A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome (Google Dictionary);
A nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks (Google Dictionary);
An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure (American Psychological Association).
Fear is a natural and healthy bodily response to danger. It provides gut instinct, adrenaline, and helps keep us alive. Anxiety is when fear becomes paralyzing and begins to take over our minds (state of excessive uneasiness) and our bodies (increased blood pressure, heart rate, dizziness, difficulty breathing, nausea). Anxiety is when fear makes it difficult to function on a day-to-day basis or makes it difficult to trust and confide in friends and family. In my experience, anxiety can deeply impact one’s faith, both for the positive and the negative.
Let’s go dark for a moment.
Negative impacts caused by anxiety can make you question everything you thought you ever knew. I think it’s impossible to talk about the negative effects of anxiety without getting spiritual and philosophical. Because of my faith, I believe that there are spiritual forces all around us and that these forces do affect us. I think that anxiety is triggered by perfectly normal human conditions, but can be escalated by spiritual influences. Not always, but often. Unfortunately, Satan knows how we are wired and what our weaknesses are, and he fights dirty. So what starts out as a healthy, rational fear can quickly become irrational and obsessive. When we aren’t thinking clearly, chaos reigns. Bad decisions make logical sense, reckless behavior seems rational, and permanent solutions to temporary problems seem like the only viable option.
Anxiety also has a tendency to convince its bearers that it’s not as bad as it actually is. I’m the type of person who tries to push myself through with tough love, but I’m no longer convinced that’s an appropriate response to high levels of anxiety. There is a time to pull yourself up, grit your teeth, and get yourself over the mountain, but there’s also a time to admit that you need help getting over the mountain. It’s important to realize the difference.
In my experience, anxiety tends to cumulate. The more stress is heaped on me the further down I fall until I’m spiraling. When I’m spiraling in the dark, it’s difficult to tell which way is up. In those moments of chaos, anything that might offer relief is a welcome banner, whether it’s a good choice or not. That is why I emphasize the importance of community. At that point, I need someone to reach into the darkness, grab my hand, and start tugging me back toward the light. I need someone to help stop the world from tilting. But for someone on the outside, it can be hard to know what to do for a friend who is stumbling around in the dark.
It’s simple, really. Start by being there. Be so annoyingly in someone’s business that they have no choice but to acknowledge you. Be present. They might not respond for a while, but they can’t ignore you forever either.
Let’s circle back to the light.
I want to be clear: living with anxiety doesn’t make you less of a person, or a Christian. You can love Jesus and still struggle with fear and stress. You can be involved in the church and still have periods of self-doubt. None of us are perfect. The caveat is how you handle the fear and the stress. Do you turn to the Father or do you try to muddle through on your own?
That’s where anxiety can have a positive effect on faith. I know that seems like an oxymoron, but isn’t it when we’re at our lowest that we cry out to God for salvation? Isn’t it when we’re in the valley that we ask Him to walk with us and lead us out?
One of my greatest weaknesses is my anxiety. It’s definitely not something I would have chosen for myself. Since I know that I am more prone to worry, fear, stress, and that those things lead to depression, I make a greater effort to shore up my foundation (my relationship with Jesus) and my defenses (my devotional life, i.e. Scripture and prayer). I’m not perfect. I have moments (days, weeks) where I feel like I’ve lost my way. But Scripture pulls me back to myself. Hearing God’s promises through worship, answered prayer, or someone’s testimony remind me that God is bigger than anything I could ever fear. Clinging to the promise that there is always hope is how I find my way back from the spiral yet again. In that regard, I have to take a page out of Paul’s letter and be grateful for this thorn. It’s a constant reminder that I can’t do life by myself and that I need God.
How can you help?
I reiterate: be present, either physically or via some kind of messaging avenue.
Understand that you may not understand. Accept this and then resist the urge to tell someone with anxiety that they need to “get over it.” It’s not helpful because this is not a season of tough love. This is a season of support and encouragement. They need a community, not a coach.
In that vein, educate yourself on anxiety and its subcomponents. There are specific types of anxiety. For example, I have GAD (general anxiety disorder) and a little bit of both social anxiety and OCD (obsessive compulsive). I spent a good chunk of the past two years actively working on my social anxiety. My OCD was more present when I was younger, and it was never severe, but just enough that I knew it wasn’t normal behavior.
Don’t judge. Everyone is different, so everyone has different fears or triggers and presents their anxiety in different ways. Just because someone’s anxiety doesn’t look like (x) or your idea of what anxiety should be like doesn’t mean it’s not real. Just because some people choose to help manage their anxiety with medication doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God’s divine healing. A molehill to you might be a mountain to someone else.
One more time for the folks in the back: be present. The devil does some tricky work when we believe we are isolated from our people. Knock him out of the way and show up for the ones you love.
The mind is such a complex and beautiful thing. Let’s be proactive in protecting it.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk 😉