home.
But after a year, I knew I needed to get my daughter back in the building to help her continue her spiritual growth. An eight-year-old wasn't as keen on the online church as I was. Easter marked two weeks after my first vaccine so I made a plan to attend the early service, wear my N95, and then we'd sit in a corner far away from everyone else. I had a plan but I still had to actually convince myself to go.
I LIKE THE PEOPLE AT MY CHURCH - SO WHY IS GOING SO HARD FOR ME?
By nature, I'm a true introvert. I was one of those weirdos who LOVED working at home. I was like a machine and the silence and alone-time were glorious. The thought of going back "into the world" wasn't super appealing to me and if we are being honest, going to church was at the top of the list. I did NOT look forward to the battle of getting my ADHD daughter to get ready ONE MORE DAY OF THE WEEK. Then there's the parking and trying to wrangle all of my crap into my bag. It's one hour of my life and I'm toting in snacks, water, gum, The Holy Bible, a pen, my phone, my keys, my kid, my kid's toys... AND FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE DON'T FORGET TO TURN OFF THE PHONE! All of these things stress me out so so so soooo much.
The hardest part - walking into a sea of people. It doesn't matter that I'm walking into a group of people who know and love and accept me - it's the mass of people all greeting me that sends my anxiety to level 100. My mind totally blanks and I just want to get to my seat. Service is easy for me because my church doesn't ask you to turn around and greet your neighbor. The absolute worst... Listen, it's not that I don't love you. I just get full-on anxiety when I am forced to touch you or make small talk with you. When service comes to a close, any introvert will tell you that their mind becomes consumed with the exit plan. My husband can sit and talk all day but I am more the person who makes a mad dash for the door. Oh crap, I forgot my kid. Got her - let's go!
Some people feel church anxiety because they feel like they are being judged or feel like they aren't good enough to be in church. Not the case here. The motto of The Refuge is "NO PERFECT PEOPLE ALLOWED" and they mean it. The entire vibe is welcoming. In fact, you see a lot more things that aren't traditionally associated with being "churchy" at The Refuge. On any given Sunday, the lead pastor Brian DeTalente will be wearing jeans and a t-shirt that says THAT CRAZY CHURCH and talks about very non-churchy things like how much he loves the Halloween franchise.
I've never once felt judged or looked down on. And, I am FRIENDS with these people. One-on-one, we can talk for hours but the large group setting is just so hard for me to navigate. And after service, I start feeling guilty that I wasn't more friendly and I didn't hang around to chat.
AM I WEIRD FOR FEELING THIS WAY?
I thought I was so weird for feeling this way about really any social situation that involved several people like baby showers, funerals, business meetings beyond just the people in my immediate office, parties, etc. Church is just the large gathering that I've faced weekly since I was a child. I was so uncomfortable and never could seem to shake the apprehension about walking into the crowd.
But then one day, one of my best friends let me in on a secret - she told me that she suffered from "church anxiety." She hardly goes because she just hates the feeling of walking into a crowd of really nice people!
I was so relieved to find out that this happens to other people too. It's not that I don't love Jesus or the people with who I attend, but I have a touch of social anxiety and the idea of chit-chatting makes me want to dig a hole, get in, and never come out.
Then last year my daughter, who is the biggest social butterfly you'll ever meet, told me that she also has a hard time with feelings of being overwhelmed when she walks into kids' church. There are a lot of people who feel this way so if you do, you definitely aren't alone.
I decided to dig in and do a little research on church anxiety. Here's what I discovered.
TURNS OUT, CHURCH ANXIETY IS A THING
According to Lifeway Research and the book Becoming a Welcoming Church, almost everyone is uncomfortable with the "greeting your neighbor" portion of service. So, I wasn't totally off-base with that observation. Lifeway goes on to point out that according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, social anxiety disorder affects 15 million adults or 6.8% of the U.S. population.
I feel better knowing that I'm not alone in my struggle with "church anxiety." But here's the thing - I will not give in to fear. There are people who do struggle with crippling anxiety and may require therapy and medication to help them cope. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them and they should do whatever is best for them. However, I can control my anxiety and I believe that it's good for me to continue to interact and practice my social skills.
NOT JUST AN INTROVERT - I'M A SOCIALLY ANXIOUS INTROVERT!
I think it's important to note that being an introvert and being socially anxious are related but are not the same thing. According to Healthline, introverts don't seek out attention and social interactions can make them feel physically drained. There are different types of introverts, one of the categories being an anxious introvert. Each person's personality is different and can shift depending on the type of situation you find yourself in.
TAKING CONTROL OF IT
Prayer can be a great tool to help me control the anxiety. Focusing my mind on talking so someone who isn't staring at me is calming. Or having a 'mantra' prayer, if you will, can be soothing when the anxiety peaks. Plus, I think if anyone can help me, it's the God of the Universe... :D
But you know what they say - God helps those who help themselves. It's true and I have found it's best if I have a job to tend to. I was a bartender for years and I loved it. What's more social than that? The key was that I had a job to do and focusing my attention on the job made the social part less of a thing. Many churches now have a coffee bar and are always looking for volunteers!
I also have a couple of safe people. In my church, Pastor Gordon aka "Pastor Huggy Bear" as he's affectionately referred to, is a safe person. Normally, I want nothing to do with hugging or touching people but there are a select few with whom I feel safe enough to physically interact. Pastor G is one of them but it took me about a year to get to that point. Talking to him and getting a hug calms my nerves a bit.
And third, I am honest with everyone about my issue. I am pretty clear that I'm not trying to be rude - I'm just a basket case! The crazy thing is, I've found a couple of kindred spirits in my truth journey. One of the ladies at my church confessed that she has never been able to connect with adults and so she heads up the children's ministry because she related to kids so much easier. Yes, she's my people!
WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?
Everyone is different and trying to get through this thing called life. I am thankful that I attend a church that gets me and doesn't judge me or think of me as rude on a Sunday morning when I don't stick around to chat about the weather or what's going on in my world. And I'm going to continue to push myself to be more vulnerable and face my "church anxiety" head-on every opportunity that I get. If you are ready to take the next step to overcome your social anxiety, check out these great resources from The Centre for Clinical Interventions. And if you are looking for a church home with people who get it, come join us at The Refuge Christian Church in Chandler. Just don't be offended if I don't greet you at the door. Find Pastor G - he'll hug you. :)
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