My troubled heart

Understanding the anatomy of anxiety and its rules of engagement

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I have followed the Lord Jesus since my mid-20s and have had the privilege of walking in his truth for 45 years while gleaning substantive, helpful insights from my work as a practicing psychologist.

Anxiety is a single word describing a number of variables. There are books, theories, clinics, therapists and medicines all dedicated to its treatment. Anxiety is partly responsible for the increase in marijuana use and sustains much alcohol use in our culture. Anxiety has increased significantly due to COVID-19 and its precipitated changes. Anxiety remains a key reason for visits to primary care physicians.

Jesus, wanting to quell the disciples’ distress at his pending departure, says to them, “let not your heart be troubled….” Anxiety starts in the mind, in the thinking and troubles the heart.

Merriam Webster defines anxiety well. I have underlined the emotional aspects, the feelings associated with anxiety and italicized major factors that contribute to it. Anxiety is: “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill; medically, an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, increased heart rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, by self-doubt about one’s ability to cope with it.”

This definition identifies the feelings we associate with anxiety and the reasons for the anxiety, i.e., where the mind goes to create the anxious feelings.

For as he thinks within himself, so is he…” (Prov. 23:7).

Anxious feelings do not occur unless they are generated. They are not our natural baseline as humans. Over time and with training by anxiety, these can become our baseline; however, that is not our starting point, nor is our anxiety necessary, adaptive or helpful.

Fear or anxiety

There is an important difference between fear and anxiety. In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBecker writes that fear is a biologically-based, self-protective reaction to an identified threat—something that our five senses identify as actual danger. Anxiety, in contrast, is a non-adaptive, supposedly self-protective reaction to a perceived threat—a response to something we perceive in our thinking that is not in the external reality.

The fear response is built into our physiology, bypassing our cortical areas (the thinking and analyzing parts of our brain) and activating our lower brain to respond with fight or flight. It is actually safer for us this way, as thinking things through takes more time than reacting out of our reflexive, biologically based self-protection, leaving us closer to the danger longer.

Anxiety is activated when we perceive a threat. Worry, apprehension, uneasiness and nervousness are all normal responses to a real threat. Some people experience flying as anxiety-provoking since they perceive flying as unsafe. (While numbers vary, it is a reliable estimation that there are between 7,780 and 8,755 planes in the air and roughly 500,000 passengers flying at any given point on any day.)

If flying is perceived as dangerous, then it will be feared. Flying will generate anxiety, despite being safer than getting to and from the airport. However, while the safety is true and factual, if we think flying is dangerous, then we will feel that sense of worry, fear, apprehension, etc. Our heart is troubled.

The principle here is that we feel the way we think. Over time, anxious people are trained by anxiety to make no distinction between real threats and perceived threat, with anxiety generalizing to anything that involves discomfort, possible disagreements, conflicts or interactions where they are unsure of the outcome or something unfamiliar.

The passenger who believes flying is in fact safe does not experience fear and is relaxed and relatively calm. The only difference between these two passengers is how they perceive flying. The factual safety of flying has not changed at all. This brings up a human fact—seeing is believing—if I “see” it as dangerous, then I will believe it is so, completely independent of it being true or not.

“Think on these things”

Paul, in the quintessential Philippians 4 passage on anxiety, clarifies this in his exhortation to pray, to bring it with thanksgiving, to leave our requests with our compassionate, listening, attentive, good, good Father and then to shift our thinking to whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is of good repute.

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, dwell on (ponder) these things” (Phil. 4:8).

Paul is acknowledging that you will feel the way you think, so think on these things. In fact, the word he uses is much more intense: dwell on these things, live in them, focus on them, stay in them, dig deep in them.

The simple statements that “God does not love me” versus “God does love me” generate two entirely different internal experiences, just by inserting that one word—not. This is how anxiety develops, and most of us have no idea that it boils down to what we think, how we think, where we focus our attention.

Unbeknownst to most of us, anxiety plays by rules, whether a person is age 6, 26, 56 or 86. Anxiety tricks and trains us. It tricks us into thinking that being anxious is taking care of ourselves, keeping our guard up. It trains us over time to be more anxious, not less, as being more anxious tricks us into believing we are being more self-protective. This completely distorts the fact that we aren’t at risk or in actual danger to begin with.

Hence, anxiety lies about when we are in danger. Anxiety is about the future. Anxiety requires fuel—we must feed it—and its sole fuel is our thoughts. One preferred fuel is ambiguity—when things are unclear or undefined or new. Anxiety interprets ambiguity as dangerous, risky. The future is ambiguous. Ambiguity is fuel for anxiety. Therefore, my future is fuel for anxiety. Note the trickery here. We all have a future which is inherently ambiguous, and so we all now have a “valid” reason to be anxious.

Anxiety always focuses exclusively on negative possibilities, no matter how remote. Anxiety at the same time automatically actively excludes all positive probabilities. In the most reductionistic form, anxiety hijacks my imagination. The apostle Paul says to take every thought like this captive. This is why anxiety is something we experience when we engage in anxiogenic thinking—thinking that generates anxiety.

Now, as a quick exercise, go back through the previous paragraph and substitute the words ‘anxious thinking’ for the word ‘anxiety’. This will cue you in on what is transpiring here.

To summarize: I feel the way I think. Whatever I focus on, I amplify. Whatever I focus on, I empower, I give life to in my thinking, I make bigger, more influential, which is what directly feeds my heart. Let my heart not be troubled.

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