Everyone has experienced anxiety. There are plenty of things in this world to be anxious about. Big tests, job interviews, giving speeches, life changes. It’s different from person to person, but we all have things that make us feel nervous and fluttery and unsettled.
I am a pretty anxious person by nature, so there are a lot of things that make me anxious. Talking to strangers can make me anxious. Anytime I might possibly be in danger of doing something incorrectly, I get hyper-anxious. Conflict always makes me anxious. Big purchases usually make me anxious.
But all of that anxiety is not the same thing as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). With normal anxiety, there is a specific situation that is causing anxiety, and when the situation ends the anxiety goes away. When I’m done with the speech, or the conversation, or the mistake, I will stop being anxious.
When I am suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, I am more or less anxious all of the time. I range from mildly jittery to frantic. Nothing is wrong; I can be sitting in my own home in the most calm and peaceful of situations, and I will still feel anxious.
Once when I had GAD I was watching That’s Entertainment, which is a movie of clips from musicals. It’s the most benign thing imaginable. I was watching Fred Astaire tap dance, and it was making me anxious. If Fred Astaire’s incredible dancing could make me anxious, ANYTHING COULD.
When I am not suffering from GAD and I am anxious in a normal way, which, like I said, happens a lot, I have strategies for dealing with it. One of those strategies is to visit the anxiety passages in the Bible.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6).
Another is found in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt 6:25-27).
When I am dealing with garden variety anxiety, these passages are helpful. They remind me that worrying isn’t going to solve anything, I can pray about my problems, and God is ultimately in control. Remembering those things can help the anxiety to fade.
But when I am suffering from GAD, these passages do not make me less anxious. They make me more anxious. The problem is that I’m not anxious about anything in particular, so there isn’t anything specific for me to pray about. I then get more anxious about the fact that I’m anxious, because I am now breaking biblical commands.
Eventually, I realized that these passages are not helpful for me when I have GAD. Generalized anxiety disorder is a disease. Telling myself to stop being anxious because the Bible says so isn’t going to make it happen.
The trouble is that we use the word anxiety to describe two similar feelings with very different underpinnings. When I have normal anxiety, prayer and thinking about God’s sovereignty can help. But when I have GAD, those things won’t stop me from being anxious about Fred Astaire’s tap dancing because that just does not even make sense.
Confusion about the two kinds of anxiety runs rampant in Christian circles, and this confusion can be very damaging to sufferers of GAD. Imagine that you are a person who is growing increasingly anxious. You have not yet been diagnosed with GAD, and you’ve been trying to get your act together. You come across this tweet from Tim Keller:
Anxiety is a daily statement to God saying, "I don't think you have my best interest in mind."— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) May 24, 2016
He went on in a second tweet to clarify that that he was not talking about clinical anxiety. But the problem I'm focusing on here is the ambiguity of the word "anxiety" and the distress that ambiguity can cause people (which is the reason Keller had to send that second tweet).
Because the person with undiagnosed or diagnosed but misunderstood GAD is going to read that first tweet and feel like THE most miserable sinner. He thought he was just wretchedly anxious, but it turns out he is wretchedly anxious AND he is sassing at God! Every day! But that’s not true. He can be anxious, and it doesn’t at all mean that he is doubting God. It means that he has generalized anxiety disorder. That’s all.
Just like having a headache doesn’t make you a terrible sinner, having GAD doesn’t necessarily say anything about your spiritual state. And just like reading the Bible doesn’t cure your headache, reading the Bible isn’t going to cure your GAD. There’s nothing unholy about that. It’s just how bodies work.
So what does make me feel better?
1. I see a doctor and sometimes get drugs. I’ll be writing more about this in the future, but for now: there is nothing inherently wrong about taking drugs for anxiety or depression. Just like you take aspirin for headaches, drugs for anxiety can be super great.
2. As much as possible, I eat good food, get good sleep, be outside, and exercise. All of those things seem terribly hard when I am anxious or depressed, but they really do help.
3. I do non-cerebral activities. When I am anxious I am constantly overthinking things. It’s really helpful for me to play a sport, or cook, or quilt. Some sort of activity that gets me out of my head for a bit by doing a very tangible task.
4. I have someone throw me in the ocean. Once I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, just a frazzly bundle of nerves jittering away. The second the service was over I got the heck out of there. I went home, called my Mom, and burst into tears. Andy came over, saw the state I was in, and declared the rest of the day to be a mental health day. We went to the beach and played bocce ball, and honestly I was miserable for most of it. At one point though we were walking along the water, and he started playfully chasing, and then he caught me and threw me in with all of my clothes on. It was fun, and shocking, and very cold, and helped me feel a little better. It definitely wasn’t the end of my anxiety (that particular episode did not go away without drugs), but it was a beautiful break in the clouds.
5. I try to be gentle with myself. When I am anxious and depressed, it’s very easy to beat up on myself. I feel weak and worthless, but that isn't true. Having anxiety and depression is very hard, and I am a champion for hanging in there. Even if Fred Astaire is making me anxious and I feel completely insane. Even if I am terribly discouraged and I just desperately want to feel normal.
If you suffer from GAD, what kind of things help you feel better?
Next week! The wonderful and sometimes miserable world of antidepressants.