Thoughts on My Anxiety (Part One)
The term “mental illness” causes most people to squirm. We think of people medicated into a stupor or committed to a hard-to-access floor of the hospital. But mental illness covers a broad variety of problems from anxiety to schizophrenia; from bi-polar disorder to various phobias.
I have acknowledged in the past that I struggle personally with the rather redundant Janus mask of anxiety and depression (I know of very few cases, if any, where anxiety and depression are easily separated). I have never been hospitalized. However, I did once take an ambulance ride to the hospital after keeling over in a particularly nasty elder meeting at a previous church.
I have not been diagnosed with what most people would consider a “serious” mental illness. I do not suffer from bi-polar or other debilitating forms of depression. I do not suffer from psychosis or schizophrenia. I do not hear voices or hallucinate. Around eight years ago I did talk to a medical doctor who gave me a diagnosis of General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). When I heard the term “General Anxiety Disorder” it sounded like the sort of thing that only overly pampered, first-world types like myself could come up with like “Annoying Hangnail Disorder.” It doesn’t even have the words “acute” or “chronic” which would at least help in making it sound serious. Now all I can do is say that I’ve been diagnosed with GAD and hope that people cringe in sympathy.
I have assembled a few thoughts on anxiety which I hope will at least help sufferers make sense of what they are experiencing. I also hope that those who do not struggle with anxiety chronically will gain a little insight into the lives of those who do.
Anxiety Is Mystifying
People have been writing about and seeking the cause of and cure for anxiety for thousands of years. Even Aristotle tried to figure it out. But still we are not exactly sure where it comes from. There are physiological realities which answer some questions. But no amount of understanding of the brain or the balance of various chemicals helps to relieve the sometimes crippling effects of anxiety. Knowing that my anxiety probably has to do with an overstimulated amygdala does not reduce my terror of being 30,000 feet above the ground in a jet or having to engage in a difficult conversation.
Some have argued that anxiety as a term is completely useless; that it is impossible to identify as a single thing. Anxiety, they say, belongs to a broad range of human experiences. This seems to be a legitimate evaluation given the frequently changing clinical language used to describe anxiety as well as the ever shifting sorts of diagnoses given to sufferers. Among the experts one finds the word anxiety applied to moods, feelings, brain conditions, and experiences. The origins of anxiety are variously attributed to chemical imbalances, emotional and/or physical trauma, heredity, etc. The point is, we seem to hardly know what we are talking about when we talk about anxiety. It has been and remains mystifying.
Anxiety Is Necessary
Anxiety is necessary for healthy living. Just as physical pain protects us from resting our hand upon a hot stove, so anxiety protects us from remaining unguarded in genuinely threatening circumstances. If you ever go hiking in the mountains around the beautiful Shenandoah Valley where I live you will be well served by proper anxiety should you encounter a bear. In the absence of any ability to feel anxiety, one could very quickly end up in a life-threatening situation without realizing it until it’s too late.
Psychopaths typically do not experience anxiety. It is one the reasons why some who suffer from psychopathy can act out violently at high risk to themselves with little or no fear. They simply do not feel the sorts of healthy fear that most people experience when it is needful.
For the non-clinically anxious person, anxiety is experienced in temporary spurts based upon circumstances. For instance, the grad student may well experience anxiety when the full scope of his or her research project is fully grasped. A driver will usually grip the steering wheel tighter when roads are slick. A parent startles with immediate concern when the phone rings at 3:00 am. You get the picture. Various circumstances trigger anxiety in the healthiest person’s brain which then causes the other parts of the body to respond with appropriate action.
Anxiety Is Depressing
As I stated earlier, anxiety and depression often act in concert. For me depression is the fruit of the anxiety. Unexplainable fear is a heavy burden when you carry it every day. This makes pastoral ministry especially challenging. As a pastor, anxiety inducing circumstances come along with great frequency. I regularly interact with souls in deeply personal and vulnerable ways. For pastors who actually engage in the tasks of shepherding God’s flock, there seem to be innumerable opportunities to trip into pits of anxiety. In my experience this is often due to the fear of letting someone down; not living up to expectations. When I realize or merely suspect that I have disappointed someone I collapse inside.
Don’t misunderstand, so many of my interactions with God’s people are rewarding and cause little anxiety. But that’s the funny thing about those chemicals moving about in my brain and/or the sin knocking around in my heart. At any given moment a simple text or voicemail can send me into a spiral of inexplicable fear, self-loathing, and sadness.
Things that, for most people, seem small can be paralyzing for the one suffering from anxiety:
- Phone calls – “Why is this person calling me? What have I done? I’ve probably upset them.”
- Emails – Same as above
- Meetings – “Will I fail?” “Will I prove to be a poor leader?” “Will a conflict erupt?”
And of course the worst is the text or voicemail which says, “I’d like to talk sometime this week.” Those messages are 10 megaton anxiety bombs. Few things strike terror into the heart of the anxious soul than the invitation to meet and talk. Sound strange? Then be thankful. Because for the anxious one that invitation can only mean, “You’ve done something awful because you are a terrible person and I need to see you face-to-face in order to tell you just how terrible you are.” Sound unbelievable? Again, be thankful you don’t understand.
My wife – and I thank God for this – does not have the first clue about how those things can seem so threatening to me. I thank God for this because if she shared my malady, we'd likely be a complete train wreck. The anxiety a non-sufferer experiences on the trail when a bear lumbers along is what I experience when someone asks me to lunch because “we need to talk.”
Added to all of this is the shame which accuses the sufferer of being weak and lacking faith. The shame drives the anxious person deeper into themselves which has the effect of causing more – you guessed it – anxiety. Certainly, there are times when anxiety is sinful; when it is a manifestation of unbelief in God’s goodness and sovereignty. But there are times, as we will see, when anxiety is not the fruit of sin, but the result of carrying a noble burden.
More on that in the next installment.
Mortification of Spin: Struck Down But Not Destroyed (with Pierce Taylor Hibbs)
"Living with Anxiety" by Amy Mantravadi
"Joy for the Anxious" by Dave Jenkins
When Trouble Comes by Phil Ryken
Spurgeon On The Christian Life by Michael Reeves