I woke up last week with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Nothing, in particular, was wrong, but that didn’t stop my mind from racing through every possible thing that I could worry about. And then it latched on to something. And I began to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. And then “but, what if?” And then it latched on again. And I continued to obsess about it. And worry about it. And I prayed and talked myself down. Again, and again, and again. For days. Every night I’d go to sleep praying about it. Every morning I’d wake up early with the same dread, and the cycle would begin again. It was exhausting.
It’s not the first time I’ve gone through episodes of heavy anxiety. Sometimes I know when to expect them, other times they seem to come out of the blue. During the worst of the anxiety last week, I read an article that explained anxiety better than anything I’ve read before: “Anxiety: Post Traumatic Stress for Something That Never Happened… But Might.”
Concerns that any “ordinary person” would have about normal things – children, finances, career, relationships, health – skyrocket. Your mind immediately imagines the worst possible outcomes of reasonable concerns. A loop of anxiety that begins with an initial surge of panic and ends in the replay of catastrophic outcomes runs in your mind. This cycle is repeated dozens of times in a given day and you cannot make it stop. As much as you try, you’re unable to let go of things “like normal people do.” Once your mind locks on to something its nearly impossible to get it loose. Someone captured the sensation of acute anxiety as a relentless “embracing of dread.” It comes complete with physiological effects; shortness of breathe, increased heart rate, disorientation, exhaustion.
Can I tell you the encouragement in knowing I’m not alone, that I’m not the only one who feels this way? After sharing the article with friends, I realized that the struggle with anxiety is something that many, many people have in common. I decided to write about my experience with anxiety and some of the coping techniques I have found helpful.
First, I want to address some myths about anxiety.
- Anxiety is just a lack of trust in God. I’d be the first to agree that I don’t trust God as I should, none of us do. But anxiety is much more than a lack of faith or trust. I want nothing more than to lay every anxious thought at the foot of the cross and allow God to handle it all. But that doesn’t make the anxiety go away.
- Anxiety is all in your head. Anxiety involves your whole body. It’s not simply thinking worrying thoughts. And many times addressing anxiety means addressing your whole body.
- Anxiety is just “spiritual”. Again anxiety involves your whole being. There is a spiritual aspect that must be addressed, but it’s not as simple as praying and reading your Bible more and you’ll be anxiety free.
- Anxiety is sin. Because our whole beings are affected by sin, sin will always be a part of what we do and what we struggle with. Sin can make us anxious. The effects of sin can make us anxious. And our fallen bodies can struggle with anxiety regardless of how strong our faith is. We can sin in our anxiety, but anxiety itself may or may not be the result of particular sin.
- Christians shouldn’t use anxiety medications. This one is a touchy issue. There are many people who are strongly against the use of medications to treat depression and anxiety. However, there is good research that suggests that medications are necessary and helpful for addressing the physical/biological aspect of depression/anxiety. We don’t stigmatize diabetics for needing insulin. We should be as kind to those suffering from anxiety and depression.
Second, I would like to give a little advice to anyone currently struggling with anxiety. There are many, many physical and hormonal imbalances that can cause us to be anxious. Low levels of vitamin D, vitamin B-12, and magnesium can lead to high levels of anxiety. For women particularly, low progesterone levels can cause all kinds of problems and especially bad anxiety. For men, low testosterone can cause both anxiety and depression. Thyroid is another big contributor to anxiety levels.
My advice is to get your doctor to test your levels. If your anxiety levels make going to the doctor extremely hard, I feel your pain. Regarding avoiding doctors, my approach is often like Jane Eyre: “I must keep in good health and not die.” But these vitamin and hormone problems can be fairly easy to treat and are worth pursuing. It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether anxiety medications might be helpful for you. I realize the hypocrisy of me saying this since I haven’t gotten up the nerve to do so. Yet.
Even with treating the underlying causes of your anxiety, you may continue to struggle with anxiety. What I want to talk about next are some of the practical things that I’ve found helpful in fighting the good fight against anxiety. These are not meant as replacements for medication or medical treatment. They are simply ways of coping.
- Destress your life. I know that we can’t always control our level of stress. Kids/parents get sick and need help. Crises arise. Life is tough. But where we can reduce unnecessary stress, it is helpful to do so. Sometimes it means saying no and not overextending yourself. Knowing and acknowledging our limits is a good thing.
- Rest. Our society does not like to rest. We push and push and push until we drop. Our bodies and minds and souls need rest. We were created to rest. It reminds us that we do have limits and that’s a good thing.
- Exercise. Our bodies were also created to work and work physically. I’m not suggesting we all need to run a marathon, but regular exercise is a good way to combat anxiety. Several friends recommended gardening as a type of exercise which goes well with my next point.
- Get outside. Living in the land of eternal summer, it’s often too hot to be out much here. But getting outside even for short periods of time can be very helpful in dealing with anxiety. It does us good to get away from all the electronics in our lives. Granted, with wifi, we can take them with us, but maybe leave those at home and go for a walk.
- Limit your time on social media. Many new studies show the negative effects on our mental health in spending so much time online. We fear missing out. We get depressed by how much better others’ lives seem to be going. We worry over every piece of news, real or “alternative”. We spread ourselves too thin.
- Eat well. This is not a plug for any particular diet or fad. Eat regular meals of real food. Our bodies need fuel and running on caffeine, chocolate, fries, and alcohol will take a toll. Not to say anything is inherently wrong with those things, just that all things should be done in moderation. We need balance.
- Talk to a trusted friend. Everyone who struggles with anxiety and the cycle of intrusive worries needs a safe person to talk to, someone who can listen and encourage. It’s so important to have someone you can tell about the “crazy” and know they aren’t actually thinking you’re crazy.
- Hug someone. We were created for community, and we need physical affection. Hugs from friends or from our kids or from our spouses can be calming and encouraging. It’s a reminder that we’re loved.
- Pray. I know it seems obvious, right? Of course, we should pray. But in the grip of anxiety, it’s often extremely hard to remember to pray. We have a God who hears us and who cares. He’s called us to cast every anxiety on him (1 Peter 5:7). He’s told us not to worry about tomorrow because He is sovereign (Matthew 6:25ff). He’s told us to be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6). He’s promised us His peace (John 14:27).
- Read the Scriptures. There is a great comfort to be found in the words of the Bible. The passages above are all great places to start when addressing anxiety. My go-to place is Psalms. As Christina Fox wrote in A Heart Set Free:
In fact, the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament, give us a structure for how to express our feelings. They remind us what is true. They point us to God’s love and faithfulness. They help us journey through the dark valleys until we can emerge on the other side and bow in grateful worship. (17)
- Sing or listen to hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Music speaks to my heart and soul. In my times of deepest struggles, there are many hymns and songs that have ministered to me. These words come back to me again and again. I’m convinced that many of the hymn and song writers have struggled with anxiety and depression. Some of my favorites are hymns such as Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Jesus I am Resting, Resting, I Need Thee Every Hour, Blessed Assurance. There are many songs by Indelible Grace that have helped me. Some of them are Give to the Wind Thy Fears, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul, Poor Sinner Dejected With Fear, Pensive Doubting Fearful Heart. Sandra McCracken is one of my favorites. Her Psalms album is excellent: My Help, My God (Psalm 42). JJ Heller is another favorite. So many of her songs have encouraged me: Have Mercy On Me. To lift my spirits, I really enjoy Rend Collective Experiment: Joy Of The Lord.
- Do something for someone else. In my experience, anxiety tends to be very introspective. It can help to shift your focus from your fears to doing something productive for someone else.
- Remember your own history. If anxiety isn’t a new struggle for you, it can help to remember that you’ve been through these struggles before. It helps me to remember that I’ve felt this way before, that the intensity of the struggle did pass, and that I did feel better again. It also helps me to reflect on my track record of being anxious over things that turned out to be nothing. My anxious feelings aren’t the best indicator of actual problems.
- Remember your God. For all that is changeable and uncertain in the world and in my life, one thing is secure. God is my refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1). No one can pluck me from His hand (John 10:28-30). Nothing can separate me from His love (Romans 8:31-39), not even my “what ifs”. He will never leave me or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5). And these promises are true for every one of His children.
There is much more that could be said about fighting anxiety, and many good books have been written on the subject. This is not an exhaustive list, just some encouragement from one anxious Christian to another. Feel free to comment and add any encouragement you might have that I didn’t discuss.
A few things I’d like to encourage you to remember.
- You are not a bad Christian because you struggle with anxiety and/or depression. Many strong believers have struggled before: Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, to name a few.
- While we shouldn’t ignore our feelings and intuition, we need to remember that our anxious feelings lie to us.
- You are not a weak person because you struggle with anxiety. Everyone struggles with something.
- You aren’t going crazy, although anxiety can make you feel that way.
- God isn’t punishing you.
- God hasn’t forgotten you.
- God will not abandon you.
One day, this struggle will end. Maybe on this side of glory, but maybe not. By God’s grace, a day is coming when everything will be made new and there will be no more tears or sadness (Revelation 21). Until that day, God will give you the grace and strength and mercy to fight each day. Like manna, that grace comes with enough for today and a promise for more for tomorrow. Don’t give up hope.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13 NASB