Anxiety is one of the most common mental health complaints and something that we all wrestle with to one degree or another. To help us in this struggle, I have written two blog posts with information on how anxiety works (Part 1) and some ways to approach it (Part 2). My goal is to offer some insights from my profession as a psychologist and how I think they fit within a Christian worldview.
Anxiety is a distressing emotional experience that often stems from worrying about potential danger or something bad that we think could happen. It is similar to fear, which often relates to a more immediate and specific threat. It is important to know that not all anxiety is equal. It is also not something that you either do or do not have. Rather, anxiety constitutes a continuum of emotional experiences that ranges from low levels of apprehension or uneasiness to high levels of panic or feeling petrified.
When we worry, our nervous system triggers a stress response that involves a release of adrenalin and an ensuing chain of physiological events (e.g., increased heart rate, muscle tension). This is called the fight-or-flight response. It warns us that something important is at stake and makes us alert, focused, and prepared to deal with it. This can be very useful when it gives us a healthy level of apprehension and moves us to deal with challenges or dangers we face, whether they be impending deadlines or the current pandemic. When this occurs, wisdom tells us to take heed and deal diligently and prudently with our situation.
At some point, however, our level of anxiety crosses a threshold and goes beyond a helpful push to wise preparation and caution, and it becomes ineffective and destructive. I think this is where Jesus lovingly tells us not to be anxious (Mathew 6:25). For instance, we may find ourselves dwelling on our worries and struggling to let them go. Our worries can lead to difficulties with concentration, poor sleep, headaches, irritability, and unhealthy attempts to cope or even addiction.
Another common sign of problematic anxiety is avoidance behaviour. In other words, we avoid certain situations, people, or tasks that are important to us, because we are afraid of them. This often makes our situations grow even more daunting and can leave us feeling helpless. While anxiety in its most extreme manifestations can be debilitating, even relatively milder forms hinder our ability to thrive and steal our joy. In my second blog post (Part 2), I will give some practical recommendations for dealing with anxiety.
There is one other point about anxiety that I think is worth emphasizing. We all differ in how prone we are to get anxious and our ability to manage the stresses that cause it. A significant portion of this relates to our temperament, shaped by our genetic constitution and developmental years, which we have little control over. Therefore, if you are someone who gets anxious easily it does not necessarily mean your spiritual life is lacking, just like if you are naturally emotionally resilient or carefree, it does not necessarily mean you have a strong spiritual life. We need to be careful about making such moral judgments and comparisons. Let us act with grace and encourage each other in our struggles and challenges.