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 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

A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament

When going on a trip, I always grab a couple of books to read and make sure my nook is loaded and charged. Our trip last month was no exception. We were headed up to see my in-laws and help them pack. In addition to my usual historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy books, I made sure to take a new book by my friend, Christina Fox, A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament.  The book is due out this week, and Christina had sent me a copy and asked me to review it.

Sitting on the plane, I opened the book and began to read. My eyes began to fill with tears as I realized that this book was exactly what I need to read at that moment. I read these words:

What happens when we don’t find the answers to our problems, when we can’t find peace through our Google searches, or when the solutions we have found fail us? What do we do when we are worried about our children or fearful about the unknown future? What do we do with those emotions? When the sorrow just won’t lift and the loneliness is more than we can bear, where do we go for help? For some of us, we seek comfort in food, shopping, or Facebook to quell the emotional turmoil stirring in our hearts. We might busy ourselves with projects or work long hours to keep our mind off our pain. We might look at our circumstances and seek to change our situation in the hope that we will finally feel at peace once our life has changed. (16)

You see, as I sat on that plane early in the morning, I was a bundled knot of anxiety, fear, worry, and sadness. I was worried about my son’s ear and how it would handle the flight. I was anxious about all the details that go with travel. I was grieving over broken relationships with family and friends. I was afraid of what the future might bring. And I was doing everything in my power to distract myself (reading a book …) and to control my surroundings so that I, myself, could overcome my circumstances on my own and be ready to stand on my own power for any bad thing the future might bring. And then I read that paragraph. And I stopped. And I cried. And I realized that God was using Christina’s words to get my attention and to work on my heart.

A Heart Set Free is a book about learning from the Psalms of Lament how to cry out to God. Instead of pretending our emotions don’t exist or that we aren’t hurting, we need to learn how to lament, how to express our emotions in our Christian walk:

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)

Christina starts the book with the bad news. Our worry, anxiety, fear, doubt are the result of sin:

Sin is the cause of all our pain and sorrow. It might be the sins of others committed against us that bring us feelings of shame. It might be the effects of sin on the creation around us that bring a natural disaster, resulting in loss and our subsequent grief. It might be the brokenness of our bodies, causing us emotional turmoil or the failure of our minds to work as God intended. It might be our own sinful responses to what happens in our lives. It might even be a combination of all these, but at its root, sin is what brings us all our sorrows, griefs, and fears. (39)

She goes on to explain that our normal means of coping (distraction, control, or simply giving in to the worry and fear) are not helping the situation. We’re making the problem worse and not actually dealing with our emotions. I was particularly convicted by what she had to say about using “control”:

Some of us try to handle our emotions, such as worry, fear, or anxiety by attempting to control all the things we worry or fear about. We make to-do lists and refuse to rest until each item is checked off . We research thoroughly everything that worries us. Google and Clorox are our two best friends. … Control is something we all desire but none of us have. … Our desire and pursuit of control are in fact a denial of God’s control. We don’t trust that His plans are good enough. We think we know bett er what we need. All the worrying, fretting, and stressing we do over our life situations stem from a lack of trust in God’s good and perfect plan for us. (40-41)

Thankfully the book doesn’t stop there and leave us condemning ourselves for our failures. Christina moves on to share the hope of the gospel for the believer wracked with fear or worry or depression:

The gospel of grace has not only saved us from our sins in the past and those in the future, but also empowers us in the present. It is applicable in our daily struggles of walking by faith. It frees us from the bondage of bitterness, anger, worry, fear, despair, and doubt. (59)

But the journey doesn’t end with recognizing our need for a Savior. Knowing that sin has caused our hearts such pain and accepting the grace that God gives us in our salvation through Christ, we still face the day to day challenge of living in a sinful, broken world. And this is where A Heart Set Free is very helpful.

Christina lays out the format of the Psalms of Lament and explains the various elements. The purpose it to teach us to make our own laments using the Psalms as a model. In the Psalms of Lament, there is a “three-part structure” that we can use in our prayers: crying out to God, asking for help, responding in trust and praise (87).

Using these steps we can begin to learn to express our emotions to God and learn to trust in Him through our painful situations. That last part is the one that really challenged me. Since the death of our daughter years ago, I have learned to cry out to God, to tell Him what I’m feeling. I realized months after Bethanne died that I was angry and that I was hurting. And it dawned on me that there was no use in pretending before God that I wasn’t. He knew. And not only did He already know, He loved me. He loved me even though I was angry and hurting. So I cried out to Him and told Him what was on my heart. And He heard me. The pain was still there, but things changed that day. I knew I wasn’t forgotten or unloved.

When my boys were born, I learned to ask God for help daily. Being a mother showed me how much I needed Him all the time. But I have always struggled with the final step. Having cried out and asked God for help, I tend to short circuit and go back to worry and trying to control my situations. The book reminded me that the next step is to trust God and praise Him:

This step of the laments is the part where many of us get to and we stop. It’s easy to cry out to God and ask for help but to trust Him in the darkness where we cannot see what’s ahead of us? That’s the hard part. (134)

And that’s where I found myself, with tears streaming down my face on that flight, crying out to God, asking Him for help, and then actually finishing my lament. I laid down my own struggle for control and praised God for His love and care and put my trust in Him to take care of my future. It was the first step in a lifelong journey of learning to trust even when life is painful.

I know that life will not be all sunshine and roses just because I’m learning to trust. Christina reminds us of that:

There may also be times when we go through this journey with the psalmist and we respond in trust and worship and still feel grief. We may still feel intense sorrow. This process of following the structure of the laments is not a magical incantation that erases all our emotions. It’s not a step by step list to follow that will take away our problems. But it is a journey that draws us closer to God. (138)

But even in the sadness, I can learn to have joy in Lord. He is my strength, and He will never leave me or forsake me. And that is the hope we can all cling to:

This joy can co-mingle with other emotions. It can co-exist side by side with other feelings and circumstances like sorrow and fear. Even when life is at its hardest, gospel joy is still there. It is always present, like an anchor in the storms of life. (139)

Like Christina recounts of her own life, I have struggled with anxiety, worry, and depression for much of my life. It’s my “thorn in my side” and so far, God has not removed it from me. Christina’s book has offered me hope, though. Not that I can finally fix this for myself, but that when my heart is filled with doubt and fear, when my anxious thoughts consume me, I can cry out to God. And He will hear me. Just like He heard the psalmists in their laments.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, male or female, young or old. No matter your struggles, God speaks to us through the Psalms of Lament, and through the Psalms of Lament , we can learn how to speak to God. Thank you, Christina, for writing this gem of a book. I pray many will read it and be helped by it.