How do we deal with feelings of anxiety? In Philippians 4:6 we are told: “Do not be anxious about anything.” And Matthew 6:25 tells us straight up, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” This is helpful until I (yes, I, the therapist) start thinking about everything I need to do for the next week. Then the anxiety comes back. In this article, I first examine two ways in which anxiety is perpetuated, and then offer ways in which we can manage anxiety.
Is Anxiety Good or Bad?
The late psychologist and rabbi, Edwin Friedman, suggests that we are a chronically anxious society. The more one studies this phenomenon, the more one discovers the truth of this claim, given that one of the most abused prescription drugs in America today is Xanax, a widely used anti-anxiety medication. This begs the question of whether anxiety is a good thing or a bad thing? In my experience, it is both. It is good when it serves the God-designed function of keeping us safe. We need anxiety when our life is in danger as it provides us with the physical mechanisms to survive. But anxiety is bad, or perhaps more accurately unhealthy, when it impairs our relationships with God, self, others, and community.
Where Does Anxiety Come From?
The etiology, or origin of how we became anxious, is most often complex and is comprised of multiple variables. However, among the many factors that can continue to perpetuate symptoms of anxiety, I want to look at two in particular. These are, firstly, our experiences and, secondly, our beliefs and social discourses.
Past Experiences Impact the Present
Anxiety is a concern or worry about the future. We cannot be worried about something that has already happened, but we can be worried about the consequences of a past action or event, or feel guilt and shame about it. By this I mean that our past experience can and does shape our feelings about future outcomes. For example, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD has an anxiety component called hypervigilance. What this means is that someone who has been traumatized becomes anxious, on guard, and to some degree suspicious that what they previously experienced will occur again. In fact, people who experience this tend to become so anxious that their fear impairs their daily tasks and relationships.
Social Discourses Feed Anxiety
A social discourse is a belief or set of beliefs that a group or culture embraces. These discourses create rules that govern how we behave. For example, some cultures believe that one particular body type is more beautiful than another. For others, a discourse might be the idea that having money equals success. Either way, we are all subject to such discourses, and the stressors they can create can leave us with some or too much anxiety. When we fail to live up to the belief, or fail to perform as well as expected, we become anxious. For example, if my body type is brought into question, I might avoid certain activities, specific places, or events because I fear being judged. I might also avoid certain types of clothes or even feel judged by my loved ones. This creates anxiety.
Facing Reality and Managing Anxiety
Irrespective of the causes of anxiety, or the factors that keep it going, one must realize anxiety is real and that there should be no shame in experiencing it. Unhealthy anxiety is one of the by-products of living in a fallen world. Often we become casualties of our experiences and react in ways that are to be expected. Often our anxieties serve to protect us, at least until the day when they are no longer useful. It is when they are no longer useful that they become a problem. Here are some things that work well to manage and decrease anxiety.
- Learn self-soothing techniques, such as mindful breathing and progressive relaxation. These techniques serve a physical and neurological function by helping people to identify triggers and then calm down. A therapist trained in this area can be quite helpful.
- Learn to understand cultural beliefs in order to discern what is biblical and grounded in reality. Think of this as exploring how you arrived at this belief or concern in order to understand it, adjust it, and then manage it. Again, a therapist can help you to identify these beliefs.
- Rely on multiple systems of support. These can include seeing a therapist, participating in a support group, taking medication if needed, and relying on your faith community for support.
Christian Counseling for Dealing with Anxiety
If you struggle with anxiety, know that there is hope. Life can get better and anxiety can be managed. As a Christian counselor, I am aware that this requires an honest investment by working to learn some skills while being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).
“People And Landscape,” courtesy of George Hodan, http://all-free-download.com