Overcome anxiety and depression not just by “thinking positive” but through a complete renewal of the mind, says Dr Robi Sonderegger.
By Yong Yung Shin
While stress and frustration are inevitable facts of life, we do not need to suffer their full impact on our lives. On Feb. 5, in his third and final session at City Harvest Church’s Relationship Seminar weekend service, clinical psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger spoke on emotional resilience and how believers can overcome the crippling effects of anxiety and depression through the renewal of the mind.
As with the prophet Elijah who came to a place of misery and suicidal thoughts even after he had just demonstrated the power of God before Baal’s 450 prophets (1 Kings 18), Sonderegger pointed out that many people who believe in and who might have witnessed the power of God in their ministries do not believe in the same power for themselves, as they battle with anxiety and depression behind closed doors.
Conventional wisdom dictates that how we think affects how we feel, which in turn impacts our body at a biological level, leading to either superior or inferior performance—hence the oft-used mantra “think positive.”
However, Sonderegger points out that this principle does not apply to people who are already wallowing in depressing and anxiety, overcome by A.N.T.S (“automatic negative thoughts”).
In these cases, we need to reverse the cycle. Just as God is an understanding God who first tended to Elijah’s physical needs by sending an angel to feed him, we need to get our foundations right, i.e rest, eat and sleep properly to prepare “a fertile soil” to plant good seed. When our bodies are healthier, we feel better and as a result, are in a better position to tackle the automatic negative thoughts that threaten to pull us down.
This leads to the ultimate goal of renewing one’s mind, which may not always be the place we start from, explains Sonderegger. “As we wait upon the Lord, we are renewed in strength and well-positioned to hear from God, who wants to reveal Himself to us.”
Product developer Timothy Chen, 28, a product developer, said, “I always thought feelings were just fluffy and I should just snap out of them by sheer willpower. I never knew that I could change my thoughts through my physical person as well.”
It is scientifically established that what a person focuses on is what he will get the most of. “The renewing of the mind requires that we ask who, not why,” Sonderegger said. Instead of focusing on our problems, we should focus on the one who has only our best interests at heart—God Himself.
This was a revelation God gave him one day as he read 1 Kings 19: when we encounter criticism or opposition, we typically declare our own righteousness, blame others and take on the victim mentality, just as Elijah did (1 Kings 19:10). We need to be careful with our thoughts, Sonderegger warned. “Stand strong, keep going—these are the signs of humility.” When we turn our focus from our problems and get into the presence of God, He will give us a Word and show us the way, just as He gave directions for Elijah to proceed (1 Kings 19:15-18).
Taking a cue from yet another Biblical hero who had more than his fair share of problems, Sonderegger zoomed in on King David’s about-turn in Psalm 77, where he went from abject misery to confidence and thanksgiving to God. How did he do it? The answer lies in verses 10 to 12, as David recalled all the miracles God had done in the past and concluded that his God is a holy one. “When you are in the throes of despair, know that God is not done with you yet. Our God has our best interests at heart; He is our biggest fan and our cheer squad,” encouraged Sonderegger.
He left the congregation with several fascinating points—firstly, to break out of destructive thought patterns and emotions, dysfunctional neural loops need to be undone in order for new ones to be formed, and the only way for new neurons to be developed is through talking. By engaging in supportive relationships with others and talking our issues through with somebody, something literally happens in the brain.
Another interesting neuroscientific discovery was that the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a type of protein in the brain which helps promote neural growth, can be increased through exercise, fasting and meditating on Scripture.
Finally, Sonderegger had words of immense comfort for those who had been chronic sufferers of anxiety and depression. He shared that while some people are indeed born with a genetic disposition for anxiety and depression, they need not be resigned to it. He said, “Your genetic predisposition is not your excuse, it is your responsibility. Never give up!” Research has shown that the mind has the capacity to influence the genes in our body; we are able to determine whether or not the gene expresses itself. Thus, the renewing of the mind literally brings life transformation.
For too long, the realms of science and spirituality have been at odds, but the beauty of Sonderegger’s messages lay in the strong scientific backing of many familiar Biblical truths. Without a doubt, many in the congregation will no longer view spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting the same way again. Through science, Sonderegger demonstrated that the truths in the Bible build up all aspects of man—body, soul and spirit.
For other reports of Dr Robi Sonderegger’s sessions at City Harvest Church, go to: