Anxiety is one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions. Because we're so used to using terms like "anxious" and "anxiety" in casual language, it's easy for people to assume that having anxiety just means worrying a lot. Most Christians suffering from anxiety disorders are used to being told, "Well, Jesus says to be anxious about nothing. This is the day the Lord has made and you should rejoice and be glad in it."
While Scripture encourages us to avoid unnecessary worry, there's a lot more to anxiety than that. Let's examine what anxiety is and how Christians can respond to it.
Before we get started:
It's important to recognize that feelings of anxiety could be a sign of underlying medical issues. If you have a tendency toward depression or anxiety, it's wise to visit a counselor or doctor. There is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help when you're feeling overwhelmed.
Many people struggle with varying levels of disquiet and worry. You can imagine anxiety on a spectrum. On one end, you have general unease. This isn't necessarily a disorder, although it can have a huge negative impact on quality of life. On this end of the spectrum, general anxiety is typically the result of thinking patterns and general outlook.
The person might practice coping strategies that compound the problem:
- Continually canceling plans at the last minute
- Avoiding social events that they're generally interested in
- Passing on opportunities because they require stepping out of their comfort zone
- Intentionally gravitating to social roles that downplay interaction
- Dressing and behaving in ways that help them become invisible
As you move to the other end of the anxiety spectrum, the impact becomes more pronounced.
Moderate anxiety is more noticeable and sustained. It affects how one processes emotions and impacts social and professional interactions. If one doesn't deal with this level of anxiety, it can begin to snowball.
People with more moderate forms of anxiety might feel a constant sense of impending doom. They might struggle to relax or even experience panic attacks (increased heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, etc.).
Many attempts to self-medicate and deal with anxiety can create long-term issues that only compound the reasons people feel anxious. This can look like:
- Turning to alcohol or drugs to help deal with the unease
- Accepting unacceptable behavior and situations because they can't assert themselves
- Chronic underemployment
Further down the spectrum, anxiety issues become increasingly debilitating. Here we see many of the same symptoms found in moderate anxiety, but they are more chronic and pronounced. And as they become more prominent, the individual's ability to function is diminished. Quite often, more severe forms of anxiety are linked to depression.
Is all anxiety the same?
All of us have to juggle various levels of anxiety. For instance, concern serves us when it helps us to prepare for upcoming events. Maybe you're a college student with an upcoming final. Some level of fretting helps you to keep studying and preparing. If you're a farmer, you're driven by the knowledge that if you don't do your work in one season, you won't get the payout in another. Or maybe you're a manager that has to juggle a team's workload and your organization's goals.
The anxiety that comes with upcoming deadlines can be healthy. It pushes us to get stuff done on time. Sometimes you feel anxious about positive upcoming events that are unfamiliar, like starting a new job or moving away for school. This uncertainty can motivate us to prepare better than if we were utterly unconcerned about tomorrow.
Proverbs addresses this level of healthy concern:
Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
and scarcity like an armed man (Proverbs 6:6–11).
The lazy person doesn't have the restlessness about the future that the ant experiences. And because they don't worry about it, they are caught off guard by the future when it's entirely too late to fix it.
When anxiety becomes unhealthy
Sometimes these concerns become more of a challenge to the way we think. We might find ourselves constantly worrying about the future and creating unhelpful scenarios. It might create a general sense of distress or culminate in a pessimistic attitude. At this point, it might be more of a pattern than a disorder. We may need outside help to get our mind onto a new set of tracks, but it might not be a chemical or cognitive problem requiring medication. Sometimes it can be helped with a counselor who can help us identify the thinking patterns causing our discomfort.
This is the level of problem that Jesus addresses in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Jesus's words are trustworthy and helpful for people caught in a cycle of worry. Sometimes a reminder like this can help remind someone to be more mindful of their thought patterns. And it can motivate them to start letting things go and stop carrying all of tomorrow's potential problems around today.
As the Lord points out, every day has troubles of its own. When we hyper-focus on tomorrow's potential problems, it undermines our ability to be present to what's happening right now. What's difficult is that we end up focusing on a million scenarios which may never actually happen. But when we’re paying attention and responding to today’s troubles, we can mitigate many of the future ones.
All that said, this isn't necessarily helpful to someone with an anxiety disorder.
Everyday anxiety and anxiety disorders
An anxiety disorder is a legitimate mental health condition. While most of us deal with anxiety during stressful situations, an anxiety disorder is marked by nagging worry that interferes with everyday activities and emotional wellbeing.
For people dealing with an anxiety disorder, sometimes church can feel uncomfortable or frustrating. People with this condition might understand that their worries are irrational but feel powerless to control them. It's not something they can simply will away.
Some differences between typical (or even unhealthy) anxiety and an anxiety disorder might include:
- Anxiety unrelated to specific events or situations:
If you and your best friend have a falling out and it's unresolved, it makes sense that you would feel unrest and worry about it. The same is true if you have an upcoming exam or vacation that requires a plane trip. For people with an actual disorder, they can't always pinpoint the source of their anxiety. They struggle with unrest and feelings of impending doom that they can't always connect to specific situations.
- Avoidance behaviors:
When someone has an anxiety disorder, it often manifests itself in avoiding everyday responsibilities.
- Physical symptoms:
Humans are bodies with minds and spirits. These individual parts impact one another, just like when your heart rate spikes when you are frightened. Chronic anxiety can affect the body, causing fatigue, headaches, irritability, memory problems, muscle tension, bowel issues, sweating, trembling, and insomnia.
5 Tips for Christians dealing with anxiety
It's essential to start any discussion about coping strategies with the reminder that seeing a physician, counselor, or therapist may be a critical first step in dealing with this issue. These professionals can create a specific mental health plan moving forward that may include many of these tips and even anti-anxiety medication.
And while the following tips aren't necessarily going to fix more severe anxiety problems, they can help—especially if coupled with therapeutic intervention.
1. Prayer, Scripture reading, and meditation
Too often, the Christian response to anxiety is "just stop being anxious." That's about as helpful as someone saying, "Just stop thinking about pink elephants." What can be more useful is to train ourselves to turn our attention to the Lord.
The goal with spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, memorization, and meditation is to help us fulfill the suggestion of Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
It's not always easy to turn off anxious thoughts, but we can get better at turning our attention to the Lord and filling our minds with ideas that offer us peace, especially if we commit to setting aside time dedicated to activities like prayer and meditation.
2. Improve your diet
Anxiety can diminish our energy for simple self-care. Many people with anxiety don't self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, but they might turn to snacks and comfort food. As the body gets more and more sluggish, they turn to caffeine to keep going. Junk food might make you feel good when you're eating it, but it can be detrimental to your mood in the long run. Meanwhile, caffeine can ramp up anxiety.
Regular physical activity is one of the most profoundly mood-altering things we can do. It can be as simple as taking a regular walk around the block. Not only does exercise help reduce anxiety, but it can also help you sleep better at night.
4. Find people you can talk to
More often than not, people with anxiety know there is a problem, and they're self-conscious about it. This means that they keep a lot of these thoughts and feelings bottled up inside—where they only get worse.
Find one or two people you can trust enough to talk to about your struggles. Getting some of these feelings out can help you do a better job of processing them.
5. Know what sets you off
Getting to know your triggers can be really helpful. If you know that watching the news sends you into a fit of anxiety, you should cut back on your news intake. If social media sets you on edge, set up boundaries in that area. If you're not sure what your triggers are, talk to some people close to you. Sometimes a spouse, parent, child, or friend might understand your problem areas better than you.
Other tools that can help
If anxiousness is a challenge for you, you might find some help in these other resources: