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ANXIETY

Anxiety


I have had anxiety since childhood .  Not only was I afraid of the dark, I had anxiety about making bad grades, being late, other kids laughing at me, school performances, and even about the way I dressed. But it wasn’t just these types of things, there was also the deeper anxiety about what would happen if my parents died, if our house burned down, or even about what being an adult would look like.  As I grew up, my anxiety tagged along.  Anxiety about finding a job. Losing a job. Paying the bills. Finding a partner. Having children. Health. Safety. Security. And the list goes on. I can honestly say sometimes I have anxiety about anxiety itself. There have been times in my life when I have been absolutely paralyzed by anxiety.  Unable to think, unable to function, unable to move forward in any useful way.  I was so crippled by fear of the unknown, of what my future held.  I was determined it must be better to stay here in the present and worry, than to move forward,  facing what might be ahead. 


I know I’m not alone in my experience of anxiety, so there are a few things I want to share. First, What is anxiety?  Isn’t that the same things as stress?  The answer is not exactly.  Stress is the body’s emotional and physical response to a set of external circumstances. Stress and stressors can be positive or negative. A stressor could be anything from a new puppy to chronic illness. Both stress and anxiety cause almost identical symptoms like difficulty sleeping, racing heart, stomach and bowel troubles, low appetite, irritability, fatigue, and mood changes. Anxiety, however, occurs in the absence of an active stressor, usually in anticipation of a future event. Anxiety happens when we worry about the future. 


Second. Isn’t anxiety normal? Yes and no. Mild anxiety is a normal part of every day life. Every person faces small fears on a daily basis, and in coping through them, builds resilience and strength in the face of adversity.  Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it happens most days, is hard to control, lasts longer than 6 months, and is interfering with everyday life.  Anxiety may be generalized, with symptoms such as feeling restless or on edge, having muscle tension, trouble concentrating, irritabile, and difficulty sleeping. Others may experience panic disorder and have symptoms resembling a heart attack, with sweating, racing heart, sensation of choking, fear of dying, numbness, tingling, and chest pain. Still others may only experience anxiety about specific things or events such as speaking, being in public, or being separated from loved ones.  About 30% of people will experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder in their lifetime. 


Scripture gives us many examples of how God calls us to look to him when we are worried and anxious.  My favourite verses growing up were Philippians 4:6-7. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God that passess all understanding will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.” He goes on to tell us we can’t add a moment to our life by worrying about food or clothes. If he cares for birds and lilies with such attention, is there any doubt that he will care for us too! (Matthew 6:25-29).  But is it that easy? How many of us have prayed for God to take our anxieties away, and are still left with a deep gnawing angst inside us? Are we doing it wrong? Do we just need to pray more? Are we just not trusting God enough? I don’t think so. But there are times in my life when this was exactly what the church told me.  And its because of times like this, that I believe so strongly in the work and mission of Agora to equip churches to minister to those struggling with their mental health. 


In 2 Corinthians 10:15, God calls us to take every thought captive and make them obedient to him. But how do we do that?  He doesn’t want our hearts to be troubled, he wants us to trust in him. (John 14:1).  Taking thoughts captive takes work.  When we recognize our anxious thoughts it's important to use the tools God has given us to capture them and make them obedient to him.  Mindfulness based skills bring us back into the present moment by focusing on our breath, or the tangible things around us.  An easy skill to remember is 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.  Look around, name five things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3, things you can touch, 2, things you can smell, one thing you can taste.  Journaling helps us track our moods and thoughts and identify patterns of thinking and behavours.  Gratitude skills have been shown in research to decrease anxiety and increase happiness.  They also help us reflect on the ways in which God has already taken care of our needs over and over again. 


Sometimes taking thoughts captive is work that needs the insightful help of a therapist or mental health provider.  They can help by exploring unhelpful ways of thinking or how our thoughts influence our patterns of behaviour with programs like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. Finally, we can’t take our thoughts captive, if we can’t think clearly enough to do so.  Medical professionals can diagnose disorders that affect how we are thinking. Whether physical or mental, there are many illnesses which have symptoms similar to anxiety. It’s important to take care of our whole body, including our brains.  Sometimes we need medication to help stabilize brain chemistry and clear our thinking so that we can put the work in.  There is no shame in that! 


Our anxieties may seem big.  But our God is bigger.  I will finish with this metaphor shared with me by a hospital chaplain during one of my stays in the psychiatric ward.  All I remember are her shiny black shoes, because I was so broken by anxiety and fear, I couldn’t even raise my head to make eye contact.  I asked her for hope. Some way to hold on in the midst of suffering.  She painted a beautiful picture of a rose, slowly blooming to fullness. Each petal folds back to reveal yet another layer of colour and texture and aroma. With pruning, water, light, and fertile soil, it becomes what it was designed to be. The process takes time. We may not be where we want to be today.  Our anxiety may seem impossible to control. Take a breath. Nurture the soil. Prune off a distraction or addiction. Capture a thought, and call it into submission to God. Don’t conform to the patterns of this world.  Anxiety about the future, which is already in God’s hands. Instead allow yourself to be transformed, slowly but surely into the magnificent flower you were meant to be, by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2, emphasis added)

 

Rebecca Park


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