Left to themselves, anxious feelings and thoughts will rage out of control. But God has given us a secret weapon to reign them in. Spiritual executive function.
In chapter five we discussed the executive function of the brain, which has power to regulate emotions and the body’s anxiety response. In a crisis, God designed your emotional brain to take over. But when the crisis passes, executive function must be regained to restore calm.
One strategy therapists recommend for restoring executive function is prayer or meditation. Multiple secular studies observing brain activity show that the executive regions of the brain light up during prayer. When you pray, you use the medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula. And when those regions of the brain all activate together, they regulate the activity of the emotion and anxieties centers in the brain.
Praying forces you to use your brain in such a way that strengthens your body’s ability to recover from anxiety.
The Right Kind of Prayer
This is another example of a physical remedy being built in to one of the Bible’s spiritual remedies. The parts of your brain you use combined with the act itself—sitting still, closing your eyes, physical calmness—it all reduces the anxiety response.
But if all these benefits come from the mere act of praying, why is it so important that we pray according to the biblical formula in times of anxiety? It’s because while all prayer can calm your brain and body, not all prayer can calm your spirit.
Worldly prayers, yoga, or mindless meditation: Calms the mind and body.
Biblical prayer: – Calms the mind and body.
– Draws you near to God.
– Accesses power from the Holy Spirit.
– Cures the causes of spiritual anxiety by exercising your faith, deepening your humility, and increasing your gratitude.
– Moves God to respond.
The problem of anxiety extends far beyond the body and brain.
The Executive Function of the Spirit
Neurologists speak of the executive function of the brain, but there is more to it than just the brain part. Your brain can calm physical anxiety, but what about anxiety in your soul? Is there a higher executive function that can calm your soul? Yes.
“I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalms 131:2).
Who is the “I” and who is the “soul”? The soul, in this context, is the part of you that experiences anxiety and needs to be stilled and quieted. And the “I” is the part of you that does the stilling and quieting—your spiritual executive function.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).
The part of you that obeys this command is your executive function. The “heart,” in this verse, is the part that becomes troubled.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Again, the part of you that does the guarding is your executive function. And the heart is the part of you that your executive function must protect.
Jesus gave us an example of this spiritual executive function in the way he handled the emotion of shame while he was on the cross. Hebrews 12:2 says he despised it. The word translated “despised” does not mean “to hate.” It means “to think little of.”
Crucifixion was designed to be the most shameful, humiliating, dehumanizing form of execution possible. That’s why they stripped them naked and you had all the spitting and mockery and all the rest. Jesus deserved the highest honor and instead he was humiliated.
How did he handle that feeling? By thinking little of it. Jesus used his executive function to determine how much space that feeling of humiliation would take up in his affections. And he assigned it a small space.
Use the Tools God Gave You
In times of stress, if you let anxious feelings take up whatever space in your heart they naturally take, it will be a grossly outsized portion. And it will grow like a wildfire until it takes up all your attention and energy.
But that doesn’t have to happen. The more you strengthen your executive function, the more control you will have over the boundaries of your feelings.
And prayer is a key component to strengthening your spiritual executive capabilities. How was Jesus able to relegate that massive amount of shame to a small space in his heart? Think of his prayers the night before. That’s when he gave room for emotions to run, when he was safe in the presence of God. He faced his fears, wrestled in prayer, pleaded with the Father, and worked through it until he came to the place of fully embracing the Father’s will, no matter how bitter the cup. That night of prayer gave him the executive function he needed the next day on the cross.
In the next chapter, we’ll learn specifics on how to release the extremes of emotion in prayer without triggering an unstoppable wildfire of anxiety.
For now, just be aware of the fact that executive function exists. When emotions begin to roil, remind yourself, “This is just a feeling. It has no sovereignty over me. I decide what role it will play. It may or may not reflect reality. I will check it against the truth and decide whether I should listen to it or ignore it.” When feelings try to take control, demote them to their proper place.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, you can gain mastery over your body (Romans 8:13). The more you seek God in prayer, the more you keep in step with the Spirit, which gives you power over your flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Another method for regaining executive function in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is grounding This is done by attending to what you currently feel, smell, hear, taste, and see.
When you worry, your mind wanders into unreality—tomorrow’s hardships that may or may not come to pass. But your nervous system has no perception of time, so your body thinks that trouble is happening right now. Your emotional brain releases stress hormones because it thinks the trouble is real.
Grounding brings your brain and body back to the present. You feel the chair you’re sitting in, hear the sounds, smell the smells, and your body realizes, “Oh, that trouble isn’t real. This is reality.”
Jesus taught his own method of restoring your mind back to the present.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
The anxious heart has a strange propensity to be greedy for more trouble. Even tomorrow’s trouble. Jesus returns us to the present, not through grounding exercises, but by teaching us to use our executive function to consciously distinguish between today and tomorrow.
And that’s especially effective when you do it in times of prayer. Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” not “Give me right now my annual bread.” God gives us what we need right now. Tomorrow’s grace will come tomorrow. That’s the force of the line “tomorrow will worry about itself.” You’ll be able to handle tomorrow’s trouble with tomorrow’s grace, but not with today’s grace.
What if You Need to Prepare?
If you see a problem looming on the horizon, you may need to think it through so you can prepare. If so, that planning process is part of today’s trouble. Go ahead and handle it. But Jesus places all the rest of tomorrow’s trouble off limits.
So when you start to worry, ground yourself in the present by asking, “What portion of this problem needs to be handled right now?” Does the entire problem need to be taken care of today? If so, roll up your sleeves and get it done. But if it’s a problem you’ll have to deal with over a period of time, then focus only on the part that needs immediate attention.
Even if part of doesn’t need your attention until later today, if you can’t do anything about it right this minute, it’s still off limits. Carve out only the part that needs attention at the present moment and ask God for your daily allotment of grace for that portion.
When you do that, most of the time you’ll find the portion of your problems that needs immediate attention is quite small. And that little burden is all God requires of you right now. Take comfort in that.
It’s wise to keep tomorrow’s trouble separate from today’s. It’s also wise to keep today’s problems separate from each other.
Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about multiple problems at once. Instead of handling them one at a time, we allow our mind to jump from one to another to another without ever solving any of them. That’s how Jesus diagnosed Martha’s anxiety.
“’Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things.” (Luke 10:41).
The word translated “upset” means to be agitated, disturbed, or troubled—inner turmoil. If you focus on one problem, you can usually handle it. But worrying about multiple problems at the same time just roils your insides. That’s what Martha was doing, and that’s what we naturally do when we’re stressed.
And the solution, according to the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy experts, is chunking, labeling, and cognitive restructuring.
- Chunking: dividing the big problem into its individual component parts so you can put each part into the smallest possible box.
- Labeling: putting the problem into words.
- Cognitive restructuring: challenging irrational thoughts.
Biblical prayer accomplishes all three at once.
In Philippians 4:6, when God gives us instruction on exactly how to pray in times of anxiety, notice emphasis on individual requests.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Petition is the act of requesting, and the requests are the particular actions we are asking God to take. To make specific requests, you must isolate particular issues, define what is needed, and put it into words.
One mistake we often make when we feel overwhelmed is we come to God with a huge, undefined problem, but we make no specific requests. If you come to God with an amorphous conglomeration of issues and say, “Help me, God,” ask yourself—is that even a prayer? Imagine God saying, “Okay. So what would you like me to do, exactly?” If your answer is, “I don’t know,” then do the words of your prayer have any meaning?
When Paul tells us to give specific requests, it forces us to sort through the problem. What do you want? Comfort? Strength? Money? Healing? For God to change someone’s heart? Or your heart? Guidance to know what would please God? Skill to accomplish something? Patience? Faith? Joy?
Before you can figure out exactly what you want, you must isolate the specific problem. Instead of, “God, fix my disastrous marriage,” you’re forced to think through each aspect of the marriage that is bothering you.
What is one part of that big problem that can’t be broken down any smaller? Maybe your spouse keeps doing something that drives you crazy. Now that you have that one piece in a box by itself, consider what you want God to do.
“Father, give me wisdom to know how to talk to my spouse about this in a way that will draw both of our hearts toward godliness.”
Problem number two: There’s another thing your spouse keeps doing that bothers you. But when you get this part in a box by itself you realize this one really shouldn’t bother you so much. So for this box, your request is different. “Father, please help me change my attitude about this.”
Problem number three: arguments about finances. Specific request: “Help us see areas where we may be overspending. And help us trust you for provision.” Or maybe it’s, “Help us listen to each other and tackle this problem as a team instead of opponents.”
Problem number four: lack of intimacy. Request: “Help us find some resources that could teach us ways to reignite passion.”
Those are not one problem called our lousy marriage. They are four separate challenges, all very common, and all with workable solutions. If you go to bed at night thinking, “My marriage is a hopeless mess,” you will have untamable anxiety. But if you go to bed thinking, “We have four problems, and I know what I need from God for each one,” instead of feeling buried under a mountain of impossible problems, you’ll have hope.
This may feel like hard work. It is. But this is the kind of thinking that restores executive function and regulates the anxiety response.
An unknown sage once said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.” That may be a little overstated, but you get the point. Haven’t you had times in your life where a problem went unsolved because it was so massive and complex that you didn’t know where to start?
Ill-defined problems are terrifying. Our fear of the problem combines with our fear of the unknown, creating a dark, deadly monster. But when you break the problem into its component parts and put them into words, much of the anxiety evaporates. Most of the parts end up being quite manageable.
And once defined, there is a clear path forward, which also reduces anxiety.
When you carry out the defining process in conversation with God, cognitive restructuring (challenging irrational thoughts) happens automatically because you won’t be inclined to speak your irrational, exaggerated thoughts to God. As soon as a thought arises that you know isn’t true, you won’t want to say it to God.
The writer of Psalm 131 put it this way—“I have stilled and quieted my soul.” The word translated “stilled” means to smooth out or make level. He considered the wild ups and downs of his anxious thoughts and smoothed them out. He trimmed off the exaggerations and ideas that bounced outside the bounds of logic. We do this naturally when we present our problems to God.
Specific requests also help with behavioral activation. When you ask God for something specific in relation to your problem, it clarifies in your mind what needs to be done. The more you ask God for that, the more inclined you will be to behave in ways that lead toward that desired outcome.
And again, prayer goes beyond the mere psychological dimension because it’s a personal interaction. You’re speaking to a person, asking him for specific help. And when you do that, it keeps you from behaving in ways that contradict those requests. When you plead with a person for something, you are more likely to cooperate with that person as he grants the request.
And the more specific your requests, the more likely you are to notice when God answers. This sooths your soul even more because of the feeling of being heard, loved, and cared for by God.
And each time God grants one of the requests, anxiety is reduced still further because that part of the problem is removed.
Yet another way prayer calms anxiety is by involving you in the solution to the problem.
Max Lucado cites a study of soldiers in WW2. After 60 days of continuous combat, the ground troupes became emotionally dead, which was no surprise. The comparative calm of fighter pilots, however, was. Their mortality rate was among the highest in combat at 50 percent. The pilots’ chances of dying were the same as a coin flip, yet 93 percent of them claimed to be happy in their assignments. The difference? The pilots had their hands on the controls and felt some degree of control over their fate. Ground troupes could just be blown up or mowed down by enemy fire at any time regardless of their skill or strength.
One way prayer reduces anxiety is by giving you some measure of influence over what happens. God gives us a hand in what will transpire through the gift of prayer.
A good example of this is in 1 Samuel 1. God had closed Hannah’s womb (1 Samuel 1:5). She could not bear children—the ultimate disgrace in that culture. And she was tormented by a rival wife who bore numerous children. Hannah was devastated. She couldn’t eat. She went to the Temple and poured out the anguish of her heart to God in prayer.
Then after casting her cares on the Lord, the anxiety lifted.
“Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast” (1 Samuel 1:18).
Why? Did she take a pregnancy test and get some good news? No. She still wasn’t pregnant. But after rolling her troubles on to the one who cared for her, the peace of God swept through her heart.
You Don’t Need CBT
Imagine you had a friend who read a study about the health benefits of pillows. A nice soft pillow relaxes you, improves sleep, and lifts your mood. It’s like a miracle cure. So she’s really big into SPT (Soft Pillow Therapy).
One day she calls you because she’s really sick. Her appendix burst. You tell her, “You need immediate surgery. Let me take you to the hospital.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “I’m not ready to leave my turn my back on SBT. It’s back by so much science.”
So you assure her, “Don’t worry. At the hospital, not only will you get the surgery, they also provide pillows.”
The world’s remedies for anxiety are like a pillow. The Biblical instructions for anxiety are like surgery. You don’t need anything beyond God’s Word for your anxiety.
Godliness Training Exercises
- Think of an anxiety-producing problem in your life. Divide it into the smallest possible boxes. Then write down exactly what you want to ask God to do for each one.
- Spend some time in prayer each day making those requests.
- Give some thought to what actions would be appropriate for you to take to participate in God’s answers to your requests. Write them down.
- Think through which of your feelings are taking up an outsized position in your heart. Remind yourself that they are only feelings, and they don’t deserve such a prominent place in your heart.
- Keep reviewing your memory verses and add the next verse in Matthew 6.
For the video of this session, click here.
 Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the center for integrative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, cited by Nicole Spector, https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/your-brain-prayer-meditation-ncna812376.
 van der Kolk, 55-56.