Anxiety: My Thorn in My Flesh

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 SoulPoor Sinner Dejected With FearPensive 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

18 thoughts on “Anxiety: My Thorn in My Flesh

  1. T.M. says:

    As I’ve gotten to my mid-40s, I’ve developed occasional panic attacks. Never had them before, so it may be low hormones of perimenopause. I’ve used some of the helps you suggest. I think having a list of them would be a great idea, because when anxiety and /or panic hit, it’s very hard to remember what to do. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing. That helps!

      • Rachael says:

        Same. I think this is a big problem with a lot of women. I would really encourage any woman in their mid 30s and up who has had problems with this to find a doctor that specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement and have your hormone levels tested. I was really in the thick of it, and then I started taking bioidentical progesterone to address hormonal imbalance and it was a total game changer. I’m sleeping soundly again, my heart doesn’t race, and I can have calm thoughts. The effect hormones have on our brain chemistry is profound. Obviously this doesn’t address any spiritual issues, but you need your body working properly first.

  2. Amy Mantravadi says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important issue. I myself have an anxiety disorder, but I don’t often talk about it publicly, because people jump to very odd assumptions. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with holistically, addressing the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. People need to realize that there is a physical component to anxiety that deserves medical treatment just like any other physical problem, but as you noted, that is often not the public perception. This is also an important issue for pastoral ministry, because something like 1 out of 3 women deal with anxiety at some point in their lives, and I’m not sure how much training or how many resources most pastors have available. Well, all things to consider. Thanks again!

  3. Laura says:

    Personal experience changes everything. I used to look down upon people who had anxiety or panic attacks. And also thought that meds were unnecessary (deal with life!!), unless it was a true mental illness. However, then I had an anxiety/panic attack! We have international students live with us – 90% of the time it is good – but 10% not. Long story short, we had a very difficult student live with us who caused major upheaval in our home – and I had an anxiety/panic attack. Now I am much more understanding. Too bad it took this for me to have empathy and not be so judgmental. Thanks for your post!

  4. Richard says:

    I experience stress/anxiety in my vocation as an attorney. I’ve found routine daily exercise, in my case, running in the middle of the day, putting aside work as I run, listen to sermons or talks on other subjects, has been tremendously beneficial. It’s a way of re-focusing and reducing anxiety without resorting to pills.

  5. Barbara Roberts says:

    I’ve suffered from depression at times in my life and anxiety often accompanied came the depression. But thankfully I’ve never had a panic attack.

    It took me ages to get to where I was so low *and desperate* that I sought medical help. I’m now happily on a low dose SSRI (one of the possible medicines for depression) and I have no shame and no regrets about taking the meds. The worst part was the period before I got to the doctor. When I finally dragged myself to the doctor I was so bad I couldn’t speak: I could only write what I wanted to tell him on a piece of paper. I felt so ashamed. But shame, I now realise, can be an artefact of the imbalanced brain chemicals and the longterm low mood I’d been in.

  6. shezablonde says:

    In the world , not of the world is a gift . Turn the news off ,it mostly has already happened and more can be done by Him in one sec of prayer than the world can ever do ..

  7. Terry Lodise says:

    I’ve been struggling with debilitating anxiety for about 6 years now. It is complicated by my physical disability and decreased functioning as I get older. Additionally, I’m unable to take medication due to severe effects on my muscles due to Cerebral Palsy. Anyway, I too pray constantly, rely on comforting scripture & music. I am blessed to also have a trusted friend who is a constant source of strength & encouragement. I have also experienced some alleviation and/or management of my anxious symptoms through meditation & therapeutic touch through Associative Awareness Technique (AAT). In addition to AAT I’ve gained relief through some use of Lavender essential oil. Phillipians 4:13 brings me through each day, only with His strength. May the peace of Christ comfort & strengthen you.

  8. Walt says:

    I’ve had anxiety and depression for years. Every medication I tried had intolerable side effects . Over the past 2 years, I found some psychological remedies that have helped immensely:
    1) do 30 minutes of cardio 5 times per week.
    2) Every hour, or as often as you feel anxiety, take a deep inbreath into your belly and pelvic floor and release through your nose over a count of 11. Repeat 3 times.
    3) Minimize time reading or watching the news or spending time on social media. Consider blocking websites with Cold Turkey.
    4) spend 1-5 minutes per day focusing on your breathing or some other sounds and letting go of racing thoughts.
    5) spend 10 – 20 seconds every hour bringing to mind things that make you feel calm and happy. This is explained better in “Why we are wired to worry” and “Hardwiring happiness.” Over time, this re-trains your brain to focus on such things automatically. It works quickly.
    6) I did EMDR. This helps a ton also.
    7) Tell yourself aloud to get out of your amygdala and to calm down.
    8) There’s nothing wrong with taking drugs, but they’re like a blunt weapon against anxiety and depression and don’t allow you to retrain your brain to calm itself naturally. I experienced side-effects which were worse than the problem the drugs were supposed to treat.
    God bless. You can get better!

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