Anxiety exists and spreads in four spaces: the space in you, the space between you and another, the space inside the other, and the space between others. Once you become aware of these four spaces you can begin to manage them. The sooner you can identify them, the sooner you can be calm and present, available to serve and bless others.
God’s Word encourages us “to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13, NLT). One of the ways you can serve others is to help recognize and manage your own anxiety along with keeping anxiety from spreading from you to others or from others to you. You can be the person who brings love and peace into the room rather than the one who escalates the anxiety. As you learn how to manage anxiety your ability to serve and bless others increases. Managing anxiety requires you to become aware of the four spaces of anxiety.
Anxiety can cause you to not see what is really going on. When you get anxious reality becomes blurred and a false reality replaces it. It is difficult to think clearly or reason logically. As a result, you become highly reactive, but God wants you to be calm, aware, and present. Knowing and understanding the four spaces of anxiety can help you not catch the anxiety all around you or let it spread from others to you and from you to others.
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.
Anxiety exists and spreads in four spaces: the space in me, the space between me and another, the space inside the other, and the space between others.[i] Once you become aware of these four spaces you can begin to manage them. The sooner you can identify them, the sooner you can be calm, present and available to serve.
The space in me
This is the space just below the surface. It’s like lava underneath the surface. You can feel it churning within you. In the right situations it could erupt. This can be felt when you feel embarrassed, pressured for time, need people’s approval, or sitting in a noisy or cluttered room. You know you are experiencing anxiety when one or more of the following occurs.[ii] These are indications the lava is heating up.
- Your thinker: Your mind begins to speed up or slow down. You begin to overthink or underthink the situation. Everyone is different. For some their mind begins to spin, going over and over the circumstance. For others their mind begins to feel like its stopping or working in slow motion. They can’t concentrate, memory gets worse, and have a tendency to become indecisive.
- Your feeler: You may feel jittery, restless, on edge, impatient, or irritable. For others they feel lonely, withdrawn, pessimistic, or low motivation.
- Your body: Most people begin to feel their neck and shoulders tightening up or stomach cramps. For others they begin to feel tired, loss of appetite or the munchies. Some experience their heart pounding and a headache.
- Your doer: You notice yourself either getting busy or shutting down. For those who get busy they start cleaning the house, rearranging a closet, or working on the yard. The nervous energy from your anxiety is trying to work itself out of you. For those who shut down they will start avoiding people, binge watching videos, sleeping more or ignoring responsibilities.
Proverbs 12:25 states, “Anxiety in a person’s heart weights it down, but a good word makes it glad” (NASB). This is referring to the space inside you – “in a person’s heart.” When someone is anxious about the future, what someone thinks about them, or that they are not good enough then it can feel like an emotional weight that drags them down. When I was younger I played football. One of the exercises the coach had us do were fifty yard sprints while carrying another player equal to our own weight. They were called Bear Sprints. The coach would have my partner jump on my back, blow the whistle, and I would run with them for fifty yards. Then I would jump on his back and he would run the fifty yards back. We would repeat this grueling exercise over and over. Each time I carried my partner, the heavier he seemed to get and the slower I became. Eventually, I got to where I could barely walk and carry him at the same time. This is what anxiety does. It jumps on the back of your heart and it weights it down. The longer it stays there the heavier it feels. It’s hard to think straight, get anything done, and everything seems to take more effort. It takes more effort to get out of bed, get dressed, go to work, have normal conversations, pay attention to your children, pray, or worship. All you can think about is the anxiety.
My desire in this series of articles is to offer “a good word” that will make your heart “glad” and lighten the load of anxiety on your life. I want to help you manage the anxiety inside you so you can experience the life God has for you and be used by God to bless others as you learn how to be more aware, calm, and present.
Throughout his life David experienced much anxiety. Some of his anxiety came from his own poor choices, while some of his anxieties came from those around him. I’m sure he felt anxiety within himself when he fought a bear as a young boy to defend his father’s sheep or when he walked through dangerous valleys leading his sheep to greener pastures. I’m confident that as a teenager he experienced anxiety when he faced the Philistine giant, Goliath. When he became king, he would experience all the anxiety that comes from wearing the crown. In various seasons of his life, David felt forgotten by God. In battle, David marshaled armies. David was tempted and sinned greatly. David had a man killed in an attempt to cover up his sin. David knew about anxiety and its power to tear your heart apart. Yet he wrote, “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, your comfort delights my soul” (Psalm 94:19, NASB).
Notice David refers to the space within himself. Just like David, you may experience anxiety that seems to “multiply within” you. Inside of you, your anxiety grows. It multiplies. One anxious thought divides in two and the two divide into four and the intensity of the nervousness, apprehension, or dread increases. You ask God for help, you remind yourself of how great God is, you thank Him for all the wonderful things he has done and is doing in your life, and you take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ and His kingdom (Philippians 4:4-8; 2 Cor. 10:3-5). Through it all God comforts you, calms you, and brings you back to His reality and your soul is once again experiencing God’s delight and comfort. It happened for David and it can happen for you. As God leads you to the other side of anxiety you to will be able to say, “Your comfort delights my soul.”[iii]
The space between me and another
This space deals with relational anxiety. This is when your anxiety is triggered because of tension, apprehension, worry, or fear in regards to someone in your life. This is the space between you and your spouse, you and your child or parent, you and a coworker, you and someone at church or you and a stranger at the store. There are many sources that can create anxiety in a relationship.[iv]
One of these sources is mixed messages. A mixed message is two conflicting messages arriving at the same time from someone. A passive-aggressive statement, sarcasm, or unclear commands are mixed messages. Mixed messages are difficult to process because of the two opposite signals you are receiving. These mixed messages leave you feeling confused and hurt. Mixed signals cause relational anxiety for you because you don’t know which signal to receive and which to reject.
Another source is the phantom mob. This is used when one person takes a shot at you, but he is bringing a hidden army with him. It is any variation of “Me and a group of people who aren’t here and who I can’t name all think you made a mistake.” A phantom mob attack can be painful because it is a direct hit. Your pain is multiplied because you can’t face your accusers head on and now your internal triggers are at work. Is the whole organization talking about me? Are the people who are kind to my face stabbing me in the back? Who can I trust? How long have they thought this about me? Since you don’t have any access to any information, your mind fills in the gaps, usually to a pathological level, making something potentially much bigger than it really is.
Another source of relational anxiety is triangulation. A triangulated relationship is any three-person relationship that should have two people in it. This isn’t to be confused with a three-person relationship that should have three people in it! A healthy three-person relationship might be a father, mother, and daughter who all relate together. A triangulated version of that relationship is where the daughter says, “Don’t tell Dad” or the father says to the daughter, “I’ll let you do it, but your mother is going to lose it. You know how you mom can be.” A triangulated relationship is where two people conspire against the third person or one person brings in an outsider into a two-person relationship in order to manipulate the third person.
I mention these three simply to give examples of how anxiety can show up between you and another. There are a hundred other ways anxiety occurs between people, but the sooner you can train yourself to recognize anxiety developing between you and others the sooner you can begin to manage the tension. The sooner you can be aware, calm, and present the more at peace you will be even when someone is trying to work you up.
The space between you and another God addresses in His Word when He says things like love one another (1 Thess. 3:12), forgive one another (Eph. 4:31), accept one another (Rom. 15:7), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10), stop passing judgment on one another (Rom. 14:13), have concern for one another (1 Cor. 12:25), carrying one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32), allow for each other’s faults (Col. 3:13), encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), build each other up (1Thess. 5:11), don’t slander one another (James 4:11), Don’t complain against each other (James 5:9), pray for each other (James 5:16), and be humble toward one another (1 Peter 5:5). Wow! Can you imagine what life would be like if the space between you and others was filled with all that? You may not be able to control what the other person does, but you can control how you react. Instead of getting anxious, let’s fill that space with forgiveness, encouragement, kindness, compassion, love, and honor.
The space inside the other
The space inside the other has two aspects: the anxiety inside the other person and your perceived assumptions about what you believe they are thinking (technically this is inside of you, but you are thinking about what’s inside of them).
Anxiety inside the other
The space inside others can be a space where anxieties already exist. Your coworker may be under pressure due to their personal deadlines, feeling like they haven’t done a good enough job on the last project, judgmental of others who let them down on the last assignment, or worried about an upcoming meeting. Your coworker is carrying anxiety inside them. Their anxiety is not your responsibility. You can only manage your anxiety, not yours and theirs. However, you can keep their anxiety from spreading to you and you may be able to influence their anxiety by helping them lower it by being aware, calm, and present while in their presence.
Several years ago, my wife had a boss that was filled with anxiety. He was in a constant state of pressure, stress, and worry. Each year they had a huge fundraiser that involved a national speaker, a large conference and banquet hall, and guests with a lot of money. One day when working on this project my wife’s boss asked her if she had heard back from the banquet hall regarding a specific issue and she had not. He was blaming her for not trying hard enough to get a response back and said, “If you are not panicking then you don’t know how important this is!” At that moment, my wife had a choice. She could let the anxiety inside of him infect her or she could recognize the space for where it was and remain aware, calm, and present. Anxiety wants to spread. Anxiety can be contagious. The anxiety inside my wife’s boss was trying to spread. It wants to infect others. The sooner you are aware of the anxiety in others the sooner you can defend yourself from catching their anxiety.
When you feel anxious because someone else is anxious it is called second-hand anxiety. You are experiencing second-hand anxiety when you are worrying about someone else’s problem or feeling rushed because someone else is. God created you with mirror neurons in the brain that give you the capacity to understand others. It’s how you develop empathy. But it also means you are wired to absorb other people’s anxieties, fears, worries, and frustrations. Be careful here, because God wants you to sympathize and empathize, but not internalize. With sympathy you can help carry another person’s burden, but if you internalize their burden it now becomes your burden. The burden has doubled. This is a subtle difference, but huge when it comes to being aware, calm, and present to help and minister to others. Peter clearly stated, “Sympathize with each other” (1 Peter 3:8, NLT). By sympathizing you are able to care without internalizing it. Paul said, “Share each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2, NLT). Sharing each other’s burdens is different from internalizing them. When you internalize someone else’s anxiety you create another set of anxiety. There is one already existing inside the other and now you have it existing inside you.
The anxiety inside others wants to spread. You will need to protect yourself from their “anxiety virus.” Some people find it helpful to write the names of people who stress them out on a piece of paper and let them go. It’s a physical and mental act of releasing their anxiety from you. My version of this involved golf balls. I used to play and enjoy golf until I injured my back. My golf days are over sadly to say, for me golf was therapy. Being outdoors and on rare occasions hitting that one shot that would win the Masters (at least in my imagination). If I was becoming aware that I was beginning to pick up the anxiety from someone, I would take some old golf balls and write the person’s name or initials on it. Tee up the ball and intentionally aim for the woods. There was something therapeutic about seeing that golf ball that represented the conflict, tension, and anxiety associated with that person get lost in the woods.
Sometimes you need to remind yourself you cannot control the anger, anxiety, or stress that someone is carrying, but you can do something about not letting it spread from them to you.
One way we let the space inside the other affect us is called allodoxaphobia. This is an irrational fear of opinions. This is where you are thinking about what they are thinking about. A people pleaser will spend too much time thinking, “I wonder what they think about me?” You are at work, someone walks by and gives you a look, then your mind begins trying to decipher that look. Whether they meant anything about the look is not the issue. The issue is you are now trying to get inside their space, their head, trying to decipher what they meant by that look. You start thinking, “Are they mad at me? Am I doing something wrong? They should not have looked at me like that, what’s their problem?” In two seconds you went from not thinking about them at all to being consumed by what they think about you. You become anxious, nervous, fearful, angry, and distracted.
Various forms of allodoxaphobia can show up with anyone at any time. One of my sons struggled with this. He always thought people were judging him. I would walk passed his room; he would be playing video games and would say, “I can feel you judging me.” He was aware of this anxiety and would simply say it out loud in a funny tone as part of his coping mechanism.
The space between others
That is the anxiety that already exists in the space between two people before you arrive. You encounter this anxiety space when you enter a room or conversation where tension existed before you arrived. This is the anxiety between members of the wedding party, between your coworkers, between your children, between your parents, or between two of your friends. It’s that awkward feeling you get when you realize you have interrupted or encountered two people arguing. You are the unwanted third wheel in this anxious encounter.
Now there are times when God will lead you to intervene between two people. Paul says something interesting in Philippians 4 to two women who were in conflict with each other: “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life” (Philippians 4:2-3, NLT). Euodia and Syntche were experiencing conflict between each other. The space between them was filled with anxiety. Some quick observations: (1) People who are committed to Christ and His message will have disagreements. Godly people who love Jesus and His church will have disagreements. This is common. Don’t be surprised when it happens. (2) When you are aware, calm, and present like Paul was you can intervene and encourage people to address their disagreement. Sometimes a mediator needs to step in and help two people reconcile. (3) We are not told what the disagreement was, but it was significant enough for Paul to mention it and recruit a partner in the ministry to get involved as well. It’s okay to involve others to help bring resolution. What Paul is attempting to do is be a peacemaker between two others.
Because you live in a fallen world, you will encounter anxiety between two people on a regular basis. There will be times God will call on you to be a mediator between two people or two groups of people (Matthew 18:15-20). To be an effective mediator you will need to be aware of the four spaces of anxiety: in you, between you and another, inside the other, and between others. As you guide the conversation and help bring about reconciliation you will discover that protecting yourself against second-hand anxiety, allodoxaphobia, and your understanding of relational anxiety will be useful in serving others. As a mediator managing your own anxiety and being able to remain aware, calm, and present will be crucial.
The Message of Anxiety vs the Message of Christ
What does the four spaces of anxiety have to do with me and my faith in God? Just as anxiety freely moves and spreads through the four spaces, the same is true about God’s presence being felt and moved through the four spaces. How is my faith expressed and God’s presence revealed within me? Within in the other? Between me and another? Between two others? Part of the answer deals with the two messages, one coming from anxiety and the other coming from God.
Be careful when listening to the voice of anxiety. Anxiety has a gospel. A false gospel. It has a message, but it is always one of doom and gloom. If you pay attention to what anxiety is saying you will quickly discover it is the opposite of what God is saying. We will look at this in greater detail in a later article, but for now let me introduce you to the two conflicting messages. There are five major conflicting messages.[v]
- Control: Anxiety says, “You must be in control. You need to take charge.”
- Perfection: Anxiety says, “You must do it better. You must be better. You are not good enough.”
- Always having the answer: Anxiety says, “You must know the answer. If you don’t know the answer people will look down on you.”
- Always being there for people: Anxiety says, “You must help them. You are the only one who can help.”
- People’s approval: Anxiety says, “You must make them happy, or they will not like you or even worse leave you.”
The gospel of anxiety tries to convince you that you need to be in control, you need to be perfect, you need to always have the answer, you need to always be there for people, or you need everyone’s approval to be happy. These are the five false needs that if you don’t get you will be filled with anxiety and reactivity. Do you relate to any of these? It is unusual if you have all five and it would be equally unusual if you only have one of the five.
The message of anxiety is false. It lies to you. It deceives you. It tries to trap you into believing something about you, others, and God that is not true. It leaves you feeling overwhelmed, abandoned, and exhausted. Anxiety sees a mole on the skin and immediately thinks cancer. Anxiety sees a delay in God’s answer and instantly believes God doesn’t care.
What’s interesting about these five is that these are the five core characteristics of God. These are the reasons that we have given our lives to worship God. Listen to what the gospel of God says about these.
- Control: God says, “I’m omnipotent. I’m in control. I’m sovereign.”
- Perfection: God says, “I’m perfect. I’m holy. I’m without sin.”
- Always having the answer: God says, “I’m omniscient. I know everything.”
- Always being there for people: God says, “I’m omnipresent. I’m everywhere.”
- People’s approval: God says, “I’m self-sufficient. Your approval and identity is in Me.”
Here is the horrible danger. If you listen to the voice of anxiety rather than the voice of God, you will replace God with yourself. It’s not your responsibility to control everything, it’s God’s. You don’t have to be perfect, God already is. It’s okay if you don’t know everything or the solution to everything, God does. You can’t help everyone or be there for everyone, but God can. You don’t have to seek people’s approval if you are already approved of by God in Christ.
I want to see you set free from the prison of anxiety and walking in the freedom of God’s presence. You are not your anxiety. You are not defined by your fears and worries. You are defined by God. Your identity is in Him. You are who He says you are. You can do what He says you can do.
1 John 4 says that “perfect love expels all fear” (1 John 4:18, NLT). Fear is an expression of anxiety. It is very difficult to be anxious when you are encountering the perfect love of God. In the same way, when you are filled with anxiety it is very difficult to be aware of God’s presence. It’s not that anxiety removes God’s presence, its that anxiety removes our awareness of God’s presence. Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling anxious you forget that God is with you? Anxiety can become an early detection system, like a tornado siren. If you can learn the signs of when you are anxious you can use that proactively to pause and remember that God is with you. The sooner you notice that you have stopped noticing that God is with you, the sooner you can return to calm and experiencing God’s presence regardless of what space you see or experience anxiety.
To “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, NIV) is believing the message of Jesus rather than the message of anxiety. Casting is an intentional act to relocate an object. So take your anxiety and relocate from within you and place it on Jesus. As you sense anxiety welling up inside you, cast it in the direction of Christ. Do so specifically and immediately.
Anxiety Journal: Identify the Space
In your Anxiety Journal (see Meaning of Anxiety article for an introduction and description of an Anxiety Journal) create a third column titled anxiety space. Beside each account of anxiety you wrote down write out which space the anxiety was. In your third column you would write one of the following.
- In me
- In the other
- Between me and the other
- Between two others
Once you train yourself to recognize where the anxiety is, it will prepare you for later to apply appropriate strategies to manage the anxiety in the correct space. There is a difference between managing the anxiety in you versus managing (or protecting yourself) from the anxiety between two others.
Anxiety Journal: The Voice of Anxiety
The voice of anxiety is cruel and vicious. It says horrible things to you. It is important that you clearly understand what your anxiety is saying to you. In your Anxiety Journal begin writing down what the message of anxiety is saying to you. Be specific. You might write something down like the following.
- You are never going to lose weight.
- You should feel nervous, because nothing works out for you.
- You should have never been born.
- Your spouse doesn’t love you.
- You are going to lose your job.
- You are going to get sick.
- You are worthless.
- You are ugly.
- Nobody likes you.
Remember, as you write these down they are exaggerated lies about you and your situation. Anxiety does not speak the truth. This exercise will help you identify what anxiety is actually saying to you and what common messages it seems to repeat. As much as possible write down exactly what you are hearing or thinking. Beside each statement write a one word description for that statement. You may choose words like “unkind,” “cruel,” “mean,” “untrue,” or “vicious.” You will discover that the voice of anxiety will say things to you that you would never say to anyone else or would want anyone to say to anyone else. For some this is difficult, because it is hard to write down these horrible statements but it will be worth it in the end as you discover how the devil is using the voice of anxiety to keep you discouraged, defeated, and afraid.
Don’t underestimate the power of prayer. God does not want you to live in a constant state of anxiety (Philippians 4:6). As you discover things about yourself and about your anxiety thank God for what He is revealing to you and how He is growing you and maturing you (Philippians 4:6-7).
- Why is it important to know about the four spaces of anxiety?
- Which space are you more naturally attuned too? Why do you think that is?
- Which space do you need some work on? Why? What can you do to improve your awareness?
- In your opinion, how does being aware of the four spaces of anxiety help you serve others?
- How does anxiety spread from one space to another?
- Which aspect of the message of anxiety do you tend to hear most often in your life? What does this say about you?
- What should your response be to the gospel of anxiety?
- How does anxiety diminish your awareness of God’s presence?
- Why does God want you to cast your anxiety on Him?
- How do you cast your anxiety on God? Be specific and practical.
[i] The first time I heard about the four spaces of anxiety was from Steve Cuss through his video series on RightNow Media. I would recommend his book Managing Leadership Anxiety. Even though he addresses anxiety within leaders most of his book can apply to anyone.
[ii] These are the four indicators to look for when you are experiencing anxiety. The sooner you recognize anxiety is building up inside you the quicker you can manage your anxiety rather than it managing you. For a greater look at these four indicators see my article, “Recognizing Anxiety.”
[iii] God comforts His people primarily through His Word. However, He also comforts us through others. People speak words of hope and encouragement to us and they give us good advice or counsel that resets our thinking. God also comforts us through professionals like doctors or counselors who are able to prescribe medication or techniques that help us with our battle against anxiety.
[iv] Sources of relational anxiety vary. For a detailed explanation of relational anxiety see my article, Sources of Relational Anxiety. In that article I address cognitive dissonance, mixed messages, double binds, paradox, phantom strikes, land mines, power and responsibility, and triangulation.
[v] I first heard about the five messages of anxiety in relation to the five messages of the gospel from Steve Cuss in a teaching series called Managing Anxiety: Yours and Theirs on RightNow Media.