Over the years I’ve had great men and women of God come to me and say, “Pastor, I am a follower of Jesus. I pray, read God’s Word, worship with other believers, and I’m involved in ministry and helping others grow spiritually. I love Jesus. Yet, I struggle with anxiety. I feel worried about things I shouldn’t worry about, and I can’t relax. Is there something wrong with me? I don’t know any other Christians who struggle with discouragement as much as I do. Things can be going great and yet on the inside I feel afraid and anxious. I feel like I’m not in control.” Does that sound like you or someone you know? God is keenly aware that His people struggle with anxiety. One of the first steps in managing anxiety is to recognize it when it is present. The earlier you are able to recognize it the sooner you can apply God’s help to your unique anxiety.[i]
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 paralyses 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.
I want to introduce you to a great man of God who struggled with anxiety and what God did for him. Then I want to help you recognize anxiety in you so you can address it before it becomes too overwhelming.
The Weight of Anxiety
Jesus cares about your heart and the heaviness that is on it more than you do. Jesus knows that you are very vulnerable when you are anxious. This is why Jesus said, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down… by the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34, NIV). Before we get into Elijah’s anxiety and how to recognize your anxiety let me share with you some helpful thoughts from this statement by Jesus on anxiety.
Life is filled with potential anxieties
The anxieties of life are those things that everyone, Christian or not, experiences that places stress on them. This would include pressure from work, conflict at home, financial concerns, health issues, and the like. Anxieties of life involve the people you date, you work with, or married too. It also includes having children, raising them, disciplining them, and providing for them. Sometimes the anxieties of life pile up on you such as being diagnosed with an illness, while going through a divorce, getting laid off at work, car breaks down and one of your teenage children getting into trouble all in the same week. Some life situations that create anxiety we can control or avoid by making wise decisions, but most of them we have no control over what they are and when they happen. God knows you will have your share of anxious moments and events, but He wants to prepare you for them and help you to manage and protect your heart when they occur.
Anxieties have the potential to slow you down
When your heart is weighed down by anxieties it is hard to do anything. Your heart is your control center. This is where you find your personality, intellect, emotions, and will. When your heart is heavy or overloaded you will find it difficult to think, control your emotions, and make good decisions. This is why you are told in Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (NLT). Part of guarding your heart is learning to managing your anxieties so you can think better, make wise decision, and be mentally and emotionally present with others and for others.
When I was in high school I worked for my uncle one summer. Part of that summer we worked on putting shingles on a couple of houses. My job was to carry the packages of shingles up the ladder and place them on the roof where needed. Each package weighed about 80 pounds. I would pick them up, place one on my shoulder, climb up the ladder, walk across the roof and lay it down… over and over and over again… in south Arkansas summer heat. Somewhere in that process I began to move slower, the packages seemed heavier, I had to concentrate more going up the ladder, my back started hurting, my legs would begin to feel weak, and I thought it would never finish it. That’s what anxiety can feel like and does to you. It slows you down, you start thinking only about the anxiety, it seems to get heavier over time, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end. It weighs you down.
Protect yourself against anxieties
To be careful means to be on guard and apply one’s mind to something.[ii] It’s to focus your attention and thoughts during times of stress and anxiety. The context of Luke 21 is the return of Christ. Therefore, your thoughts and attention are focused on the Lord’s return. Focusing on His return helps you to navigate and manage your anxieties by separating what is truly important in the big picture. The Greek word for be careful is prosecho and was also used to describe a captain that would bring his ship to land in order to secure it so it doesn’t drift away. That’s exactly what Jesus wants you to do. He wants you to bring your life to the shore of His truth and future return and anchor it there so you don’t drift away from the currents created by the anxieties of life.
The phrase that day will close on you suddenly like a trap is referring to the Lord’s future return. He doesn’t want you to live your life in chronic anxiety about the things of life but rather in chronic expectation of His return. Instead of suddenly being trapped by your anxieties be joyously trapped by the Lord’s return. Look forward to that day when you are gathered up to be with Him and all your anxieties will be left behind.
Now, let’s turn our attention to Elijah’s anxiety and what we can learn from him.
Elijah and Anxiety
If you feel like a second-class Christian because of your anxiety, then let me introduce you to Elijah. We find his story in 1 Kings 18 -19. In chapter 18 Elijah experienced great victory. He saw several miraculous things happen: a fierce fire from heaven consumed a burnt offering as a result of his prayer; justice fell on the prophets of Baal because Elijah was bold enough to stand against them and defend the power of the one true God and because of Elijah’s prayer and faith a long drought ended.
How glorious this experience must have been. He walked by faith in God. He was bold. He demonstrated courage. But as you move into chapter 19, you discover a change in Elijah’s mood. He received a death threat from Queen Jezebel, this was one wicked woman, and Elijah knew she meant every word she spoke. So what did this great servant of the Lord do in the face of the threat? Did he standup against her with great courage? No. Did he seek out God’s protection demonstrating great faith? No. We are told, Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died” (1 Kings 19:3-4, NLT). Look closely at what Elijah was feeling. He was afraid. He wanted to be alone so he isolated himself from everyone. He prayed, but instead of a prayer for courage, wisdom, or insight he prayed that God would end his life. He was exhausted (he told God, “I have had enough.”). He saw himself as worthless (“I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”). I feel sad for Elijah. His heart is weighed down. The anxieties of this situation have deeply impacted him. His self-concept is being attacked. He is physically worn out by this. Anxiety was saying, “You are worthless. It’s only going to get worse. There is nothing you can do about this? You need to get away, far away.”
One of the lessons we learn from Elijah is great and godly people get anxious. People of faith, like Elijah, experience anxious moments, but it doesn’t define them. For our encouragement and edification God gives us many more examples of strong people who struggled with anxiety. In addition, God gives us much direction and wisdom that address anxiety and what to do when it appears. We can’t look at them all, but let’s look at Elijah’s time of anxiety and see how God helped him manage it.
What did God do for Elijah to help him step out of his prison of anxiety? God did several things for Elijah which gives you insight on how to face anxiety in your own life. How do you defend or get yourself through anxiety? The answers are not going to sound very spiritual, but they are God’s divine answers for Elijah and for you. It was what Elijah needed and maybe you can find some hope and deliverance for yourself as well. God did four things for Elijah. He gave him rest, His presence, a purpose, and fellowship. Let’s examine each one.
You need rest
Sometimes the best thing you can do when you are afraid, worried, and filled with anxiety is take a nap. Anxiety has a way of draining you, wearing you out. For Elijah, he was so discouraged and overwhelmed that he asked God to take his life. By the way, anxiety does that to people. It makes the situation look and feel much worse than it really is. Anxiety makes reality look horrible and with no hope. Elijah is exhausted, doesn’t see himself, the situation, or God correctly. He wants to die. Look what happens beginning in verse 5: Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree. But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again. Then the angel of the Lord came again and touched him and said, “Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. There he came to a cave, where he spent the night. (1 Kings 19:5-8, NLT). What just happened here? Elijah has prayed, but God waits for him to go to sleep. While asleep, God sends an angel to wake him up and give him something to eat and drink. Then Elijah goes back to sleep. The angel lets him sleep for a while and then woke him up again so he could eat and drink some more. Notice carefully what God’s Word says strengthened Elijah, the food gave him enough strength. I think Elijah was so discouraged, overwhelmed, and filled with anxiety that he didn’t eat or drink anything. For some, anxiety will steal your appetite and rob you of sleep. While others may not feel like eating others will nervously graze on comfort foods. Either way, that will only add to your anxiety.
Elijah had become physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually weighed down with anxieties in his life. I’m convinced that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do in managing anxiety is to get plenty of rest and nutrition. I know that may not sound very spiritual for some of you, but that’s what God provided for Elijah to help him manage and get through his anxiety. Sometimes God’s answers are the simplest.
You need God’s presence
Elijah is now rested and fed, then God begins to speak to Elijah. Isn’t that how we all are. When you are tired and hungry it can be difficult to hear God clearly. God understands this about you. This is one reason Jesus would feed the crowds before He taught them or sent them home (Matthew 14:13-22). It is hard for most people to think about what God has just said or is saying on an empty stomach.
For Elijah, God knew it was time for him to hear a message and experience the Lord’s presence. He was now ready to receive from God. The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11, NIV). God has not given up on Elijah and he will not give up on you. Elijah ran in fear, but now God is getting him ready to walk in faith again. Proverbs 24:15 reminds us, “The godly may trip seven times, but they will get up again” (NLT). Elijah was getting up again. Elijah needed to be in the presence of God and hear from God. God was about to talk to Elijah.
Just because you struggle with anxiety does not mean God does not love you nor does it mean He doesn’t want to talk to you. He knows how you feel. He knows your frustration, irritation, fear, and worry. He has something important to say in that moment. Listen to Him. Allow God to talk to you. He may be saying something to you through this article. When you are in a time or season of anxiety you may be tempted to stop reading God’s Word, going to church, and doing ministry. Stay faithful to God in the little things. He will not abandon you nor leave you. He will speak to you, help you grow, and get you through this valley. Don’t give up. Keep listening for the voice of God in your life. He is talking.
You need a purpose
God has a plan and purpose for your life. It will not always be easy. In spite of the anxiety, get back to work. Get back to life. Get back to what God wants you to do. Get up again. Anxiety may have tripped you up, distracted you, or slowed you down but you can get back up and keep moving forward (Proverbs 24:16).
Notice what God told Elijah, Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet (1 Kings 19:15-16, NLT). God is saying, “Elijah, you know who you are. You know what you are about. Your identity is in Me and your purpose is about Me. You’ve had your rest. You’ve had your food. You’ve had your time with Me. You were not meant for this valley. You were not meant for this cave. You were meant for ministry. Your purpose in life is not over, I have many more things for you to do. Elijah you are still under my protection and you are still useful, valuable, and meaningful. Your anxiety does not define you or end you. I define you.”
Elijah was supposed to get up and go anoint this person, anoint that person, and anoint this other person. You know what God is saying? Go bless somebody. When you are discouraged and overwhelmed get up and go bless someone. Get that rest, spend some time with God in His Word, and then go bless someone. Don’t’ stay in that dark house, get out of that room, and find someone to bless in the name of Jesus. Get back to work. Get back to ministry. Get back to life. Anxiety does not define you or your life, God does.
You need others
When you are anxious allow God to bless you through others. At the end of verse 21 the Bible says that Elisha began to follow Elijah and became his servant. This is no coincidence that God placed Elisha in Elijah’s life right on the heels of his anxiety. When you are overwhelmed God will place somebody in your life to minister to you, bless you, encourage you, and help you carry whatever burden you may be carrying. Sometimes they show up as a friend, parent, sibling, or someone completely new or a combination of all the above. When they arrive in your life to bless you, let them bless you and let them attend to you.
God has placed people in your life who will help you manage your anxieties. They may not even know they are helping you with your fears and doubts, but God has placed them in your life because they have been gifted to do so. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
There are some believers in your life who have the gift of encouragement (Romans 12:8). Believers with the gift of encouragement are those people who say things and do things that inspire you, motivate you, and make you feel great about being a follower of Jesus. They uplift you when you are down and they seem to breathe the fresh air of heaven into your lungs. It’s hard to explain, but you know when you are around them. Encouragement protects you from becoming hard and bitter from anxiety’s deceitfulness (Heb. 3:12-13).
There are also people with the gift of mercy (Romans 12:8). The gift of mercy is the God-given spiritual ability to experience sympathy and empathy for someone else who is hurting and having the necessary resources to successfully comfort and strengthen that person. You feel cared for and loved by them. They are able to hurt when you hurt. They feel your pain. They help you to not feel alone.
God has provided His family with all kinds of people with spiritual gifts to help people. One of the reasons for spiritual gifts is to help “prepare God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12, NIV). The word “prepare” means to restore something to its original condition or to make complete. The word was often used as a medical term for the setting of bones. The word prepare is best remembered as repair. We are to use our spiritual gifts to help repair the damage that sin, Satan, and the world causes on the lives of others, this includes anxiety. If anxiety is left unchecked it will keep you from doing the works of service that God would have you to do. It will keep you on the sidelines rather than in the game.
I have said all that to say, you need other believers in your life. They need you in their lives. You are better with them than without them. Let them encourage you, walk with you, pray with you, and let them into your life to help repair the damage anxiety has done.
Can you recognize anxiety in you?
Elijah had several signs of someone who was struggling with anxiety. What about you? What does anxiety look like when it shows up in you? Where does anxiety begin for you? Where do you notice your anxiety showing up first? Is it in the way you think, feel, how you act, or your body? The earlier you recognize the signs or symptoms of anxiety the sooner you can address it and manage it.
There are four major ways that anxiety reveals itself. Typically, you will notice anxiety rising up within you through one of the following: your thinker, your feeler, your doer, or your body.
Your thinker is your mind. When you are anxious you may notice your mind spinning. You believe you can worry your way to peace. If you have a meeting coming up, then your mind will begin thinking through all the scenarios that may occur and you rehearse it in your mind over and over, what you will say or do. You may go to sleep thinking about it. You wake up thinking about it. You can’t stop thinking about it. These are signs of being anxious.
For Elijah, Jezebel’s personal threat against his life was obviously on his mind (1 Kings 19:1-3). He began to overthink the situation. I can hear him now, “What have I done?! I need to get out of here. God helped with the prophets of Baal, but He will not help protect me from this woman. Maybe God only had one miracle for me, but not another. I need to hide. I need to run as far away as possible.” His mind began to race and he made the decision to run.
Your situation is going to be different than Elijah’s. In your circumstance you may discover that you can’t concentrate or your memory gets worse. You start forgetting where you put things like the keys or phone. For others it may show up in over thinking the situation or rethinking the situation over and over again. Anxiety can cause some to be indecisive, mind going blank, or recurring bad memories that seem to keep replaying in their mind. When you are anxious it’s hard to think about anything else other than what you are anxious about. When you get anxious what does your mind do?
Your feeler is your emotions. Anxiety can create a wide variety of emotions. When you become anxious you may feel jittery, restless, on edge, impatient, or irritable. For some, it can feel like they have had too much caffeine. You may struggle with being calm, aware and present. You may find yourself talking faster, cleaning the house, working in the yard. Some people describe this as a racing heart. This emotional energy is trying to find its way out by being busy.
On the other hand you may feel like you are slowing down. Instead of a dose of emotional caffeine your anxiety reveals it’s self like an emotional sleeping pill. You start feeling lonely, sad, and withdrawn. You become pessimistic, anticipating the worse. A feeling of dread comes over you. You begin to experience low motivation and excitement. You may feel powerless. There may be an increase in sensitivity, outburst of anger or you find yourself easily upset.
For Elijah, he was afraid and prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:3-4). Elijah’s anxiety felt like fear and depression. Your anxiety may feel different, but it definitely comes with emotions. You may experience anger, frustration, annoyance, fear, worry, depression, dread, and loneliness to name a few. When you encounter anxiety what types of feelings do you experience?
Your doer is your behavior. Anxiety can make you want to be busy or do nothing at all. When you are experiencing anxiety notice what you do. Pay attention to your anxiety activities. Anxiety often generates obsessive or compulsive behavior like cleaning the house, rearranging the closet, checking things over and over again. I knew this woman who was having marriage concerns and would start cleaning the yard and raking leaves at 8:00 pm at night. Her anxiety was trying to get out of her, but had no place to go. Other signs of anxiety behavior can include nail biting, pacing, taping a pencil on the table, and other forms like these.
Sometimes anxiety causes people to become inactive. They start avoiding people and ignoring responsibilities. They call in sick, don’t clean the house, or neglect the care of the kids. They begin to isolate themselves and withdraw. They may start binge watching television or videos. I know this one person who will watch hours of pimple popping trying to escape their anxiety. How do you behave and what activities describe you when you are anxious?
For Elijah his anxiety activity included fleeing for his life out of fear (1 Kings 19:3) and isolation, when he left his servant and went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day (1 Kings 19:3-4). Elijah was running away from his responsibilities as a prophet of God. He was isolating himself and withdrawing.
Your body is designed by God to communicate. Your body will run a fever when it’s sick. It will become sleepy when it becomes tired. It sweats when it becomes hot. Your body is communicating to you all the time. This is no different when your experience anxiety. Your body will tell you when something is not right. Everyone’s body reacts to anxiety differently. Your body will react one way, while someone else will react another. Some people experience tightening in their gut or the feeling of butterflies in their stomach. For others their shoulders and neck tense up or they sense their jaw or back stiffening.
Our physical reactions to anxiety include fatigue, loss of appetite, munchies, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, heart pounding, flushing, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, dry mouth, headache, or trembling. How does your body communicate to you when you are experiencing anxiety?
For Elijah, he had a loss of appetite (1 Kings 19:5-8). The angel of the Lord fed Elijah twice before sending him on his next mission. This was a sign that he had not eaten in a while.
When asked, “How do you recognize when you are anxious?” some people may say, “In my body, my shoulders become tense” or “When my mind begins to race. I can’t stop thinking about it.” Others may say, “When I start looking for things to do to stay busy” or “When I quit caring about anything and shut down.” Some people notice it in their body first and say, “I get an upset stomach and lose my appetite.” However, there are some who say they recognize all four at the same time. If you say all four, then you are not really aware that you are anxious until you are completely fluttered. The good news is there is a lot you can do to notice you are anxious before it gets to this point. If this is you, I would recommend you ask someone who you trust and give them permission to help you identify when you are anxious. They probably see it or hear it in you before you do. They can help you recognize it earlier.
Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy” (NLT). When they point out your anxiety you may feel hurt, embarrassed, or deny it. Don’t blow them off, listen to them, they are trying to help you. They are trying to be honest based on what they see. You have asked them to observe you and report what they observe. They are concerned about you and sincerely want to help. Think of them as a coach or physical trainer for your mind and heart.
“I have no idea”
If you have no idea then I would suggest you find someone you can trust and ask them this question, “How do you know I am anxious before I know I am anxious?” If this is a trustworthy friend who will be honest with you, they will tell what they see in you when you are anxious. All you have to do is believe them. Be careful here, don’t try to defend yourself or correct them. You are asking them to tell you what they see when you get anxious. They are an eyewitness for you to help you recognize how anxiety reveals itself in you.
How do you react to anxiety?
Another way to look at how you react to anxiety is to think in terms of getting bigger or getting smaller. How do you react when you feel anxious, worried, upset, or nervous?
Some people get bigger. If this is you, you get bigger by taking charge. You must have the last word. You may getter louder and more firm in your speech. You may start telling others what they should do. You may think, “If they aren’t going to do it, then I will do it myself.” You try to take charge by overthinking, getting busy, or making list and notes.
Martha was this way. I assume she was nervous and anxious about having guest to her house, especially since it was Jesus. She wanted everything to be just right. Her anxiety caused her to focus on the house and the meal, while Jesus wanted her to focus on Him. Anxiety can cause you to be in the presence of Jesus, but ignore Him at the same time. Anxiety causes you to focus on the secondary things rather than the main things. (add scripture reference to this)
You are like a turtle in a shell. You are in a meeting and you no longer feel comfortable sharing your opinion. You are at a Bible study with a group of people, you are nervous, so you try to hide yourself by being quite. You may discover that you get smaller by lying on the couch all day watching movies, shows, or videos. You may find yourself watching the same kind of short videos on the internet over and over. You are trying to hide or escape the stress or ignore the fear. Getting smaller thinks, “If I ignore it, it will go away.” Getting smaller happens when someone begins to shut down. This can become a problem if you are responsible for cooking, cleaning, yard care, or getting the kids ready for school. Getting smaller often causes people to neglect their responsibilities. Elijah’s reaction was to get smaller. He ran, hid, and isolated himself.
Your anxiety may be silent. People may not notice a change on the outside but you are so stressed you can’t even manage simple tasks. People may call you lazy when, in reality, you are just overwhelmed.
In your Anxiety Journal begin a section called “Recognizing My Anxiety.” When you first notice your anxiety, write down two things.
- Write down what you are anxious about.
- Write down when you were first aware of it and how you became aware of it.
Your entries may look like this.
- I became anxious when I heard the children arguing. I noticed I was anxious when I became angry about it.
- I read a text from my boss that sounded like I had made a mistake. I noticed I was anxious because my mind kept thinking about what she meant and I was obsessing over every conversation and project I had worked on recently. Couldn’t stop thinking about it.
- I was at church and became nervous about the crowd. I felt my heart beating faster, my neck tensing up and my breathing started increasing.
- My spouse said something on the phone that irritated me. I noticed I was anxious when I started cleaning the house aggressively.
- My father-in-law said a passive-aggressive statement that got under my skin. I didn’t notice my anxiety until my spouse asked me if I was upset about something.
If you have been keeping an Anxiety Journal, you can look back over some of your previous entries to see if you can remember when you first noticed your anxiety. After you have several entries you will begin to see how you usually notice your anxiety. Remember, the earlier you recognize your anxiety the quicker you can address it, become calm and present for yourself and others.
- For Elijah what were the signs he was experiencing anxiety?
- Anxiety reveals itself to you in four ways, which way do you normally recognize it in you?
- When you get anxious what does your mind do?
- When you encounter anxiety what types of feelings do you experience?
- How do you behave and what activities describe you when you are anxious?
- How does your body communicate to you when you are experiencing anxiety?
- Do you tend to get bigger or smaller when feeling anxious? Explain what that looks like for you.
- What do you think about God’s provision for Elijah during his time of anxiety? How does God provide practical help for you when you are anxious?
- How does knowing your purpose help you with anxiety?
[i] When I say unique anxiety, I mean your anxiety is distinctive and individualized based on your personality and experiences. Your anxiety may be similar to others, but it will have its own special bent, flavor, and intensity to you. This is one reason why all anxiety management strategies do not work for everyone with similar anxieties. You will need to discover the strategy that best works for you.
[ii] The phrase “be careful” (prosecho) literally means to hold toward something with the idea of something holding your attention. In this context your mind is enraptured by the return of Christ. His future return brings you current relief from the pressures of life, knowing there is more to life than what you are worried about.