Sometimes anxiety feels like a bug crawling under your shirt. You squirm and shake and slap to get it off, but it keeps moving—tiny legs tickling the pores of your skin. The sensation is sickening. And you feel neurotic. How is everyone else just walking through the world without a care?! Why can’t I just be normal? I wish I could say this was something that happens to a small group in our society, but currently around 40 million people in the U.S. are treated for anxiety disorders each year. 40 million (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). That’s 18% of the population, roughly 1 in 5 people. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist, prophesied that ours would be the “age of anxiety.” It certainly seems that way.
In this article, all I want to do is sketch out some of my own experience in living with an anxiety disorder for over 12 years. My main point is that anxiety is cyclical, and how we run through its cycle makes a huge difference in our spiritual development.
The Anxiety Cycle
I’ve found that all of our anxiety follows the same general cycle. Usually, we begin with some sort of trigger, though some of us deal with general anxiety, which basically means the trigger is life, and it follows us around everywhere. The trigger then leads to our body’s physical response. Here are the symptoms many people experience.
- Pinhole throat (difficulty swallowing; a sensation of your throat getting smaller)
- Heat flashes
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart palpitations
- Tingling in the arms and legs
- Derealization (the feeling of being removed from your body; feeling “out of it”)
Then comes a crucial moment in the cycle: our mental or spiritual response. This is what we do when we feel the physical symptoms. It’s our interpretation. What do the symptoms communicate? What do they mean? Based on our internal answers to these questions (often made in a fraction of a second), we take action. We go to a “safe zone.” We avoid places where our trigger is front and center. We medicate.
When most of us get to the second stage (physical response), we hate the symptoms so much that we immediately interpret them as life-threatening. This is when that common expression “fight or flight” comes into play. Most of the time, we fly. We say, “There’s something wrong with me! I have to get rid of this!” I know. I get it. Remember, I’ve had an anxiety disorder for over 12 years and just put out my first book on it (there’s more coming). If that’s our interpretation, then the action is simple: get rid of the symptoms ASAP. End the anxiety. End the panic. Our focus becomes alleviating the symptoms and returning to normalcy. Keep that word in mind: normalcy. We want to get back to a place where hyper-vigilance and heart palpitations aren’t in control of whether or not we go to the grocery store.
Changing Our Approach to the Cycle
Sound familiar so far? Now, here’s what I’ve learned: when we work through the anxiety cycle this way, we’re not accounting for God’s presence with us and his purposes for every thought and bodily sensation we experience. And that’s no small problem! God specifically tells us that he has a purpose for every detail of daily life. Do you know what that purpose is? Conforming and shaping us to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). That’s it. That’s the end goal, the ultimate purpose for every little bodily sensation, every random thought, every relationship decision, every professional venture. It’s all about divine shaping. Every breath, thought, and movement is about beckoning to God’s voice and bending our souls to his Son’s shape. It’s not about returning to normalcy; it’s about refining our personhood in the person of Christ.
So, how does this change our approach to the anxiety cycle? For starters, note that many of us aim at eliminating stages 1 and 2. We try to address the triggers through counseling, medication, and other means so that the physical response lessens in severity. This is the equivalent of wearing noise-cancelling headphones in the heart of Philadelphia. The noise is still there. Life is still pulsing with passion, pain, and pick-pocketers, but we don’t hear as much. We just get the low hum.
The point of all this is to feel less anxious by managing the triggers and mitigating the physical response. That aim has its place (Full disclosure: I’ve been on medication for years and see no problem with that. For more on medication, see pp. 161-65 in Struck Down but Not Destroyed.), but it’s impossible to walk through life without experiencing triggers and the attending physical responses. We can over-medicate to drown out the noise (Paxel makes a great set of headphones), but that leads to a zombie life. No one really wants to turn the volume all the way down. Remove the natural music of experience, and you’re left with the silence of slumber. That’s fine when our eyes are shut, but not when they’re open.
But that’s not even the most important part: if we focus all of our attention on stages 1 and 2, we never have the chance to be shaped to Christ’s image, and that’s the whole point of the Christian life! Remember, “normalcy” is no substitute for “abundant life in Christ” (John 10:10). And that’s exactly what we’re giving up when we strive to be “normal” like everyone else.
The Magic of Stage 3
What if we focus on stage 3? I’m convinced that’s where the magic happens. You see, interpretation governs everything. It’s not just what happens to you that matters; it’s how you give it meaning and then respond to it accordingly. I teach language and writing, so this is always at the front of my mind. Some of my international students who speak English as a second language will say things like, “You help me with my paper.” That looks like a demand, doesn’t it? How rude! You don’t tell me to help you with your paper; you ask me to. But the student says it this way because he hasn’t yet figured out how we form questions in English. I know that he really means, “Will you help me with my paper?” I have a choice in interpretation. I can either interpret the student as being rude (which is a mistake), or I can interpret him as expressing himself as best as he can. The same goes for anxiety. I can either interpret it as a threat to my normalcy (which is a mistake), or I can interpret it as a tool for spiritual formation in the hands of God. Certainly, the latter is harder than the former, but stay with me.
If we interpret the trigger (stage 1) and our physical response (stage 2) jointly as a kind of spiritual medicine (Struck Down but Not Destroyed, pp. 51-54), something that goes down bitter but leads to our health in Christ conformity, that changes everything. We’re no longer fighting against the current; we’re moving with it. And obviously this changes our action (stage 4). Rather than fleeing from anxiety or trying to eliminate it, we walk straight into it—not because we’re crazy, but because we’re Christ-focused. We want to know how God is shaping us, how he’s going to speak to us in that moment of fear and panic.
I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve NEVER been disappointed. There is always some clear sense in which God is using my anxiety to draw my attention to something or someone: my wife, my kids, a teaching problem, a writing issue, a Scripture passage. There’s always some element of my character that needs to be shaped to the patient, grace-giving, others-focused life of Jesus. That’s one of the joys of the Christian life. It’s why James could tell us to “consider all joy” when we encounter trials (James 1:2). We are on a path of shaping. And we can use our anxiety (or, rather, let God use it) to pause and allow the shaping to take its course.
So, I’m offering the model below.
Prayer and Scripture reading are critical, because we need to have some direction or focus. When we call out to God for help, he will usually answer by directing our attention to what he’s already revealed in the word. From that word, we need to have an awareness of how many different ways in which God might be shaping us in that moment. In other words, we need to know the character of Christ well enough to see our options. Here’s a short list of Christ’s character traits. Which of these are familiar to you? Which can you identify a biblical passage for, and which seem more foreign? What would you add to the list?
- Long suffering
- Driven (by the will of his Father)
- Confident (in the speech and will of his Father)
Other Tools for Your Spiritual Response
Remember that our spiritual response is how we interpret what’s happening to us. At the broadest level, we interpret our anxious feelings not as a mistake, but as something that God is using to shape us to the image of his Son. I developed an acronym as a tool to help people respond to their anxiety in a biblical way.
If you think this would help (and I’m certain it will), then dive into the book! I unpack this acronym there and offer a bunch of other concrete resources for you.
Let’s start making the anxiety cycle work FOR us rather than against us. Let’s start with being okay that anxiety strikes us down. It won’t destroy us. It can’t. In God’s grace and providence, it only has the power to make us stronger in Christ.
Want more resources for working through your anxiety? Pick up the book that’s changed my life and is ministering to people around the globe! Click the image below.
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