Anxiety is part Chicken Little and part Eeyore. You think the sky is falling and it’s falling disproportionately on you.[i] Anxiety is a meteor shower of what-ifs. It is trepidation, suspicion and apprehension. Anxiety is a free-floating sense of uneasiness and nervousness about what is happening or what could happen. For some it feels like worry or fear. Afraid of what might happen. Worried if they don’t take control things will get worse. Anxiety can be over little things like a cluttered room or big things like the failing health of someone you love.
In this series of articles, I want to address several questions: What is anxiety? Where do I find anxiety? How can I recognize anxiety in my life? What are the sources of anxiety internally and relationally? Most importantly, what does God have to say about my anxiety and managing it? In this article I will address the meaning of anxiety.
Disclaimer: In this article, I have in mind chronic anxiety, social anxiety, and separation anxiety. In some cases, professional assistance from a therapist, counselor, or doctor is required. If you think you are struggling from severe anxiety or your anxiety paralyzes or hinders you from accomplishing your responsibilities as a spouse, parent, or employee I highly recommend you seek professional assistance. God has provided some wonderful, intelligent, and caring people who can help you become healthier emotionally and mentally. There is hope. Use the resources God has provided.
Let’s clear something up and remove some confusion about anxiety. The apostle Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6, NASB). What? Maybe Paul meant to say, “Don’t be anxious about most things” or “Don’t be anxious about some things.” Maybe he intended to say, “Be anxious only on Mondays” or “Be anxious only in times of severe problems.” No. He is straight forward with this, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Really? Anything? Paul doesn’t seem to offer any flexibility here. Aren’t there some things I should be anxious about? What did Paul mean by this statement that appears to be unreachable and unattainable?
One translation says, “Be anxious for nothing” (NKJV). Does Paul actually mean for nothing at anytime? Not exactly. He wrote the phrase in the present active tense, which implies an ongoing state. It’s the life of perpetual anxiety (also known as chronic anxiety) that Paul wanted to address. Don’t let anything in life leave you perpetually nervous, fearful, worried, and full of doubt or guilt. Don’t let anxiety trap you into a lifestyle of apprehension. The presence of anxiety is unavoidable, but the prison of anxiety is optional. You will never get rid of anxiety, but you can manage it by God’s grace. You can have a life where you control your anxiety rather than anxiety controlling you. When anxiety shows up you can be ready for it.
I want to help you step out of the prison and into freedom. Into a life of more peace, calm, and rest. A life where you can think, be aware and be present with others, and experience the calming presence of God regardless of the situation. Let’s begin this incredible journey with understanding what anxiety is.
Definition of Anxiety
The word anxiety covers a wide range of emotions. When people say they are anxious they may mean they are worried, nervous, afraid, concerned, or restless. For some, anxiety makes them feel angry, annoyed, irritated, impatient, or exasperated.
I define anxiety as the feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about a real or perceived upcoming event or current situation. Someone can experience anxiety regarding an upcoming meeting at work, a romantic date, a paper due, or a surgery next week. They can also experience anxiety sitting in a room that is cluttered with toys and unfinished laundry. Anxiety can occur when trying to talk to someone while the radio or TV is on or in a noisy restaurant. Anxiety can happen when you are in the presence of someone you have a crush on or in the presence of an enemy. Anxiety is a term that covers a large territory. God does not want you to be perpetually anxious over any of these or going from one anxiety to another. He wants you to be aware, calm, and present. God wants you to experience His perpetual peace.
To be more specific, let’s break down the definition into three parts.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease. It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. You can’t relax. Can’t let your guard down. You can’t get comfortable. You are thinking, “I must fix this now. I must clean this up now” or “I must say something… do something or I’m going to explode.” For some it feels like a ticking time bomb inside of them waiting to go off unless defused. There’s a voice saying, “Do something… fix something… say something.” It may be saying, “Hide… escape… confront… withdraw… attack… detach.”
Anxiety can be based on reality or perception. Real-based anxiety are those times you face actual events. This would include things like your surgery tomorrow, a test in your last class of the day, or having to confront your spouse about something they said. This can also include being stuck in a noisy downtown traffic jam or discovering a water line has busted in your basement. These are tangible events either happening in the future or currently that are genuine and authentic events. Even with real-based anxiety, God has a plan for you to experience peace and calmness in the face of the challenges.
There is also perceived-based anxiety, this is worry or uneasiness regarding events that may or may not occur. The husband who is constantly concerned about his wife leaving him even though she has never given any indication that she will. The Christian woman who is nervous about others discovering she is not as a committed Christian as she wants them to believe. The employee who is fearful because he thinks the company is going to let him go, even though there is no real indication of that occurring. The mom who is anxiously concerned that her children will grow up and not like her. For those who struggle with perceived-based anxiety it feels just as genuine as real-based anxiety.
Anxiety can occur regarding an upcoming event or current situation. It can occur over something pleasant like an upcoming vacation trip or something unpleasant like going to the dentist. A person may experience anxiety over watching the children, cooking, working on the car, or going shopping. Many people experience anxiety when they are at church or small group Bible study.
Like I said, anxiety covers a broad territory. When it comes to anxiety, one size does not fit everybody. Anxiety comes in a buffet of options and a variety of flavors and intensities. One responsibility you will have is to discover your unique version of anxiety: why it occurs, when it occurs, and how God has designed you to manage it. There are some common denominators we all experience, but there are some things distinctive to you.
Descriptions of Anxiety
To deepen your comprehension of anxiety let me share with you several broad observations.
Anxiety is normal, so be hopeful
Anxiety is your brain’s way of reacting to stress and alerting you of potential danger ahead. Everyone experiences various levels of anxiety every day due to the pressures of life. If you feel anxious about things throughout the day, you are normal. One day when Jesus was talking about various kinds of people and how they respond to the world, he made a statement indicating there will be some people who would receive God’s truth, but it would be choked out of them due to “the anxiety of the world” (Matthew 13:22, NASB). Jesus is referring to the everyday stress that people experience throughout life: birth of a baby, paying bills, providing for a family, death of loved ones, and dealing with difficult people. If you are experiencing anxiety, it only proves you are human. However, be careful that you do not let your anxieties keep you away from God’s Word and your own spiritual growth. This is one reason why, as a Christian, you want to learn how to manage your anxieties. Anxieties, left unchecked, can lead to being stunk in your spiritual growth and development. As a result, you can miss out on many wonderful blessings, ministries, and lessons God would have you to learn.
Anxiety is not a sin, so be thankful
There is a lot of debate over this subject. There are some who view anxiety as a sin. However, once you understand what anxiety is and how it occurs, you quickly see the difficulty of calling it a sin. Anxiety is closely related to sin, but it is not a sin. Anxiety is the result of our sinful nature and environment that has been impacted by sin. In the same way that cancer is not a sin, but a result of the sinful nature passed down from Adam and Eve; anxiety is not a sin. I would not expect someone with cancer to ask God, “Forgive me of my cancer,” nor would I expect someone to say, “Forgive me of my anxiety.” Anxiety is a symptom of something much deeper.
Even though anxiety is not a sin, it is related to sin in three ways.
- Your personal sin can cause anxiety. The Psalmist said, “I am full of anxiety because of my sin” (Psalm 38:18, NASB). The Psalmist had sinned and felt guilty because of his disobedience to God. As a result, he was experiencing anxiety. In many ways, we let our lack of trust in God drive us into replacing God and trying to control or fix only what God can control or fix. When we do this, we are sinning and as a result we experience uneasiness, dread, or apprehension. I do believe that just as the Bible says, “Be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26) we could also say, “Be anxious and sin not.” Sin may lead us to anxiety, but anxiety doesn’t have to lead us to sin. If toxic anxiety leads you to abandon your spouse, neglect your children, or break promises then there is a sin problem.
- The sin of others can cause anxiety. When others sin against you, you will experience some level of anxiety. When your spouse is unfaithful, a coworker expresses hostility toward you, when you encounter a stranger’s outburst of anger, when someone slanders, deceives, or lies to you – you will experience anxiety. That will be a natural response. Even Jesus experienced anxiety in the garden of Gethsemane because of the sin of others. Your anxiety may feel like rejection, abandonment, or abuse. The sin of others can and will cause anxiety. Most people have someone in their life that is difficult. They are poor communicators, selfish, and uncaring. What they say and what they do create unnecessary anxiety and stress in your life. Just to be around some people creates anxiety because of their attitude toward you or others. The good news of the gospel is Jesus wants you to learn how to “cast all your anxiety on Him” (1 Peter 5:7, NASB). You don’t have to live in perpetual fear, worry, or dredge.
- A sinful environment can cause anxiety. When I say sinful environment, I am referring to the impact sin has caused on nature (Romans 8:18-25). Ever since sin enter humanity and the ground cursed (Genesis 3:17-19) we have experienced earthquakes, floods, storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the like. For many, these generate high anxiety. I know people who are greatly afraid of tornadoes. When the sirens go off, they go to the basement, even if they know the tornado has been reported ten miles away. For them, the threat of the tornado is as real as if it’s coming down their street.
Even though our own sin, the sin of others or a sinful environment can generate anxiety, anxiety is not a sin. It is the result of one of those three. This is why Jesus could experience anxiety prior to facing the cross and still be sinless. Jesus battled anxiety and won. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed three times that he wouldn’t have to drink of the cup (Matt. 26:36-44). His heart pumped with such ferocity that capillaries broke, and rivulets of crimson streaked down his face (Luke 22:44). He was anxious. His anxiety was generated by the sin of others. He would have to be separated from God the Father and receive the full wrath of God for the sins of the world. Even though His body was experiencing great stress, Jesus perfectly managed the anxiety rather than the anxiety managing Him.
Anxiety is a weakness, so be dependent
Rather than a sin, anxiety is a weakness. Don’t let that discourage you, because God loves using the weaknesses of His people to display His glory, power, and majesty! What do I mean by anxiety is a weakness? I mean it in the Biblical sense. Let’s start with 1 Corinthians 15, “Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies” (vs. 42-44, NLT). Paul is in the middle of teaching what happens when we die and are resurrected when Christ returns. In doing so, he explains what type of body we have now and what type of body we will receive in heaven.[ii] When Paul uses the word “bodies” he is referring to everything our body is – physically, mentally, and emotionally. He describes our bodies as broken and weak. As just mentioned, your body is weak in several ways. Let me mention three.[iii]
- Physically weak. Even if you are extremely healthy and physically fit and strong, you still have limits. You still get tired and need rest. The older you become the less physically strong you are. Your physical weakness is also seen when you get sick or hurt. People get colds, flus, and viruses. People get bruises, cuts, and broken bones. As people get older their bodies will often break down. It’s harder for them to walk, drive, swim, exercise, lift things, see, hear, and smell. Some people have more strength than others, but we all are physically weak. Due to various reasons some people’s physical weaknesses will cause them to need surgery, medicine, therapy, and extra attention.
- Mentally weak. Just like physical weakness, we all have mental weaknesses. This ranges from basic negative thinking to severe mental health issues. Our minds are weak and it shows up when we forget important dates, names, and needed information. Our minds have limitations, this is why we struggle with solving complex problems. Because our mind (brain) is also an organ it can be damaged due to a fall or disease resulting in personality changes and dementia. For some, their mental weakness shows itself in not being able to do every day skills such as self-care, social interaction, and living skills. For others, mental weakness makes them gullible. This is why we believe the voice of anxiety and the lies of the Inner Critic. We think wrongly about ourselves, our relationships, our future, and our past. We think incorrectly about God, Jesus, Christians, and salvation. We think wrongly about our finances, health, purpose, and meaning in life. We get distracted easily and are gullible to believe the lies the devil tells us. We are mentally weak. Many people are helped with therapy, counseling, surgery, medication, and the process of renewing the mind and training on how to think about the right things.
- Emotionally weak. In the same way, our emotions are weak and broken. This is why people struggle with depression, anger, loneliness, fear, rejection, anxiety, worry, and a host of other difficult emotions. This is why people have feelings that are right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy. Everyone’s emotions have been contaminated by sin from Adam and Eve. Emotionally, people are weak and this is why they get easily offended, irritated, and grumpy.
God knows you are an emotional person. He created you with feelings. He designed you to have emotions and to respond to others and situations emotionally. It’s a part of being human. However, God never intended for your emotions to control you. You are to be angry and sin not. You are to cast all your cares upon Him. Instead of worry, God wants you to experience peace. He does not want your life to be perpetually dominated by anxiety, but perpetually dominated by joy.
Even though you have weaknesses, God can take those weaknesses and use them for His glory.[iv] God told Paul, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:5, NLT). Then Paul says, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vs.9-10, NLT). God is able to use your weakness to draw you closer to Him, display His glory and salvation through you, and let you experience His strength when you are weak. To experience God’s strength working through your weakness, you will have to be dependent on God. When you are weak, you will have to rely on God and that’s when God is able to get glory through you.
As soon as you since anxiety, go to God. Let your worries, fears, and concerns push you to Him. The sooner you can recognize your anxiety, the sooner you can embrace God’s grace for the moment. When you do that, His strength can be displayed through your weakness.
Anxiety can harm, but there is protection
When you begin to fret and worry over something it hurts you, damages relationships, and distracts you from God if it’s not managed correctly. The Psalmist said, “Don’t fret and worry—it only leads to harm” (Psalm 37:8, TLB). Anxiety will rob you of your sleep, energy, and well-being. It brings harm to your neck, jaw, back, and stomach. It can make your eyes twitch, blood pressure rise, head ache, and armpits sweat. Anxiety can damage marriages, create pain between parent and child, and blind believers to the reality of who they are in Christ resulting in self-condemnation and a feeling of worthlessness. However, wherever there is anxiety, God can bring recovery and reconciliation.
Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT). The protection of your heart (emotions) and mind is the peace of God. Instead of worrying about what might happen talk to God about it. Let your request and praises mold your worries into prayers. Before you know it, your thankfulness to your good, gracious and wonderful God will begin to settle you down. “It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”[v]
Anxiety is heavy, but it can be lightened
It’s an invisible weight on your shoulders that takes more and more energy and attention to carry. Jesus advised, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with… the anxieties of life” (Luke 21:34, NIV). Is your heart weighed down with worry? Look for these signs: Are you laughing less than you once did? Do you see problems in every promise? Would those who know you best describe you as negative and critical? Do you assume something bad is going to happen? Do you find yourself irritable over little things? Impatient with the people you love? Do you magnify the negative and dismiss the positive? If the answer is yes too many of those questions you may be weighed down with the anxieties of life.
To help you grow God provides many wonderful resources. He has provided His Word, the Holy Spirit and other believers. We are told, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NLT). When we share each other’s burdens we help lighten the load for someone. Sometimes we can help others, but sometimes we need the help. Never be embarrassed about asking others to help you with the weight you carry in life. There are people who love you, care about you, and want to help you if they truly knew what you were going through and would consider it an honor to help you through this season of your life. Let them help you lightened the load.
Anxiety is personal, but you are not alone
Every person’s battle is different, and every experience is unique. A “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t going to be helpful here. One reason anxiety is such a common problem is that it’s available in so many varieties. We can worry about yesterday, today, tomorrow, jobs, money, health, children, what people will say or think. There is no lack of things to worry, fret, or be anxious about. Even though your struggle with anxiety may be unique to you, it’s imperative for you to know that you are not standing helplessly alone in your valley. God Almighty is with you, and he is fighting for you. Your anxiety may be more about the future, while someone else’s is more about the present. Your anxiety may be mostly with your children, while someone else’s is about their finances. Your anxiety may have more to do with how you process others, while other struggles more with their Inner Critic telling them they are worthless.
Your Enemy wants you to think there is no hope and no way out to freedom. He wants you to think God cannot help you. He wants you to feel like you are the only person alive who is in this valley of anxiety. He wants you to believe there’s no end to this misery. Your anxiety may be unique to you, but you are not alone. Many others experience trepidation, apprehension, and inner conflict. God is for you and not against you. He is not going to tell you to “cast all your anxiety on Him” if He did not care for you and wants to help you (1 Peter 5:7, NASB). Your Heavenly Father knows you are uniquely made, and He knows your strengths, weaknesses, what you have gone through and what you are facing. When He says “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6, NASB), He means it for you and He wants you to experience the peace and calmness that only He can give so that you can be present to love others, serve others, and be a vessel of grace and mercy to those in your life. You are not alone, there is help and hope available.
Anxiety is contagious, so be careful
This is why it shows up in groups as well as individuals. When someone is anxious, he talks to you about it, and now you are anxious about what he is anxious about. When someone is anxious or hostile about another person, sometimes he is asking you to subtly or not so subtly join his team against the other. A mother’s fear about the thunder is passed on to the children. A leader’s anger spreads to her staff at a meeting. You don’t want to be the one who spreads anxiety, you want to be the one who deescalates anxiety and brings awareness and calmness to the situation. You also want to protect yourself against catching the other’s anxiety.
Anxiety can blind you to God, so be alert
When you experience unmanaged anxiety, your anxiety looks a lot bigger and more powerful than you or God. When anxiety is all see, it’s hard to see God in your life. The goal of managing your anxiety is not simply for relief, it is to connect more fully with God and to raise awareness of what God is doing. Anxiety blocks our awareness of God because it takes our subconscious attention. This means that anxiety can be an early detection system that you are depending on something other than God for your well-being. Of course, not all anxiety is a sign that you are off base. If your child is playing on the highway and you are anxious about it, that is a sign to act, not pause and consider what might be blocking God. That is not the kind of anxiety I’m addressing in these series of articles. I’m referring to the anxiety that causes you to depend on your ability to remove the problem as if you can worry yourself out of anxiety. Anxiety shrinks the power of the gospel because it presents a false gospel; one of self-reliance rather than reliance on God. The consistent witness of God’s Word is that freedom and life come when you deny and crucify anything inside you that shrinks the gospel.
Six Major Types of Anxiety
Now that we have a better understanding of what anxiety is, I want to introduce you to the six major types of anxiety that counselors and psychologist recognize.[vi] This will help you identify the anxiety you may be experiencing and what others may be feeling.
Chronic anxiety (also known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder) is characterized by exaggerated worry or tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it. Chronic anxiety is constant. People are always carrying some level of chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety makes you feel like you are being threatened. In other words, you are not really in danger, but your body and mind believe you are. It is hard to calm yourself because you always feel in danger, threatened, or pressured in some way. Chronic anxiety feels real and makes even the perceived threat appear real in the person’s mind. It also makes a small threat seem bigger than it is. Chronic anxiety is the worry that a teenager feels when they have a pimple on their face. They think everyone is looking at it and will make fun of them because of it. They may even go as far as to think their boyfriend or girlfriend will break up with them over it. As a result, they will become obsessed trying to hide it or avoid certain people, so others don’t see it. For you, it may not be a pimple but a clean house, physical appearance, your age, or something else.
It’s important to know the difference between chronic anxiety and acute anxiety. Acute anxiety has specific traits. It’s short term. It’s actually life and death, but you are able to calm yourself after the event. The simplest example is probably when you are driving on the interstate and suddenly the car in front of you brakes and you think you are going to crash into them. You have to swerve around and then you pull over. It is short term; it only happens in a few seconds. It’s actually life and death. You think your life is in danger. Your body has a physical reaction, but then you can calm yourself. You talk to others in the car saying things like, “Are you okay?” You are speaking and externalizing so you can get the anxiety out of you.
If acute anxiety is life or death, actual threat; chronic anxiety is more a perceived threat. In other words, you are not really in danger, but your body and mind believe you are. It is hard to calm yourself afterwards because you are always carrying it. Here is the issue: your body struggles to tell the difference between acute anxiety (life and death) and chronic anxiety (perceived threat) unless you train it.
Social anxiety (also known as Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia) is an anxiety characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. Social anxiety can be limited to only one type of situation – such as a fear of speaking in formal or informal situations or eating or drinking in front of others – or, in its most severe form, may be so broad that a person experiences symptoms almost anytime they are around other people.
One of my sons struggled with social anxiety. We first noticed this when as a child we took him to meet his first-grade teacher and when she introduced herself to him, he fell to the ground and acted like he fainted. At the time, we didn’t know that he suffered from social anxiety and that was his way of dealing with meeting someone new. As he grew, his social anxiety grew to the point where he didn’t want to go to movies, church, restaurants or any place where there were a lot of people. It was very difficult for him to relax in a crowd, even if he was not expected to interact with them. He is much better today thanks to God’s resources like counsel, medication, and personal growth.
As a pastor, I have talk to many people who watch or listen to us online because of the apprehension and stress they feel in being in a crowd at church with people they don’t know very well. For some of them, the thought of having a conversation or interaction creates a high enough anxiety to stay home. For some who struggle with this, but not as severe, they stand at the back where we have bar tables to stand around. They feel less threatened if they can stand rather than sit.
This is an area I believe the church can help people grow. The devil loves it when our anxiety keeps us from experiencing God’s best for our lives. These precious people are missing out on deep and meaningful Christian fellowship with other followers of Jesus struggling with similar issues. We need each other. We need to encourage, uplift, and motivate each other. There is hope for you and anyone who may struggle with any form of anxiety.
Separation anxiety is the fear and worry that bad things will happen to important people in your life. It’s often seen alongside other anxiety-related conditions, such as panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Someone with separation anxiety will struggle with being away from their children or spouse. When they are separated from them, they often struggle with sleeping because they are concerned something bad is happening or will happen. Some of the signs of separation anxiety are difficulty concentrating when away from the loved one, socially withdrawn or extreme sadness until the person returns. Other common symptoms include: unfounded fears that loved ones, or yourself, will be abducted or fatally injured; extreme and persistent hesitancy or refusal to leave the proximity of loved ones; and depression or anxiety attacks related to any of the above topics. In some cases, parents who suffer from separation anxiety can become an over-bearing parent and overly protective. This can also be seen in dating relationships where one of them is constantly afraid of losing the other.
Some Christians struggle with separation anxiety when it comes to their relationship with God. They are afraid that God will abandon them, leave them, or reject them. Even though God repeatedly says, “I will never leave you or abandon you” (Heb. 13:5, CSB). Jesus said, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20, NLT). Paul said, “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NLT).
These series of articles on anxiety will focus primarily on chronic anxiety, social anxiety, and separation anxiety. However, there are three more types of anxiety you should be aware of.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these so-called “rituals,” however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.
I have never been diagnosed with OCD; however, I am convinced I struggled with it. One of the symptoms of OCD is counting. When I was in fifth grade I would walk home from school. It took about thirty minutes for me to walk from the school to my house. Unless someone was walking with me, I would count my steps. All of them. From the time I stepped off the school’s curb to my front door. As a teenager I had extensive dental work done. When I would sit in the chair, I would count the tiles in the ceiling over and over. Over the years I have been able to manage my anxiety, but every now and then I catch myself counting steps if I’m going up or down a set of stairs. One of my favorite shows is Monk. It’s about a detective with OCD (among other things) who learns how to use it to his advantage. As I watch him try to function, I would often think, “I do that.”
I have shared my OCD tendencies to remind you and encourage you, you are not alone. We all have issues and things we struggle with, but by God’s grace you can learn to manage them rather than be managed by them. There is freedom and a new day ahead of you. God has helped me; He will help you.
Panic disorder is an anxiety that is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear, dread, or apprehension accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress.
I do not suffer from a panic disorder, but I have experienced a panic attack[vii] at least twice in my life. The first one occurred while having an MRI done on my back. My MRI involved me laying down on a sliding table. They slid me into the MRI machine. It’s like being in a small tube with each end opened. The top of the tube was inches from my face, my shoulders were touching the side to the left and right of me. It felt like I was in a coffin. I immediately began to feel my heart race and everything in me began thinking of how to get out of this machine before I turned into the Hulk. My stress level was going up. I felt claustrophobic. I was about to be in full flight mode. My anxiety was going from 0 to 100 quickly. As calmly as I could I said, “I need to come out of this thing for a second.” After he slid me back out, I explained to the MRI tech what was happening to me. He suggested I lift one arm above my head so my two shoulders would not be touching the inside of the MRI (I believe he had seen this before). That worked. For whatever reason, not feeling so enclosed in by the MRI machine touching me prevented another panic attack.
The second, and last time, I experienced a panic attack was while touring the old Missouri State Penitentiary Museum. I don’t know why, but I have always been fascinated with jails and prisons. When I travel, I always search to see if there are any prison museums in the area that are open to the public. On this tour they took us to what they called “the hole.” It was in the basement of one of their cell buildings. The “hole” is where they placed the most dangerous and threatening prisoners. Each prisoner in the hole had their own cell. There are no windows and no lights. You are surrounded by concrete. The door going into the cell is about 4 feet tall. You must duck to enter the cell. The inmates would sit in this darkness twenty-three hours a day and released outside for one hour. On the tour they ask everyone to find a cell and go into it. I picked mine and there were a few others from the tour who were in there with me. As part of the tour the guide turned off the only light there was (which was outside the cell) and then he shut the door. It became pitch black. I couldn’t see my hand when I placed it in front of me. What I experienced with the MRI began again. My heart rate began to increase, my breathing became deeper and faster. I began to feel the need to escape. In my head I was thinking, “What is wrong with me? There is no real threat. I’m not in danger. I’m not going to suffocate. This will be over in a few minutes.” I guess someone else was having the same issue because the door opened to let them out, and I saw a little bit of light and out I went. Whew! Did I feel better as soon as I got out of there.
Why did I tell you about those two panic attacks? Because people with a panic disorder experience this on a regular basis. It may happen in the car, the shower, kitchen, at work, school, in an elevator, a movie theatre, or restaurant. There are no warning signs. It makes no sense. If you struggle with this, be gracious to yourself, you are not alone, many others experience the same level of intensity and as often.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
We are given some great advice in God’s Word, “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” and “make allowance for each other’s faults” (Colossians 3:12-13, NLT). If you know of someone who struggles with any of these types of anxieties don’t ridicule them, belittle them, or embarrass them. Show compassion, be understanding, don’t think you are better than them because you don’t struggle with it, and be patient with them as they learn how to become aware of their anxiety and manage their anxiety. Make allowance for their struggle.
If you struggle with PTSD do the same for yourself. Don’t ridicule yourself, belittle yourself and think less of who you are. God created you and will help you. He has a wonderful plan for your life. Be patient with yourself as you learn to manage your anxiety and allow healing to come to you.
I want to recommend one action step for you to begin the journey of becoming more aware, calm, and present for yourself, others, and the Lord. Create an Anxiety Journal. This is not a diary. It is a journal for you to log and track various aspects of your anxiety. In it, you can record the who, what, where, when, why and how of your anxiety. You can record your insights, ideas, and resources that help you manage your anxiety. Throughout these articles I will refer back to your Anxiety Journal to offer new actions steps that you can take. It is a great tool that I believe you will find helpful if you commit yourself to it. Get a notebook, three-ring binder, or open a file on your computer and let’s get to work.
The first action step using the Anxiety Journal is to record when you are anxious and what it’s about. Create two columns: one column with the title Date/Time and the other column with the title What am I anxious about? Don’t concern yourself with trying to solve your anxiety or rationalize your anxiety. This exercise is designed to help you become more aware of your anxiety and what you are specifically nervous about.
When you write out your anxiety statement, write it as a matter of fact with no explanation. Your entries may look something like the following.
- Woke up this morning feeling anxious about the upcoming meeting today.
- For no reason I began to worry about my son, couldn’t get it off my mind.
- The clutter in the house is bothering me and I’m feeling edging about it.
- The way my spouse talks to me, makes me feel irritated and withdrawn.
- Started feeling apprehensive, just a general sense that something bad was going to happen.
Remember to add the date and time. Do this for two weeks. Once you have completed this look back over your notes to see if there are any reoccurring issues, themes, individuals, situations, or timing of the anxiety. This should give you insight into specific areas you need to focus on. This should help you become more aware of your anxieties and help to develop a more strategic strategy later in the process of managing your unique anxiety. At the end of two weeks, you may be surprised at how much you wrote down. Most people are. That’s okay. You are learning something about you. Whatever insights you learn about yourself or questions you have about what you see in your journal write those down as well. Don’t be afraid of what you will discover. God has a plan for you that involves more awareness, more calm, and more being truly present for others. You and God got this!
- How would you describe your anxiety?
- If you had to choose one of the following words, which one would best describe anxiety to you (worry, nervousness, unease, trepidation, suspicion, apprehension, fear, worry, dread)? Is there another word that best describes it for you?
- Do you find yourself being anxious more about something real or perceived?
- Do you experience anxiety more regarding an upcoming event or current situation?
- Can you share an example of how your anxiety has blocked your ability to be present with someone? How about how it has blocked your capacity to notice God?
- Do you believe anxiety is a sin? Why or why not? If you believe its not a sin, does that change your attitude toward anxiety in any way?
- How have you seen anxiety cause harm in a person’s life or relationships?
- Of the six major types of anxiety, which one do you relate to the most?
- Of the scriptures mentioned throughout the article, which one spoke to you the most and why?
- How does seeing anxiety as a weakness differ from seeing it as a sin?
- How can God use your anxiety?
[i] For an insight and practical look at anxiety along with a detailed examination of Philippians 4:4-8 I highly recommend Max Lucado’s book, “Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World.”
[ii] This is known as the doctrine of glorification.
[iii] Each of these weaknesses is a result of the sinful nature of man inherited from when sin entered the human race under Adam and Eve. When the human race was contaminated with sin weaknesses began to show and grow through mankind. This resulted in all kinds of weaknesses that include physical deformities, mental health issues, and emotional disorders.
[iv] For further study on weaknesses I recommend the following scriptures: 1 Corinthians 2:1-3; 2 Corinthians 11:28-33; 12:5-10; 13:4; Philippians 3:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Matthew 26:41; Romans 6:19; 8:26.
[v] Philippians 4:7, The Message
[vi] According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services there are five major types of anxiety. For more information about each one go to HHS.gov.
[vii] Panic attack is defined as a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety and physical symptoms, based on a perceived threat rather than imminent danger (Mayo Clinic).