Should We Be Ashamed of Anxiety?
Have you ever noticed how many words there are in English to describe fear? We can be anxious, afraid, alarmed, worried, nervous, jittery, frantic, flustered, freaked-out, conflicted, concerned, cowardly, craven, timid, timorous, scared, stressed, panicked and even pusillanimous. Anxiety is something we all struggle with at times. I guess it’s no surprise that the Bible has so many passages about fear, some simple and comforting, others majestic and poetic.
“Fear not, little flock,” says Jesus, “for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Psalmist says, “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness.” “Who me?” you may be thinking. “I definitely fear the terror by night. Also the pestilence. Also small spaces, public speaking, and a number of other things.” Maybe you deal with physical symptoms of anxiety: shakiness, tension, stomach upset. Maybe you have racing thoughts that keep you up at night. Or maybe you just feel irritable and threatened. When I counsel kids, I tell them that anxiety is like a superpower that runs very strong in some of us. It’s meant to keep us out of danger—people who don’t feel any fear are like people who don’t feel any pain—but it can be a miserable experience.
Sometimes, as people of faith, we add to our own anxiety by judging ourselves harshly for the worry we feel. After all, Philippians 4:6 very clearly says, “do not be anxious about anything.” Why can’t we just stop feeling anxious? And what does the next verse even mean? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
It helps me to ask why these passages are in the Bible at all. Does God just prefer calm people? Jesus Himself in Gethsemane expressed anguish over the suffering He was about to undergo. Paul in Philippians 2 talks about being anxious to comfort the believers there who were worried about the health of Epaphroditus. In fact, the Bible offers many pictures of Godly people experiencing normal human worries. Maybe the real problem—what the Lord wants to deliver us from-- is the bad stuff that happens when we deal with our fear in sinful ways.
Some people run from God (Jonah). Others lie to protect themselves (Saul). Some use money and power to gate themselves off from the mess of the world (the rich young ruler). Some turn their fear into anger and either explode or try to control and manipulate people. In the book of Acts, Peter and some Jewish Christians in Antioch refuse to eat with Gentiles out of fear of how others will judge them. If you let anxiety control how you treat people, you’re in good company! Peter sometimes gave in to fear, but he’s also the one who wrote in a time of real persecution, ”Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God…casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
He cares for you. He cares for you. There are some great ways to calm physical anxiety--techniques and tools that counselors can help you with. But when you face pain and difficulty, try allowing yourself to hear the truth that God is with you. You are not just a replaceable part of some great machine --He truly cares for you, as a mother for a nursing child. Anxiety may tell you that you’re alone and helpless, because that’s what anxiety does. But Jesus tells you that He is with you, even when your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking. Christ, the one who suffered for all of us, prayed in John 17, “Oh righteous Father…I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” This is the peace of God, and yes, it’s beyond understanding.
Anxiety in Relationships—the worst fear of all
A big source of fear, and one many people don’t recognize, is uncertainty about whether those we love will ever leave us. Can we fully depend on them? For some people, this question is very much on the surface. When I was in college, I learned to play some Dolly Parton songs on the guitar. I could do a pretty good imitation of her singing “Jolene” (don’t ask me to do it now) but my favorite Dolly song was “When You Love Somebody.” It went…
“When you love somebody with all your heart and soul, and you want them to stay with you,
but you know they want to go, what do you do, what do you say,
when someone wants to leave as bad as you want them to stay?”
I sang that song over and over, alone in my dorm room. I was just 19 years old, but it felt so true to my experience. The strange thing was that at that point I hadn’t even dated anybody, let alone gone through a breakup! It took me a long time to understand that some of my fear of people leaving probably came from family separations that happened when I was very small. The “someone” that I wanted to stay with me was most likely my mother, who spent several weeks in the hospital with a life-threatening illness when I was still a toddler.
You don’t have to go through a childhood trauma to feel afraid of being left by people you care about. It’s a common human anxiety, and it affects adult relationships in subtle ways that people may not recognize. A couple may feel very connected and secure during the “bonding period” or “honeymoon phase” of their relationship, when they’re intensely focused on each other. But as time passes, that bond gets tried and tested. People make selfish choices. They don’t listen to each other very well, or they fail to be supportive at important times. Hurts and failures build up and become narratives. “This is what he always does. I can’t trust him.” When there are conflicts, one partner becomes quiet or even goes to another room to avoid having a fight. The other partner gets angry at the feeling of being left. “Does she even love me? Why won’t she talk to me about this?” Sometimes one person’s deep fear of being left activates the other person’s deep fear of being controlled. “All he does is criticize.” They both secretly wonder what happened to the affection they once had for each other.
People often quote the Bible verse “Perfect love casts out fear.” That verse, John 4:18, occurs in the context of a passage that talks about the threat of judgment—separation from God. John says that we don’t need to fear separation because Christ is living and dwelling in us. The uniquely Christian antidote to fear is not some piece of intellectual head-knowledge but the true presence of God in our lives. Christ is with us. The Spirit of God is living in us and He is for us.
If you’re a child of God, you are never left alone and helpless. That reassurance of his presence is meant to give you strength and comfort as you worry about His disapproval and rejection, but it can even offer consolation when you feel disapproval or rejection by a spouse. Anxiety may tell you, “He’s so critical. Don’t engage because the only way to stay safe is to say nothing.” Or it may tell you, “Go ahead and raise your voice at her. It’s the only way she ever listens to you and the only way to get what you need.” But the Spirit says, “God is your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” What if you decide to believe that and act on it? What if you decide to trust that you are safe in the love of God and really take some risks in your relationship? How will your partner know that something has changed? Will he sense you staying in difficult conversations longer and offering more empathy? Will she notice you being slower to criticize and slower to demand your rights? Will you notice yourself gaining the ability to forgive and trust?
None of this is easy. Relational anxiety is, in many ways, the very hardest kind to deal with because other people are so insecure, uncertain, and flawed—just like us! But, as you know if you’ve ever been loved by another human being, the risk to reward ratio is high. While you begin to take chances on a relationship with another imperfect person, it may help you to remember that this is a path already well-trodden by Jesus Himself. In the words of Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
By Gordon Bals
Over the past decade our social consciousness in regard to trauma seems to have risen to an all-time high. Words like triggered or flooded and counseling treatments like EMDR or neuro feedback have become common place. The landmark book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk did a lot to help move the discussion and understanding of trauma into the everyday public arena. It is an excellent resource. One of the developments with trauma has been the support of a “bottom up,” approach to discipleship, mental health and restoration in general. In a simple way a bottom-up approach means we have to take care of our bodies for our soul or heart to work well. We often forget that our soul is in direct communion with our body, and they are continuously working together. In the Logic of the Body Mathew Lapine writes, “Soul and body always function holistically in the composite person. Again, to cite Bavink, ‘Suggesting only that emotions cause physical change is just as wrong as only saying physical changes cause emotions. The body is not a machine brought into motion by the soul and neither is the soul the reflex of the body. The soul and body together make the essence of a person, a peculiar sensory-spiritual essence that is called man.’” A simple example to think through the connection would be someone who might say, “I would have a lot less anxiety if I just read my Bible more.” Certainly, reading God’s word speaks to our anxiety but this is a top-down (rational) only approach. That same person might be ignoring sleep hygiene (and not getting good sleep), participating in no aerobic activity, and not paying much attention to what they eat. All those activities are a way to care for our body and foster a bottom-up approach that helps to disarm anxiety. There are a variety of other somatic practices that can support a bottom-up approach. The scriptures recommend caring for our bodies: No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church. (Ephesians 5:29, NLT) Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, CSB)
There are many good resources to help you grow in your understanding of trauma. Curt Thompson is a leading voice and has produced some very helpful resources. He has a podcast called Being Known that you can find wherever you listen to podcasts. He has written 4 excellent books:
- Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships
- The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves
- The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community
- The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope
We also recommend two other books: The Other Half of the Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks and Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores by Diane Langberg. Finally, another good podcast is The Place We Find Ourselves by Adam Young.