September 2021
Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Shared Anxieties

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

Little Bear is always worried. Everything makes him anxious. But with the help of his mother, Little Bear learns that shared anxieties are not so big after all. The children’s book How Big Are Your Worries, Little Bear? by Jayneen Sanders tells the story of a little bear who is constantly anxious. In the morning he worries about going to school and all the things that could go wrong – like not knowing the alphabet. In the afternoon he worries about his soccer training and about not being good enough at it. At night, Little Bear worries about the monsters that may be under his bed. Little Bear worries day and night, even though his family tells him to stop worrying. But when his mother starts encouraging him to talk about and even draw his worries, those feeling start to go away. I like this children’s book very much because it emphasizes the importance of sharing our thoughts and feelings with others.

Mental health and secrets

Mental health, as this story tells us, affects every aspect of daily living. Mental health demands our attention and for good reason. The World Health Organization estimates that over one billion people in the world suffer from some form of mental illness. This means that one sixth of the world’s entire population has mental health issues, such as anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders (like bulimia and anorexia) or depression.

One reason for the prevalence of mental illnesses among people of Latin American origin is that, for the great majority, mental health is a taboo and a stigma. Taboo is a Polynesian term meaning ‘forbidden,’ while stigma is a word of Greek origin meaning a ‘mark on the body.’ In Latin America, mental health problems are like marks on our mind and body that we don’t want to discuss. We are afraid to acknowledge our mental health issues – and even more so, to talk about them with anyone else. We are anxious about what others may think of us. At the same time, we get stressed about feeling stressed, and we get anxious about feeling anxious. And we experience all this in secret. But God wants us to make our mental health a priority. Our loving God wants us to share our thoughts and feelings.

Jesus tells us in the gospels to bring our anxieties, fears and burdens to him. He wants us to tell him about our problems and mood changes. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls us to open our minds and our hearts: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (11:28-29). The Greek word used by Jesus to denote heavy burdens is ‘pephortismenoi’ and means ‘to be overburdened.’ Jesus asks us to bring him everything that is a heavy burden – our anxieties, stresses and emotional problems. In return, Jesus will give us rest. He will renew us both mentally and spiritually.

Talking is key

The best way to talk to God about our mental health is through prayer. And talking with God in prayer is as easy as imagining that we’re having coffee with Jesus and telling him everything that’s going on with us. Often, we pray saying, “Jesus, please help me,” or “My loving God, help me get through this.” Asking for God’s help when we need it is a very important part of our spiritual life and our mental health. And making our mental health a priority is a spiritual practice.

The important thing is to recognize our need to be honest in our prayer. If we are anxious or feel stressed, it’s okay to tell God how we feel. He knows our physical, spiritual and mental needs, and telling him about all our feelings and frustrations is a good thing. When we invite God to help us pay attention to our mental health, we receive his companionship and guidance, and we strengthen our relationship with him.

Another way to care for our mental health is sharing what is happening to us with our loved ones and trusted friends. We can even seek out the support and guidance of a mental health professional and see a therapist. Therapy, for me personally, has been an important part of my spiritual walk and my vocational discernment.

Prayer and talking with loved ones and therapists are ways to make our mental health a priority. In these conversations, our loving Father listens to us and helps understand our own thoughts and emotions. God encourages us to pay attention to our mental health – just as Little Bear’s mother began to encourage him to speak about and draw his worries.

God wants us to be able to enjoy a stable life, full of wellbeing. For this to happen, we need to stop viewing mental health as a taboo or a stigma. Betting on healthy lifestyle habits will help us maintain our mind in top condition and reduce our risk of mental illnesses or other conditions.

Making mental health a priority is a spiritual practice. Our loving God wants us to understand why caring for our body and mind is essential to a better life.

When Little Bear was anxious and worried, his mother taught him that shared anxieties are not so big, after all. God wants us to share our anxieties and worries. He encourages to talk to him, and to take all our needs to him.

The Rev. Santi Rodriguez is a curate and Director of Outreach at St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. Santi’s particular areas of interest are spirituality in pop culture, discernment and Ignatian spirituality. Santi is passionate about running and backpacking and hiking with his wife and son and their two dogs, Mia and Bleu.


This article is part of the September 2021 Vestry Papers issue on Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month