Hello! Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Anxiety. You may know me by my nicknames: Worry, Concern or Dread. Recently, we have been spending more time together, which you may dislike. But that might be because you don’t understand me.
My job is to help you anticipate threats. I protect you by keeping you on alert for possible danger. I am not your enemy. I am an emotion created by God for a purpose. Get to know me, like a houseguest, and perhaps I won’t overstay my welcome.
I am most often confused with Fear, my close relative. Fear’s job is to help you survive direct threats. When you are in danger, Fear comes on duty to move you to safety. Your body is ready to fight or flee, to help you survive. Physically, you may notice a racing heart, shallow breathing, trembling and sweating.
It can be difficult to tell me apart from Fear because you often feel the same bodily sensations. When I show up, you experience those physical symptoms I just mentioned, plus more! I, Anxiety, bring a sense of doom, racing thoughts, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating and tummy trouble. You may feel insecure, irritable, tense and restless. Unfortunately, my presence can leave you in a constant state of uneasiness.
Here is a secret for how to distinguish me from Fear: the presence of an actual threat to your survival means it is Fear. If there is no clear crisis, but you feel a vague, uncertain kind of danger, then it is me, Anxiety.
These vague threats are connected to what you value. It is like a relational price tag where I reveal what you deem important. My heightened presence when hearing about war, disease or accidents may show you value security, health or control. I may also warn you of relational dangers like loss, rejection or shame because you desire acceptance and connection. The greater the value, the greater my intensity.
Some churches and families teach that feelings can’t be trusted; that emotions are unreliable. It is true that what you do with your feelings can be problematic. But emotions are part of what makes you human, made in the image of God. If you believe emotions are “bad,” feeling them becomes dangerous, and I come to the rescue.
I protect you from this threat of deeper feelings, even if unnecessary, because that is my job. Perhaps you were taught that Anger is not acceptable. To help you not feel Anger, I appear so you feel me, Anxiety, instead. Or maybe you learned you have to be Happy. When Sad shows up, I help you ignore this “bad” feeling. You may not even know Anger or Sad are there because I excel at my job.
I get blamed for being a nuisance when I protect you from “unacceptable” feelings. All you feel is me, Anxiety, and not Hurt, Shame, Grief, Guilt or Despair. I am simply doing my job. If you could believe God created all your feelings, they wouldn’t be considered a threat, and I would get a vacation.
No one likes being ignored, not even me. When you listen and embrace the deeper feeling, my job is done. But if you don’t listen, I must work overtime! The feelings under the surface get bigger and louder, so I expand to drown out the noise. View my presence as an invitation to turn to God with your deeper feelings.
I understand having me around is exhausting. Sleep becomes difficult and you lose motivation to exercise and eat healthy. You try anything to escape the tension, hoping to turn me, Anxiety, off. You numb yourself with things like Netflix, gaming, social media, shopping, eating, drugs, alcohol and pornography. Self-medicating only provides temporary relief, because I bounce back stronger, and the cycle continues.
If you successfully avoid all feelings, Depression can appear and you become hopeless and empty. You may cling to others and depend on them for excessive reassurance. Or you withdraw and isolate to avoid rejection. These reactions to my presence are understandable but not helpful.
You may wonder how to develop a healthier relationship with me, Anxiety. God made your body, mind and spirit to be interconnected. When all three are addressed, you are able to live out Paul’s exhortation to be anxious for nothing.
First, support your body. Your body automatically responds to danger cues, so you need to assess the threat. Most people overestimate the likelihood of danger, but if there is an actual, physical danger, find safety. When safe, you need to help your body let go of the accumulated stress. You can help your body calm down through deep breathing, exercise or being comforted by a loved one. These tips will make Fear go away. If I am still lingering, then there is more work needed.
Second, engage your mind. Here are a few tips:
• Identify: Hi Anxiety! (Greet me like a guest.)
• Listen: Ask what deeper feeling I am protecting you from. What does this say about your values? How do you tend to cope with me in unhealthy ways?
• Discern: See if your reaction is the best or only solution. What choices could you make that are good and godly, rather than destructive?
• Act: Allow yourself to feel your forbidden feelings. You may find it helpful to journal or talk with a trusted friend.
Third, connect to God. I love when you invite Jesus to carry me. The apostle Peter invites you to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:17). You can fling me onto his shoulders, the meaning of “cast.” Allow him to carry me, rather than holding the weight yourself. I can rest when held by God, which helps you feel better.
These tips may sound too simple. It is easier when I haven’t been around very long. When we share an extended history, it is difficult to stop my attempts to protect you. I, Anxiety, get stuck in an extreme state. Your body gets worn down and you have difficulty functioning.
This is a sign you may benefit from talking with a counselor. A counselor can help you identify triggers and help you distinguish between me and Fear. Having someone listen to Sad, Anger or Hurt frees me from the unpleasant job of running interference. Your guest can leave!
Additionally, prescription medication may help lower my intensity when I, Anxiety, get locked into high alert. Often the medication jumpstarts my ability to calm down and sometimes it helps regulate me long-term. Medication alone is not usually enough to change our relationship, so be sure to also work with a counselor to lessen my workload.
Your relationship with me can sometimes get complicated. After this chat, you now know my job is to protect you, help you be safe and thrive. Engaging your mind, body and spirit helps us stay in balance. Let’s keep working toward a healthy relationship so I won’t overstay my welcome!
Cheryl Dueck Smith is an Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. She is also a licensed marriage and family therapist at Link Care in Fresno, California. Smith is married and has two sons.