by Jodie K. Edwards Ph.D.
Sarah has struggled with feeling nervous and worried since she was a teenager. Now a busy mom of two young children, she realized her anxiety was starting to affect her entire family. In the past, she’d always gotten through these bumpy times without professional help, but this time she wondered if she should talk to a counselor. Sarah, however, worried that it would be too hard to open up to a stranger. Would a counselor judge her for decisions she made in the past? Were things really bad enough to seek counseling? What if the counselor did not respect her Christian values?
Christians are not promised a world free of struggle and heartache. Psalm 34:19 and Romans 8:17 explain that God’s servants will have troubles and suffering in this life. Even faithful believers have difficulty coping with life transitions, stressors, relationships, and issues from the past.
Figuring out when you or a friend need professional counseling may seem difficult. Some Christians are hesitant to seek counseling if it is not done from a Christian perspective. Let’s take a look at when professional help might be needed, how to know when you might be in over your head in helping a friend, what to look for in a counselor, and what is meant by “Christian counseling.”
How Do I Know I Need Help?
God has blessed us with a community of believers so we can walk through life’s trials and tribulations together.
Amazing healing can take place when we share openly with others, receiving support and encouragement as we lean on each other. While having a strong support system is always important, there are several situations where professional help might be needed.
First, if you have tried to solve a problem on your own or with the assistance of others and you are not feeling better, it can be helpful to get a fresh perspective from a counselor.
Second, when you notice your problems are interfering with your ability to meet family, work, or school obligations, it is often a good idea to get counseling. Sometimes, problems can cause you to become moody, lose focus, lose interest in previously pleasurable activities, sleep poorly, or experience a change in appetite. When emotional problems are affecting other areas of life, they should serve as warning signs that additional help is needed.
Third, if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else (even if you know you would never act on such thoughts), please seek professional help from a counselor or physician as soon as possible. Suicidal thoughts are often a sign that you are feeling extremely discouraged about your situation. Counseling can help you find hope in what may seem like a hopeless situation.
Counseling is not just for severe mental health issues. Typical reasons people seek counseling include relationship problems, parenting challenges, wounds from the past, eating and body image issues, sexual and substance addictions, depression, anxiety, grief and loss, anger, low self-esteem, and much more. There is no problem too small for counseling, and many counselors enjoy working with people on issues related to improving overall levels of emotional wellness.
When You’re Over Your Head
Over the last few months, Mike has been trying to support Nate, a friend who recently became divorced from his wife. Mike knows that Nate gets very down when alone, and he’s especially worried because Nate has started drinking to escape his problems. Although Mike wants to be there for his friend, he’s not sure if the support of a friend is enough.
Most of us want to be helpful when we know a friend is going through a difficult time. In fact, Paul tells us “we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). We shouldn’t underestimate the power of journeying alongside a friend when he or she is suffering. It isn’t easy to provide a steady presence and to tolerate another’s emotional pain, but such actions show true love and compassion. There are times, however, when you might feel you’re in over your head as you try to help someone. Continue to offer support, but guide your friend to a professional for help if needed. Here are some things to consider.
You are worried about your friend. Do your friend’s problems seem serious or dangerous? Have you noticed he is unable to meet life’s demands? Do you feel ill equipped to help your friend?
You are feeling emotionally or physically overwhelmed by your friend’s struggles. Do you constantly think about your friend or the situation? Do you find yourself losing sleep or becoming emotional about your friend’s problems?
You are neglecting yourself or your responsibilities in order to help. Is your family or job suffering from your time away? Do you feel burdened or resentful about the time spent helping your friend? Are you avoiding your friend’s visits or calls?
What to Look for in a Counselor
The initial steps of finding a counselor and making an appointment often hold people back from getting help. Ask for referrals from friends, local churches, and your family physician. Once you’ve compiled a list of possible options, don’t be afraid to ask the counselors at the top of your list for a brief telephone conversation to determine which one is the best fit for you. Before scheduling a session, you can check in with the counselor about his or her:
• experience with your problem;
•philosophy about what helps people grow and change;
• willingness to work from a Christian perspective;
• professional credentials (someone who is licensed in your state);
• educational background (look for someone who has a master’s or doctoral degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work, or psychology).
• fee and insurance reimbursement policies.
It sometimes takes a few sessions to feel comfortable with a counselor, but when therapy is going well you should feel safe and secure as you share your problem. You should feel like an important collaborator in the assessment and treatment of your own problem and challenged to try new ways of thinking and behaving. While a counselor will encourage you to step out of your comfort zone, you should feel supported to proceed at a pace that is comfortable for you. If you feel things are not going well with your counselor, talk with him or her about your concerns rather than stopping therapy. A good counselor should be willing to brainstorm about how to improve his or her work with you, or provide you with a referral if you decide seeing a different counselor is a better option. Counseling involves a commitment of effort, money, and time, but remember that it is an investment in your future!
Rebecca’s husband died unexpectedly almost a year ago, and she remains deep in the throes of grief. Her minister recommended counseling to help her through the mourning process, but she is worried about finding a counselor who works from a biblical perspective. Rebecca wants a counselor who shares her belief in eternity and Heaven because these beliefs are essential to her coping.
Many Christians express a desire for Christian counseling, which differs from secular counseling because the Bible, rather than science, serves as the ultimate authority. The primary guiding principle of Christian counselors is that psychological concepts are integrated into therapy only if they are consistent with Scripture.
Christian counselors are professionals who have a personal relationship with Jesus and a biblical worldview. A counselor’s worldview, which is a set of assumptions, values, and beliefs about human nature, influences how he or she assesses a situation and the treatment he or she believes will be helpful. For example, a Christian counselor would support and encourage Rebecca’s beliefs about being reunited with her deceased husband in Heaven; whereas, a secular counselor may view Rebecca’s belief in Heaven simply as a way to ward off anxiety about the loss of her husband.
All professional counselors seek to help clients with personal growth, including awareness, enhanced coping, relationship skills, and emotional regulation. Christian counselors, on the other hand, are also willing to assist with clients’ spiritual growth. Some Christian counselors focus on a client’s relationship with God by incorporating Scripture reading and prayer into therapy sessions. However, because other Christian counselors take a more indirect approach to helping clients grow closer to God, please talk to your counselor if you would like to integrate spiritual disciplines into your work together. The next time you find yourself struggling emotionally, remember that God does not want you to suffer alone. During difficult times, the support of friends and loved ones is often enough, but when more is needed God has blessed us with caring professionals who want to help ease our burdens and journey with us toward healing.
Dr. Jodie Edwards is a Licensed Psychologist and an Assistant Professor at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.
Looking for a Christian Counselor?
One place to look is the American Association of Christian Counselors:
Other helpful information about counseling and resources for people who are seeking godly counsel can be found from Cloud-Townsend Resources: www.cloudtownsend.com