Anxiety

       I’m a thinker. I think a lot – very often, too much. And many times, if I don’t catch myself, I will get completely lost in my own thoughts… so much so, that I’ll totally miss everything else that’s going on around me (makes you want to ride with me while I’m driving, huh?). In fact, most people don’t know this, but after a big day at church or a major performance, sermon, project, or what have you, I sometimes meditate on the event for quite some time. I’m worthless in anything else. Sometimes after one of these events, it takes me hours to go to sleep – if I go to sleep at all. My wife puts up with more than you know 🙂
       A few years back, I sat in a professional counselor’s office as he explained my anxiety to me. He said that instead of parallel and perpendicular lines, my thoughts look more like a big plate of spaghetti. Besides making me hungry for pasta, that really cleared things up for me. Many times, I couldn’t even trace a thought back to its origin because it had gotten so tangled in other thoughts and ideas. Since then (with that counselor’s help), I have learned to manage my anxiety a lot better. It still creeps up on me every now and then, but by the grace of God, it no longer consumes me.

       There’s another kind of anxiety. One that weighs people down, and all but debilitates them. It is usually coupled with fear. Fear of what? – the unknown.

       Do you remember those precious years in your child’s life when he would ask a bazillion questions every day? How about when he was insistent on playing the “Why?” game? You know the “Why?” game, don’t you? It always ends with “Because I said so.” Or at least it did in my house anyway.

       I’ve only been counseling formally for a little over two years. You may be surprised to know that most of my counselees (yes, that’s a real word) present with some form of anxiety. Usually just situational anxiety brought on by a current crisis in their lives, but sometimes even more chronic. I’ve heard pastors preach about anxiety before…

Philippians 4:6-7 – “Don’t worry about anything [or; Be anxious for nothing], but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This really is an excellent passage. And when exegeted properly, can give the anxious Christian powerful tools with which to combat a worry-some attitude. Allow me to list those tools quickly:

1. Pray to God. He is the One who can give the peace you need.  
2. Pray with a spirit of thanksgiving. Yes, let your requests and concerns be made knows to God, but do so with a thankful heart. What has God done for you? For what can you be thankful? Being thankful reminds you that God has not abandoned you, and that He has always and will always have your best interest at heart.
3. The peace that God gives is not equivalent to understanding. God doesn’t promise to give understanding. But He does promise to give peace that passes understanding. And not only is this peace incomprehensible from a human perspective, it is also an umbrella of covering. It transcends all of your worrisome thoughts. Those thoughts may still be present, but if you follow the prescription in this passage, you will be at peace in their midst.
4. This cure for anxiety is only available to Christians. The peace that guards hearts and minds is only found “in Christ Jesus.”

BUT… these four points are not usually what we hear from this passage of scripture. It more frequently boils down to something like: “Get over it! Don’t worry! Don’t be anxious! Forget about your problems and focus on God!” Most likely, the pastors who make these kinds of statements have never sincerely struggled with anxiety. I’ve heard so many Christians beating themselves up over not being able to “just forget about it,” or to “get over it and focus on God.” If preachers only knew the damage this causes. Instead of curing anxiety, this approach actually worsens it… anxious Christians may begin to wonder why they can’t “just get over it,” and doubt their salvation, devotion to God, or belief in His Word.

       If a person has a biochemical imbalance – a disturbance in the functionality of neurotransmitters like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA’s), adrenaline, and cortisol – then a really powerful, heartfelt sermon is not going to cure it. Sometimes, medicine is necessary (only when time-limited, and accompanied by professional counseling services), and almost every time, strategic intervention is necessary. Do you have to see a counselor? No – but there’s nothing wrong with or degrading about getting some help to assist you in overcoming difficulties in your life. 

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       If you’re struggling with some form of anxiety and just can’t seem to get over it, I want to give you a few tips… First of all, the biblical passage mentioned above, with its proper exegesis, is paramount. I pray you can use that information, and that the Holy Spirit guides you into a more secure relationship with God as you study and reflect on His Word. Scripture is first. But I do have one more practical piece of advice for you…


       One thing I’ve learned about anxiety – through my own personal struggles and counseling practice – is this: Anxiety is fueled by unanswered questionsFear of the unknown. Clients presenting with anxiety usually let their mind race with questions to which they do not know the answer. “What if…” “I wonder what ‘X’ was like…” “Why did he/she do that…” “How is ‘X’ going to affect me for the rest of my life…” These are all examples of questions that feed anxiety. While there are no improper questions, per se, there are times when questions are unnecessary, and even unhealthy. 
       Questions aren’t bad. But there are times when they, as mentioned above, are unhealthy or unnecessary. If you are finding your mind racing with thoughts, your eating habits are being affected, your amount of sleep is deprived, or you feel sick to your stomach often, turn your inquisitive mind into something that might benefit you by asking these questions:

1. What am I worried about? – Identify a single thing/item/problem/thought on which you are dwelling.

2. What question(s) am I asking myself about this problem? – WRITE THEM DOWN – ALL OF THEM! You need to physically look at the questions you are fantasizing over.

—> SIDE NOTE: Sometimes, Numbers 1 and 2 need to be reversed. If you can’t identify the source of the problem, list the question on which you are dwelling. Do those questions have a common theme? A common person? A common idea? A common time period? A common event? 

3. Is there a way I can find out the answer for sure? – Most of the time, the answer to this question is “no.” Thinking back over the years, I had a couple in for crisis marital counseling, after a suspected affair on the husband’s part. One of the questions driving the wife insane was, “Did the other woman love him like I do?” There is no possible way that she can find the answer to this question. To constantly consider it was unfair to herself (and everyone else affected by her anxiety). If a question is unanswerable, identify it as such [write “unanswerable” beside it, or scratch it out], and move to the next question. It will not help you to project your fantasies onto unanswerable questions.

4. If I find out the answer, will it change the way I feel? – If you’re reading this blog post and you’ve never dealt with anxiety, this probably seems like a stupid question. But I assure you, it isn’t. Sometimes we worry over things that really are unnecessary. Playing off of the last example: “What kind of car did she drive?” “Does she have any children? “Was it raining, sunny, cloudy, etc?” If those questions are on the list you’ve written, then label them as unhealthy, or scratch them out.

5. If the question is answerable, and not unhealthy, then who can I ask to get the correct answer? – This is the hard part. If there are questions left on your list (and I’m sure there are), then you need to address them. Not by going to your friends and having them speculate about the answers. This will certainly make matters worse. No, go to the person(s) who can give you a correct and definite answer. Now we anxious people don’t like this part. Why? Two reasons.
       (a) It means that we have to face what we are afraid of head-on, and accept the consequences. Your worst fear may be truth. But if you don’t find out for sure, then the vicious cycle of anxiety will continue. One thing that usually characterizes anxiety is the thought that, “If ‘X’ is true, then life will be horrible.” You may find out, to your surprise, that even if “X” is true, life still goes on. But you won’t find it out if you don’t ask. On the flip side of this, many times when you ask the difficult question to someone who can answer it truthfully, the answer is not what you fantasized about at all. It’s completely different, and you’ve allowed the question’s possible answers to steal your joy for a long time.
       (b) It means that we have to stop being anxious. If anxiety has consumed you for some time, it has become a way of life for you. It is a sure-fire, fool-proof way to isolate yourself and your feelings from the rest of humanity. If you ask the question and get a truthful answer, that means you may have to give up your fantasizing and open up your emotions. It means you may become emotionally vulnerable. Can I tell you a secret? – I’ve been there. It’s sensational. I know it’s scary, but it really is a catharsis of sorts. When those emotions start coming out, instead of being locked inside your body among a spaghetti-like blanket of interweaving thoughts, there is great relief.

6. If you are still struggling with anxiety, go see a counselor. There is nothing wrong with getting help. If you let your anxiety nest within for a considerable amount of time, it dredges itself deeper and deeper, and eventually affects every fiber of your being – emotional, physical, spiritual, interpersonal. If you don’t get a grip on it within a couple of weeks, go get help.

Should you want to read more about your anxiety, a couple of really great books I recommend are (and IN THIS ORDER)…

Worry-Free Living. By Frank Mirth (M.D.), Paul Meier (M.D.), and Don Hawkins (Th.M.).

Telling Yourself the Truth. By William Backus (Ph.D) and Marie Chapman (Ph.D.)

The Anxiety Cure. By Dr. Archibald Hart.

Grace and Peace,
Tony

8 thoughts on “Anxiety

  1. Thanks, Renetha – you know, I don't know what I would do without a loving, involved church family. I know there are some great fellowships where you are… 🙂

  2. (Part 1)Before I step on my soapbox, I have two comments to make:First of all, the only initials behind my name are M.O.M., so I'm pretty sure that most of what I say will have no professional credibility and is only fueled by personal experience and extreme opinion regarding this topic.Second of all, I'm aware that anxiety and depression are not the same struggle and are not synonyms of each other; however, I battled and was “treated” for both at the same time, so sometimes I use those terms interchangeably although I'm quite aware that they're not the same, so in the course of my rant, if I accidentally use them synonymously, I apologize. Moving on…This is a hot-button topic for me. I believe that as a church, we've categorized this (anxiety, depression, mental/emotional illness, whatever you wanna call it) and marriage struggles as taboo topics within what we're willing to discuss in the midst of our “Christian circles,” but especially among people who are involved in vocational ministry or church leadership. (And by “as a church,” I don't specifically mean CBC Rosenberg. :)When I was in college, I made some very dumb choices over a lengthy period of time. And by dumb choices, I mean I was sinning. Shocking I know since I attended a Christian and even a Baptist university. 🙂 I wasn't doing this on my own and was caught up in a cycle of sin with a few other believers. Because of these relationships, choices, and their consequential effects on my life, I spiraled into a two and a half year long period of extreme anxiety and depression. Thankfully, I no longer consider depression a regular, daily battle, but that is not the case for anxiety, but more on that later…

  3. (Part 2)I was hurt deeply and repeatedly by other Christians who were some of my closest friends, and we were all “serving the Lord together” in ministry, but at the same time I was deeply and repeatedly hurting my parents by some of my choices that they had warned me against. The point of all that is to say that I had issues as a result of this whole lengthy ordeal because I learned to trust NO ONE, especially if they were involved in ministry because of the anxiety and depression that this triggered in my life. (And by the way, I have no idea if this is accurate or not, but it has been my personal experience and belief that some people are predisposed to facing anxiety/depression and that different things (major life events, tragedies, etc.) trigger its onset in different people.) For the next several years/months, I would relive the entire experience and individual events to try to figure out “where things went wrong,” why I didn't see certain things coming, would ____ having happened if I'd done _____ instead?, what would have happened if ___________ hadn't happened? Would I still be stuck in ________ relationship if __________ hadn't happened? Etc. Meanwhile the rest of my friends had moved on with their lives months ago!!

  4. (Part 3)I eventually sought help (exactly as you described—time-limited and accompanied by professional counseling services) because these questions/what-ifs became debilitating, and I needed to finish college and get on with my life and function as a normal human being! My relationship with my parents and the Lord was restored, and I cannot be thankful enough for second, third, and fiftieth chances. But for a significant amount of time, even after all of those important relationships were on the mend, my mind and my thoughts were held captive by the enemy, and it was as though I was watching a movie of my own life and pressing “rewind” over and over and over again to replay certain events. You completely hit the nail on the head when you said, “a really powerful, heartfelt sermon is not going to cure it” because I prayed daily for God to remove this thorn from my life, to erase memories, to help me “get over it and move on.” It was not for lack of trying that I couldn't “move on.” I would search out the Scriptures for that one specific verse that would be the trigger to reverse what I was going through, but that didn't happen until much later. I didn't dare share my constant struggle with anyone because most people had a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps and move on” type attitude. One day though, I found and really meditated on the following verse 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I knew in my heart and mind that continuing down this path of thoughts that held me prisoner didn't honor God and was preventing me from growing in Him and becoming Christlike in character. Sin always begins as a thought, and I knew that my thoughts needed to be obedient to Him if I had any hope of moving on, and that is one my my life verses, although it's not one of those “feel good,” hold hands, and sing “Kum Ba Yah” type verses and probably not one that you're gonna have painted on some beautiful canvas to hang on your child's nursery, not nevertheless, it was so infinitely powerful in my life. With the help of that verse, some counseling, and some medicine (for about 6 months), I did eventually move on and become a functioning college student. That was another thing about struggling with anxiety/depression…people can't understand how a successful college student could have anything to be depressed or anxious over. And for anyone seeking medicine as the single, solitary cure for their anxiety, Jesus truly is the one peace-giver. The medicine helped me get back on track and function and finish school and get through life day to day, but the Holy Spirit was the only one who could control my thoughts and actions and responses to those thoughts. Plus, I was only on it for about 6 months, and I still to this day struggle with anxiety, so I am daily depending on my Savior to sustain me!

  5. (Part 4)It wasn't until the last 2-3 years that I've felt comfortable sharing my experiences with others. Partly that's because they're very real and very personal to me, and sharing my experience naturally causes me to relive that period of my life, and I have to keep my thoughts and anxieties in check all over again, even as I'm sharing. Also, call me crazy, but I'm human and since so much of this story involves SIN on my behalf, I don't really care to reveal my past to people. But another reason that I hesitated to share with people is because there is a good amount of people who have misconceptions about people who struggle with anxiety/depression/mental illnesses, etc., and their attitude is just that…that if your joy and hope is in the Lord, you should have nothing to worry about or be anxious about and that all it takes is just a simple mindset change, and you should be cured. It's not always that easy, but you accurately pointed that out in your post. Over the past few years though, God has brought into my life people who have had similar experiences as me (even if the trigger that led them there wasn't the same), and they needed to know that someone has gone down a similar path and come out on the other side, and He really convicted me and changed my heart about not concealing this part of my past. I also think that it is very relieving for people to learn that people who are called into church ministry are just as “real” and have just as “real” struggles that make us “normal” (or abnormal) and very much still in need of a Savior and God's grace and forgiveness in our lives. This might make me a jerk, but I DO believe that there are people who are “Debbie Downers” who just suck the life out of people (especially within a church type setting) due to their neediness, constant need for affirmation and “pick me ups,” and overall bad attitude and feeling about life, but often times those people do everything they can NOT to conceal their feelings, emotions, and struggles, and all but advertise them to anyone who'll listen. I know that while I was daily battling depression and anxiety, I didn't want anyone to know about it because I didn't want to come across as attention-seeking; in fact, the last thing I wanted was for anyone to notice me or figure out that I had issues, but the Lord changed my heart and reminded me that it was His place and His place alone to know the attitude of the heart and the intentions of others and myself and that I was being disobedient by not encouraging others with everything that He had accomplished in my life just because I was afraid of what others might think or confuse me with. While I did obviously “move on” from this experience in my life, it wasn't until the past year or so that I could say that I truly am thankful for this time in my life because God can use this time and experience to point others to Him, and that's really all that I want my life to be about, regardless of how He does it.

  6. (PaRT 5)As a by-product of this experience, I still struggle with anxiety almost on a daily basis. The five questions that you shared are unbelievably valuable, and I'd never encountered them before until I read your blog post, and I can only imagine how much they would have helped me in the past, so I've printed them off and put them in a safe place for future reference! Because I conditioned myself to relive experiences over and over for almost two and a half years, that hasn't been an easy process to break, so I still find myself doing that on a regular basis. Even little things that would seem so insignificant to other people are a big deal to me because I replay them over and over in my head and try to figure out how I should have done something differently, worded something in a different way, dressed differently, and the list literally could go on and on for hours. Fortunately, Stephen is very helpful about keeping me grounded and will actually sometimes ask me questions similar to the ones on your list whenever I'm losing sleep over something, such as, “Did it really happen that way? Even if you could have done something differently, would you have? Or, even if you could have done something differently, do you think that would have changed the outcome?” Etc… Sometimes I think that anxiety affects your (my) perception of reality and how things REALLY happened as opposed to how you (I) think that they happened.I think you should set up a Paypal account and make people pay you to read this blog because it was almost like a counseling session! Ha!The End.

  7. Courtney – First of all, let me say that since you've printed off my questions, every time you look at them, I'll expect a $10 royalty. Lol. j/k. Just like you – I desire the Lord to use me and all of the experience/knowledge (however miniscule it may be) that He has given me for His glory and His glory alone.Secondly, I would like to say that I, too, have found that there is a certain stigma among church members and fellow ministers alike – that ministers should be "above" counseling. I know many pastors that have sought out counseling for one reason or another, but refuse to ever admit it among their church members, friends, or fellow ministers. I delight in the fact that God chose the simple of this world to lead and teach the complicated, and that you and I – both ministers – are real people who encounter real problems in life. 2 Cor. 1:4 tells us that we are to comfort others with the comfort we have received. Shame on me if I refuse to allow God to use His victory over my struggles to help someone else on the same destructive path that I've escaped by His hand. And lastly, I'm very glad that you brought up that last bit about anxiety altering your view of reality. That is a VERY real danger in patients with anxiety. The more hypothetical possibilities one entertains, the more likely reality/truth is to become lost in the tangled web of fantastic cognition. Plainly put – the more we fantasize, the more we lose the truth.Thank you for your honesty and your willingness to be used by God for His glory, no matter what that looks like.

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