Let’s look at another scripture in Psalms 94:19.
Psalms 94:19 – When my anxious thoughts multiply within me – this is New American Standard – Your consolations delight my soul.
“When my anxious thoughts multiply within me….” Have you ever been there? Can’t turn your mind off at night when you go to bed? Wake up fretting about problems – upset stomach, mind racing. And then the next verse says, “Your consolations cheer me” – or at least, they’re supposed to, but for some of us, they don’t. And that’s because we’re rotten to the core, faithless non-believers. No, no, no, it’s not really that way. It’s more complicated than that.
Jesus said, “Don’t worry about anything.” It should be patently obvious that God will take care of you. He takes care of the flowers and the birds, so don’t worry. And, in Philippians, Paul said, “Don’t be anxious about anything.” That’s Philippians 4:6. Just pray about it. Give it to God. Trust Him to take care of you. Then, go about your business – like, there’s nothing to fret about. So why is it so hard to do that? That’s what we’re going to talk about today – why it’s hard and what to do about it.
Now let’s think about an anxiety definition. Anxiety is the second most common mental health issue. Anybody care to guess what’s first? Right. It’s depression. Anxiety and depression are different animals, but they’re very much related. They’re both about loss. Depression is about losses in the past, and anxiety is about losses in the future. Here’s an example:
A boy’s relative is killed in a convenience store robbery. That’s a loss. He becomes depressed. Several years later, he develops anxiety about home break-ins and can’t go to church or school or movies, because there are just too many people there. He’s afraid that he will be killed also – like his relative was. So the anticipated loss is a loss of life. And that anticipation is caused by anxiety. And he has cares, worries and he frets about them.
But let’s go further with this definition. What if I told you that anxiety is a very good thing. Think with me about this. If you step on a piece of glass, and sever an artery in your foot, and you don’t notice it, and you bleed out…. Not a likely story. Why? Because you would feel pain in your foot, look down and see that you need medical attention. And while pain is not present, it serves a very good purpose, It warns us that something is wrong. So we tend to our health when we see that. It draws our attention to our physical condition and serves as an early warning system to keep us safe and healthy. Anxiety is like that, too.
You’re walking alone at night. Someone comes around the corner, at the end of the block, and is walking toward you. As he gets closer, he walks under a street light, and you notice he has a large knife in his hand, and he’s looking straight at you. Your pulse increases, your breathing speeds up, your central nervous system is experiencing anxiety and is readying you to fight or run. So anxiety works the same way that pain does. It motivates us to take care of our organism, Except, anxiety isn’t body pain so much as it is brain pain – not just to take care of our body, but also our sense of self. We all have a view of self, and we don’t want that disturbed. We need to think of ourselves in certain ways that are positive, and, if we don’t, then it causes us problems. We want to see self as kind, generous, honest, good-looking, or whatever. And when someone extends a threat to our sense of self, we become anxious. And that causes us to become defensive of self. So how does that work?
Well, you’re talking to a friend, and information comes in from your senses about your friend’s reaction to you. And you notice that they look distressed when you just told them that they’re overweight. And this distress is caused by anxiety, which has disturbed their view of self. You notice that you’re also feeling anxious. You don’t want to think of yourself as an insulting, rude kind of person. And as the information comes into your brain along the nerves from your senses, they enter the amygdala, where they’re evaluated for any kind of threat. And if a threat is present, the amygdala sends signals to other parts of the brain and body, preparing for defense of the view of self, or the body, or both. And that signal that is sent is anxiety.
Is that the way of human nature then? Well, that’s not a simple answer, really. It’s a complex question. If a baby is neglected, the message it receives is, “I’m not wanted, loveable, etcetera,” and the only way it can preserve a sense of self is to dissociate those feelings and remove them. So the baby gets in a habit of not feeling internal negative feedback about self if they’re neglected much. Anxiety is promoting the preservation of the sense of self as best it can.
Okay, now going back to our pain analogy. I know a lady who was in a terrible auto accident. She injured her back. The injury healed many years ago, but she still feels terrible pain – chronic pain. The brain is creating the pain, just like it was, even though the body has healed. So, anxiety can function in the same way. That neglected baby grows up, no longer dependent on others to meet its needs, but that person still feels anxious – like things won’t work out. And, if we’re neglected emotionally or physically, we also develop a habit of thinking things won’t work out for us, making anxiety more a part of our life than it needs to be. And I think this is what Jesus was talking about – and David and Paul. Like most things, a little anxiety is helpful, but when we are anxious for no good reason, then it becomes detrimental.
So, what have we learned so far? Everybody has some anxiety. That can be good. You know, if you don’t pay your taxes, you should be worried. If you have paid them, but you still think the helicopter overhead is the IRS, then, you may have a problem. But that problem is not impending incarceration. It’s inappropriate anxiety.
What happens in adulthood when anxiety in early life becomes the norm? Well, let’s look at some of the says it manifests. There’s a diagnosis called generalized anxiety. And that’s where anxiety just kind of attaches itself to most things in the person’s life. It just hangs around. Another kind of anxiety could be specifically paranoia. If you think about anxiety as an anticipation of loss, then paranoia would be anticipating loss in the future. And, in the case of the helicopter – “The IRS is going to get me” – is the way the anxiety is put into thought.
Some people are afraid that their spouse is going to cheat on them, so they’re always looking at their cell phone. Or, people develop phobias, like public speaking, or flying, or bugs, or snakes. I find phobias really fascinating, because most of the time, the fears that people have…. Now, if somebody was frightened by a snake when they were little, I can understand that. But, quite often, there is no past experience of being afraid of something, and it suddenly comes on a person. And usually, it’s a replacement for another kind of fear that the person has. I’ll talk more about that in just a minute. So the fear is an expression of an earlier negative experience that’s not, in any way, related to what was going on.
If your father beat your mother in the car with you in the back seat when you were little, you might also develop a fear of driving, for example. I’ve had people have that, and once we process the event that occurred in the car when they were little, then they could drive.
I had a lady tell me that she had a phobia about bugs. She laughed about it, because she worked in a bar, so there were always roaches. And she would scream every time she’d see one, and everybody in the bar – kind of a little local bar – would laugh, because they’d know, “Oh, she’s found another roach.” She was also phobic about orange popsicles and wet paper towels, and had no idea where those things came from. But, in therapy, we discovered that she was held down forcibly on a playground when she was seven by some eight-year-old boys, and they threatened her with sexual taunts. I’m sure they had no idea what they were talking about, but the recess bell rang, and they all got up and ran away back to class. It was several weeks later in the therapy that she realized a bug had crawled across her leg while she was getting up that event, and that one of the boys was holding an orange popsicle. He had the wrapper down around his hand, and the popsicle – because it’s a hot New Mexico summer day – was dripping on it. She began to eat orange popsicles, and wasn’t afraid of wet paper towels, and didn’t need to vacuum around her room every night before she went to bed – because of the bugs – and stopped screaming when she saw roaches at work after all that was treated. Once we treated the abuse that she suffered, all of that stuff just went away. She found herself eating an orange popsicle that her daughter didn’t want to finish and didn’t realize it until she was almost done with it. And she picked up some of her daughter’s mess with a wet paper towel without realizing she’d done it.
Another form of anxiety is self injury. When anxiety is high, sometimes people hurt themselves to relieve the emotional pain. The feeling of physical pain kind of trumps the feeling of that emotional pain for them.
Another kind of anxiety that we could talk about is OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder. When we process a thought, it follows a path through the pre-frontal cortex. And, when anxiety is present in some people, a gate closes in the part of the brain that they call the caudate nucleus, and the thought keeps looping because the gate is shut. It goes back and tries to come through again. The brain has to try to force it through. So they call that over-firing when that happens. And the thought becomes increasingly intense and urgent. Some people feel a dread in their gut when that happens. Just knowing it is stuck and not real dread is immensely helpful to some people.
Performance anxiety is another one. In the movie, As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a guy who has OCD. And at one point, he mentioned that when he practiced the piano as a child, his father would slap hands when he made mistakes. OCD was an attempt to reduce that performance anxiety. It’s interesting that one of his OCD behaviors was compulsive hand washing.
Social anxiety is yet another one – much more common than OCD. There was a little boy whose relative murdered, who couldn’t go to school, church or the movies. That’s where that came from. And once that was processed, then, he could be social again. There are a lot of other reasons why people have social anxiety, but that’s somewhat of a dramatic one. For other people, social anxiety is more about relating – maybe not feeling like they knew how to relate to others, or that people always turned against them.
I had an attorney that came to me for a while, who was always anxious as a child. He didn’t know why. He had a good family, he said. He had trouble getting along with kids at school. It think it was probably because he was so intelligent. When he got older, the reason he came was, he felt like people didn’t like him, because he would throw parties and other social events, and his friends would come, but he never got invited to anybody else’s. I told him that that’s a very common feeling for people these days. They try really hard to have relationships, but it seems like it’s not mutual.
People have approach avoidance anxiety. I know a family that adopted a Russian orphan, and she had reactive attachment disorder. And those folks want to have close relationships, but relationships frighten them. So they approach, get close. That frightens them, and then they pull back. They do things to sabotage the relationship.
When I think about all kinds of anxiety, and I don’t see an immediate thing to target, I always go back to what has been called the baby in the crib. When a baby doesn’t get what it needs to feel safe, secure and loved, then it becomes anxious. So, if that happens enough when a child is an infant, which is the time when they’re supposed to be learning how to connect – and the way that they do that is through the nurturing and the care that they get – if they don’t get enough of that, then they usually takes steps to take care of themselves. Because kids aren’t really equipped to do that, most of their efforts aren’t successful, so they tend to feel helpless, or out of control, or like life and relationships are dangerous and futile. It’s actually been proven that, if neglect or abuse was chronic, the amygdala in that child may have grown larger than others – just like, if you exercise a muscle, that little amygdala that is having to work overtime to create a feeling of safety, it gets bigger. And so, even after the child gets into a safer environment later, and the amygdala shrinks, it never shrinks all the way back. So those kids, sometimes, have a higher baseline for anxiety than other people – a heightened state of it, then. So, when that happens, trusting others and God will be harder that person.
You know, I think that back in Jesus’ day, life was a lot rougher for people than it is now. And I think that’s one of the reasons why He was always talking to people about just being faithful, and trust God, and don’t worry, and just leave it in God’s hands. Of course, we have the same problems today, but I think maybe it isn’t as bad now – at least, in the United States – as it was in the Roman Empire when He was growing up.
Of course, there are some people that, because of genetic predisposition, will more anxious than others. You know some people that just kind of laid back, and low energy, and they’re just like that. Well, other people are more anxious and have higher energy levels – closer to fight or flight – than others. And that’s genetic.
I knew a man once, who grew up in loving home, good relationship with siblings and parents, no negative school experiences, but he got a high-stress job and he started drinking and smoking to cope with the stress. Now he’s on benzodiazepine to calm himself. And I suspect he either isn’t aware of the past stressors or he is just predisposed to being more anxious than most folks.
So, how do we take care of this? Well, I’ve adaptively processed past losses for people, and the anticipation of losses in present and the future, and then I check to see if there is any anxiety left. And if there is, then I start working on anxiety-producing thoughts that they have with cognitive behavioral therapy – where you teach them how to counter the thinking that makes them anxious. And then finally, if there is still anything left after that, I go to relaxation techniques.
We found a pretty good self-help program. What did it cost? About 300 bucks? Center of the Mid-Western Anxiety…whatever it was? Maybe 400? If you have mild anxiety, something like that can help. It’s a set of workbooks and tapes you listen to – to help you keep centered on thinking thoughts that don’t produce anxiety.
Now let’s think a little bit more. We what the Bible says about it, but let’s take a look at anxiety in Christian life. Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist from the early day, said, “Our early perceptions of relationship – mostly from parents – get transferred to God as we get older.” I mean, that makes sense, doesn’t it? I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they have a hard time thinking about God because of the way their father, or their mother, were with them. So parents do have a heavy influence on our ability to have faith in God easily and naturally. That’s the way it should happen in a perfect world. But no parent has ever been perfect. So none of us has perfect faith. And I’m not sure we would, even if we did have perfect parents, because life deals us some pretty anxiety-producing situations.
So here are some things we can do to bolster faith and reduce anxiety. Work on your faith story. Process past negative life events. Weave them in to your faith story. Let your identity in Christ include the difficulties of your past. Do your inner work. Focus on the state of your heart, rather than your behavior. So what is a faith story? Well, that’s the story of how you became connected to God. How did that happen? Some people have always known God because they grew up in a faithful family. Most of us weren’t that blessed. So God had to enter into our lives and make a connection with us. How did that happen? What’s your story? That is a faith-building effort, because we need to remember that God started it and He’s active in our lives still.
Two. Make a book of God’s promises to you. I know someone who has a lot of anxiety – because of how she was raised – and she keeps all the promises she finds in the Bible in one place. And when she’s feeling anxious, she goes to her book of promises and reads some of them. What a great thing!
Ask God – this is the third one – to help you have faith and be rid of anxiety, and do it often. Remember the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus. A demon afflicted this boy and would throw him in the fire and do other terrible things to him from time to time. And this man asked Jesus to cast out the demon. And Jesus said, “All you have to do is believe.” And the man cried out, “I do believe. Please help my unbelief!” What happened next? Well, Jesus cast out the demon and boy was restored. S this man was not perfect in faith. He still had a lot of doubt and anxiety. But Jesus honored the struggle. Right. So nobody has ever had perfect faith. So it’s not really about that. If you had to have perfect faith to have your prayers answered, nobody would ever get any answers from God on those things. But God honors the struggle. If we’re trying to have faith, then that’s good enough. It’s normal to struggle. Faith is not a natural things for people. We tend to rely on stuff we can see. And we can’t see God, so it’s difficult for us.
So, if you’re having problems with anxiety that disrupt your life, it may be that you need some professional help. After you try all of the things I just mentioned, if anxiety is seriously disrupting your life – if it’s preventing you from working, if it’s preventing you from relating effectively to people – then you might need some help with it. You can find our email address on our Website – liferesource.org. It’s possible I might be able to help you find someone in your area to help you do that work. So think about that.
Well, that’s it for today. Remember, when we talk about these areas of mental health, we’re not talking about out on the fringes or extreme symptoms. We’re talking about the kind of things most people face every day and what to do about them. If you run into something that’s beyond what we’ve talked about today, you probably need somebody to advise you how to proceed. So keeping looking for our next episode on Mental Health and the Bible. Remember, we publish every two weeks, so check back for more soon.
This is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.