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Entries in Anxiety (4)


Anxiety and Scaffolding

Last Monday, Adam Ford wrote a guest post about his experience with anxiety. It was well-received (as someone who struggles with this, I appreciated it), and Tim shared some responses to the post this morning. Some of those responses elicited a nod of support from me, and some of them led me to say aloud "wow, wow, wow." I am not here to respond to the individual responses, but I will say this: the connection between the physical and the emotional is more complex than we know, and to accuse an acutely depressed person of not really being ill because there is no blood test for it reflects ignorance and a lack of mercy. There is no blood test for stupidity, either, only behavioural evidence, but we know it exists. 

The issue of using medication for mental illness is still rather controversial. There are people who would shame those who use medication. I suspect those who would do so have never struggled with crippling anxiety; the kind that makes you afraid to be alone or not want to leave your house. A number of years ago, when I was teaching a ladies' bible study, there was a woman who struggled with anxiety and depression, and I made a comment that reflected my ignorance and lack of empathy. She called me on it, and I will always be grateful for her courage to confront me. In our conversastion, she shared with me a useful analogy. Medication is like scaffolding. It gives individuals support as they engage in the work of repair. How can someone who can barely get out of bed meditate on words of Scripture? She told me that medication helped her see things more clearly, so that she could identify how her patterns of thinking were contributing to her situation.

Every case of anxiety is different, but we tend to paint everyone with a broad brush. I think that is unwise. I have never struggled with being overweight. If I have put it on, I have been able to take it off again. Not every woman is the same. Some have different physical conditions, predispositions, and metabolisms. Every anxiety and depression sufferer has a different situation. There is no "one size fits all" approach to the matter, and we need to remember that if we're going to be remotely understanding.

If you can deal with your anxiety without medication, then praise God for it. But don't condemen someone who needs it. I suspect that those who take it already feel a certain amount of defeat as it is. No need to kick a brother or sister when they are down.


Before you advise someone with anxiety . . . 

. . . ask yourself if he/she is ready to hear what you're saying.

This past week, I read an interesting article about anxiety, written by Justin Taylor at the Gospel Coalition. The title, 8 Arguments for Why You Should Be Anxious Today, was provocative, so I clicked on it. For some people who struggle with anxiety, it would be an excellent resource. For some, it would only drive them to being more anxious.

I found the approach, speculating (albeit facetiously, I assume) about whether or not anxiety is "worth it" a little perplexing. Notions of "worth," whether serious or not, don't enter the mind of someone struggling with anxiety. It just happens. Believe it or not, people don't choose to feel anxious. They choose how to cope with it, but even then, it's not always as easy as some (probably the people who have never struggled with it) make it out to be. Anxiety is like a lion inside, waiting to roar, and we often don't know when that's coming.

I have had out of control anxiety. I suspect that I will continue to be sensitive in this area. This time, last year, had I read Justin Taylor's article, I would have thrown something through my monitor. The truth is that anxious Christans, those who struggle on an ongoing basis, know those truths. We've read the Bible. We've underlined verse after verse, written them in our journals, put them on index cards on our desk or refrigerator. And we still struggle. We know anxiety is not worth it. Anxiety is not something everyone can turn on and off like a switch. And everyone's situation is different. As my good friend Persis commented recently, human beings are much more complicated than we want them to be.

If you know someone who struggles with anxiety, be cautious about sharing articles like Taylor's. We all like to help, and it's easy to just send someone a well-meaning article. However, if the person's anxiety is out of control, it may be like talking to a wall. They may think you are not very sympathetic, that you don't understand. Whereas I can read the post today, and appreciate it, when my anxiety was out of control, I would have only felt worse.

Anxious people feel anxious about everything, including their anxiety. When we read the biblical exhortations and feel as if we've gained no success in our struggle, we feel anxious about our anxiety. It gets worse. We feel defeated. We feel like lousy Christians. We need biblical truth, but we also need to get a hold of the emotional roller coaster we're on, and for some, physical conditions are crucial. 

Unfortunately, I think there runs rampant in the Church the notion that there are no physiological issues related to anxiety; it's all just sin. At one time, I believed that, too. I've learned from experience just how much of an impact it has. Once I could deal with my health issues, I was able to benefit more fully from the regular biblical counsel I was being given. 

Biblical counsel is needed for someone struggling with anxiety, but before it will the most effective, the one struggling has to be approachable, and that may mean waiting. It may mean you help by simply sitting with the person while he's weak and trembling. It may mean praying with the person or just listening. The counsel in Taylor's post is great advice, but make no mistake, for someone struggling with anxiety, whether it's "worth it" or not never enters his mind.


The Gift of Anxiety

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. (Ps. 119:71) 

It started with physical symptoms: insomnia, tingling hands, chest pain, and a racing heart. I chalked it up to stress. I began feeling uneasy, and it got worse. The unexplained weight loss sent me to the doctor. He said he thought I had a problem with anxiety.

I've always tended toward being a fretter, but this was beyond anything I'd experienced. And as a Christian, there was that immediate sense of shame: how can you be anxious when you're a Christian? I was reluctant to tell people, and hoped it didn't show. When a woman faces something like diabetes or arthritis, there is not a sense of shame. It's not always the case with anxiety.

Christians who struggle with anxiety know what the bible says about it. We know what the verses say, and we take them like little pills. Take a dose of Philippians 4:6; how about a little Matthew 6:25-27; perhaps some Luke 22:22-34. Everything is okay now, right?

The trouble is that the head knows things the body doesn't often want to co-operate with. We forget that even though we are born again by the Spirit, we are still trapped in bodies of flesh, and bodies of flesh do struggle with anxiety. The fact that we can't get our anxiety under control causes more anxiety. It's a vicious circle. Anxiety is an unwelcome invader who arrives when you least expect him. 

I call anxiety a gift because it was a huge wake-up call for me; a wake-up call about what is really important. We lose the fear of man very quickly when we're just trying to get through a day without a melt down. We turn to God and take stock of things. At least, that is what I did. I didn't know any other way, really. I lost interest in many things I enjoy, but when I let them go, and saw that there was life on the other side, I realized how much time I'd wasted on fleeting fancies. It was a gift because it drove me to my sympathetic high priest who can offer help in the time of need.

Anxiety has taught me a lot about compassion. It has taught me that mental illness is not as black and white as we think. And it taught me that the church has a long way to go toward understanding it and helping its sufferers through it. There is a lot of misunderstanding about it. When a woman struggles with impatience, pride, or selfishness, we want to help. We know it takes time. But when it's anxiety, it's as if we think handing out a verse and reminding her that anxiety is a sin will be an automatic cure. It isn't. I feel great right now, and when I ran into my family doctor recently he asked me if I felt as good as I looked. But another thing I learned was the fleeting nature of feeling good. As I said, anxiety is the unwelcome invader, and invaders don't tell you ahead of time that they're coming.

I'm not sharing this to get sympathy. And I even debated about writing about it because I know there are a lot of Christians out there who would immediately question my faith; I will be considered "weak." Believe me, I questioned my faith, and I am still hesitant about admitting my struggle. I'm sharing this because anxiety is not an uncommon thing for women; it's more common than you think. And I'm positive that there are women out there who are struggling with this silently because of the stigma attached to it.

Perhaps you're a woman who struggles with anxiety, and you feel alone. Perhaps you're afraid to confess it to anyone but your own family members. Perhaps you think you could not possibly be saved because you have panic attacks. Do not give into those thoughts. Satan wants you to doubt your salvation. And when we are weak, we are even more susceptible to believing lies. Find someone to talk to and get help. 

Here are some quick suggestions: 

  • Get out and get exercise. Even if it's only ten minutes, go out and walk.
  • Try to be with people. Being alone feeds the tendency to dwell on things.
  • See your doctor. There could be many things contributing to your anxiety.
  • Pray. Even when you don't feel like it, pray.
  • Read your bible. Read the Psalms. They are full of comfort and reminders of who God is. 

If you're a reader, here are some books I recommend. 

Running Scared, Ed Welch
Living Without Worry, Tim Lane
Anxiety: Anatomy and Cure, Bob Kelleman 

If you're reading this and you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I'm not an expert, but I understand how frustrating this can be.


Fear requires a big God

I've been doing a book study with a friend the past few weeks. We've been reading Ed Welch's Running Scared, which deals with fear and anxiety. We all have fears, don't we? Welch is quick to point out as the book opens that everyone has fears, and fears only become more frequent as we grow from childhood to adulthood. It's part of living in a fallen world. The thing is not to give into the fears, but trust God despite our fears. That, of course, is easier said than done at times.

This past week, we read about the most frequent command in Scripture: "Do not be afraid." I think looking through the entire bible for that phrase would be an excellent study.

Our fears want to be in control. They want to be the boss, as Welch says. Fears escalate. Fears cause us to run to someone. Think of children, who, when they fear, run to a comforting parent. But to whom do we run? We should run to God above all, because people are fallible, and deep down we know that. As Welch says, "Fear calls out for a person bigger than ourselves."

The doctrine of God's sovereignty ought to comfort us, because that is what tells us that God is bigger than we are. God is the one who is control, not us. He is in control of the salvation of men and women. There is nothing we can do to merit salvation. It's all of God. John 15:16 reminds us that God chose us; we did not choose him.

Having a big God is crucial in moments of fear and anxiety. If we believe that salvation is a relationship whereby we must bring something to the table in order to be forgiven, how big is our God? If Christ's sacrifice on the cross only rendered the world "savable," is not the logical conclusion that we must do something in order to complete that action? The idea that we must "do" something only contributes to fears that we already have.

I've been reading Hebrews this summer as I prepare to teach it. I noticed in chapters 9 and 10 the phrase "once for all" is used a few times. The writer of Hebrews points out that the Old Testament sacrifices were inferior to the sacrifice of Christ because they were only shadows. Christ is the mediator of a new and better covenant. He is a new and better sacrifice because he is the sacrifice.

When Christ sacrified himself, it was "once for all," (Heb. 9:26). If that transaction isn't complete until people place their faith in it, how can it be "once for all?" I'm just sorting through these things; I don't actually have any definitive answers. That phrase, that Christ rendered the world, "savable," is one I have heard, and I've always had pause to think about it. If Christ's work is not finished until we believe, then is it any wonder we feel anxiety and fear? 

While we struggle with fear and anxiety, as we all do at some point in our lives, having a big God is crucial.