Do you ever feel overcome by anxiety? Are there things that keep you up at night with worry? We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with bad news. It is easy to believe that there is a life-threatening danger lurking around every corner.
This week our Overcome series addresses Anxiety. What is it? How can we deal with it in our own life and in the lives of those we love?
The first things we need to do is to clarify the term overcome. We don’t mean that chronic anxiety disorders are something that can be easily overcome or dismissed as no big deal.
We get the term overcome from John 16:33. Jesus did not overcome the violence and hatred of the world with violence and hatred. He promised his disciples peace, courage, and showed them how to defeat violence and hatred with love. (Read this post)
Jesus didn’t promise to remove the disciples from the trouble. He promised to be with them as they walk through it.
The way we overcome the issues of Anxiety, Anger, Depression, Grief, and Trauma is to come over to the person who suffers and walk with them.
This is called empathy.
Watch the RSA video of Brene Brown’s talk on Empathy.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the natural, God-given response to danger. Imagine that you are hiking through the woods. A deep growl rumbles from the forest and a flash of fur and claw lurches toward you. What do you do? Your autonomic nervous system will pump chemicals into your body to get you ready to do one of three things:
- Fight. The sympathetic nervous system will pump adrenaline to rev up your heart and prepare your muscles to fight back to defend yourself.
- Flight. Your brain might realize that you can’t overpower your adversary, but you might be able to run faster. Your sympathetic nervous system will crank up your system to run for your life, literally.
- Freeze. Your brain might realize that you can’t overpower or outrun the predator. You have one more option. This time the parasympathetic nervous system floods your body with all the chemicals that make you sleep. You shut down, go limp, and act dead. Maybe the predator won’t see you. Maybe they’ll play with you like a rag doll and lose interest. Your body is flooded with natural pain killers and you might even be unconscious, so it won’t hurt as bad as it could in the moment. (Read this post to learn more)
All of these responses happen within 1/20th of a second and are designed to last for about 45 seconds. That’s how long it takes a lion to take down a gazelle, so it makes sense.
If you survive the attack, your system will quickly return to a normal state of functioning.
This is good anxiety.
It happens when we perceive a danger. It might be a lion, but more often it is something like a big deadline approaching at work, an uncomfortable relative is staying for the weekend, taxes are due and you don’t have money, etc.
Anxiety is a Spectrum
Everyone experiences anxiety because life is full of dangerous things (both real and perceived).
The way people experience anxiety spreads across a wide spectrum. Some people encounter stressful things, go through the natural fight, flight, or freeze response and are able to recover and move on with life.
Some people experience anxiety in a much different way. The chemicals flood the body and they just don’t stop. The hyper-overdrive system that is designed to last 45 seconds may persist for minutes, even hours. This is called a panick attack. Sometimes it is triggered by a real threat. Sometimes it is triggered by something that makes no sense to the person, but the anxiety kicks in and takes over.
People who live with anxiety disorders often cannot explain when or why it happens. They just feel overwhelmed by a sense of dread and the autonomic nervous system takes over and they are hurled into an exhausting roller coaster of emotional and physical trauma.
We must remember that this is a physical phenomenon, similar to the challenges people face when the pancreas does not function properly and they develop diabetes, or the thyroid malfunctions and they either gain or lose excessive weight.
Anxiety disorders are real, physical challenges. Those who experience them need empathy from those who don’t.
What Does the Bible Say?
Let’s be clear about one thing. The Bible does not specifically address chronic anxiety disorders. The ancient world did not have categories for this in the same way we do today.
Here are three biblical reflections about anxiety in general.
First, Jesus often began an encounter with his disciples by saying, “peace.” They were stressed a lot. Sometimes they were freaked out by the miracles Jesus did, other times they were worried that they would be in trouble with the authorities.
They needed Jesus’ peace, and he freely offered it to them.
Second, Jesus said to not worry about things in life like food and clothing. He assured us that God cares for us. Our job is not to focus on those things, but to put our energy in loving God and our neighbors.
This is good advice that reminds me of something Stephen Covey said in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He said that much of our anxiety stems from the fact that we focus on things that we have no power to change. That only leads to frustration and stress. He suggests that we focus on the things we can change and let go of the other things. When we change the things we can, then often times our sphere of influence expands and we might be able to change more things down the road. Easier said than done.
Third, 1 Peter 5:7 tells us to cast all our anxiety on God because God cares for us. There are those two words again: anxiety and cares. Our anxiety comes when we care too much about things we can’t control. Our peace comes when we realize that God actually cares for us. God is with us, God is for us, and we won’t make this difficult journey alone.
What Can we do about it?
How can we help others who experience chronic anxiety?
- Express empathy.
- Don’t try to fix them.
- Don’t pepper them with questions.
- Sit with them and breathe deeply.
- Wait until the episode passes and gently invite them to talk about it and find help.
What Can you do if you experience chronic anxiety yourself?
- Seek psychotherapy
- Practice mindfulness
- Deep breathing and meditation
Some sites to find resources to journey with Anxiety
- Tamar Chansky PhD
- How to Overcome Anxiety
- talk space article
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America