I have struggled my entire life with anxiety, and I want to make a few distinctions before I go too far posting about Christians and anxiety. I think there are two sides of anxiety, maybe two different conditions, but they are closely related and often tangle together.
Clinical anxiety is a thing. I believe it’s real. And the reason I believe it’s real is that I’ve experienced clinical, physiological anxiety symptoms without fear. There are mornings I wake up having a panic attack. I have no idea what can trigger that. I’m not thinking scary thoughts. I’m not worrying or overthinking or doing anything one might imagine would lead to a physical panic reaction. To me that says it’s possible for chemicals in the body to go haywire and cause anxiety symptoms.
When God says not to fear, I don’t think he’s pointing fingers at my early-morning panic attack. It’s not a sin. It’s out of my control.
Sleeplessness for me will trigger physical anxiety, so I know to protect my sleeping hours. I know to watch my diet and take care of my body, as the physical symptoms of anxiety are worsened when the physical body isn’t being treated well. Maybe, if I ignore self-care completely, knowing it will make me prone to worry and distress and keep me distant from God, that comes closer to being a sin. At the least, if I’m not taking care of myself and I’m whining about anxiety, I might want to rethink my whining and take care of business.
But some days I do everything “right”, and anxiety shows up. What can you do? Medicine works for some people, and I’m good with that. That’s up there with self-care of the physical body. Some don’t agree, and that’s okay. But I’m good with chemical intervention. I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic, so I take medication to stay alive every single day. If my pancreas can fail, it seems to make sense that a brain could get sick and need help, too.
Those Glorious Thought Spirals
Then there’s the second prong of anxiety, and that’s what I mostly tackle here. It’s caused by thought patterns. Habits of time and influence. Worry. Overthinking. Under-trusting God. Sometimes it’s part of the journey from faithlessness to faithfulness, valleys of anxiety as we try to make sense of a giant, complex God in an also giant, complex world. Wrestling with God can be an anxious endeavor, but it can be part of the path, letting go of old beliefs and testing and tasting new.
But anxiety, the kind that happens in our minds and not exclusively our bodies, is more under our control than the physical stuff. I don’t know if it ever goes away, but we can try. (Sorry. I wish I was more certain that it’s entirely fixable.) I know that trusting God fully is the only way to tame it, and that’s the goal of much of what I post here. Let’s figure out how to trust, how to surrender, how to cling to God and not let the world take us down with our own fears. If nothing else, we’ll grow closer to God as we study Him and His Word to cope with our weaknesses.
So, two sides of anxiety. I said they interact, and I think that’s true. When I’m having a lot of physical anxiety symptoms, it’s hard to get my mind in the right place. I have to have a little extra grace with myself when that happens. I may take a few steps back from the spiritual practices that ease anxiety, because when my body is reacting wrong, I’m not always too rational. And on the flip side, letting my mind sink into destructive thought patterns—well, those can certainly trigger a physiological response.
A Quick Dive into Anxiety Triggers
So what do you do when you want to be fearless and you’re not? When it feels like you’re doing things right but it’s still hard to walk out the door or you’re lying in bed worrying about the economy or you spend too much time thinking about worst-case scenarios?
First, give yourself a break. Take a deep breath and face this like a puzzle. Your life is many pieces. Let’s see if any are out of line. Are you sleeping? Is your diet right? Too much caffeine? Too much social media? Is it the dark season when you might need to walk the mall under bright lights to feel better? If you take medication, are the doses still right? If you take mood-altering meds that suddenly aren’t working, do you need to adjust those? Are you moving, exercising? Do you have healthy friendships? Time with family? A hobby that gives your mind something to ponder? What in your physical or social world might be making things worse?
Again with the Two Sides of Anxiety
Tweaks in the physical and social realms might help calm the physical anxiety responses. But there are more things to consider, habits that can really derail those of us who worry. I mentioned social media, and I will say for some of us anxious people, social media is the death knell for peace. A couple years ago I left Facebook, and it was the best thing I ever did. I never have a clue what’s going on in the world, but I’m a happier person for it.
How about news? Do you binge on news? Or podcasts about improving yourself or making more money? Anything that might say to your brain over and over that you don’t measure up and you should worry about your place in this world? Anything that causes discontent?
How about time management? Do you move from social events, work, down time, hobby time, etc, with ease? Or is your life dominated by just one of those? Too much work? A mom who spends every waking hour with children? An elderly person who sees nobody and only watches TV? Or maybe there are so many events in your days you don’t have time to stop and rest and breathe.
Rhythms and Balance
I like rhythms. I’ve said that before. (You can read that HERE, in fact) A life with too much of anything lacks rhythms. Activity and rest. Light and dark. Slow days and fast days. Serious and light-hearted. Is your life in balance? I wrote a simple post on rhythms, and I stand by it. I think they are super important to mental and emotional well-being.
Jesus was a busy person, but what I don’t always consider was how much time he spent walking. From city to city, town to village. He would perform miracles, teach, pray, spend time alone in the morning to pray, and walk. He enjoyed meals with friends and told his followers stories. There’s a lot of diversity there, and a lot of it was good for both physical and mental health. Physical, social, mental, spiritual balance in his life. Rhythms.
Not that any of these things are guaranteed to calm the restless, anxious mind, but they’re the obvious offenders and the easiest fixes. So maybe take inventory today. Where might your physical life be contributing to anxiety? How about time management issues? Rhythms? Is your life all social or all isolated? Do you have a fix for any of those? (And I hope to touch on a lot of these in more detail in the future, so if you’re short on fixes right now, maybe I can help.)
Reflecting for a few moments every day and doing a deeper dive every few months keeps us aware of of the anxiety-producing things in our lives and allows us to correct course.Rebekah Lyons, Rhythms of Renewal
Let me know of other issues that you feel contribute to anxious souls. And if you have found fixes or work-arounds, I’d love to hear those, too. This is a journey, and it’s much more fun to be a pilgrim on this road with friends alongside, so feel free to visit the comment section as my friend.