Have you ever experienced persistent anxious thoughts? Does it affect your decision-making? Your thought or sleep patterns? Your relationships? Do you have a friend or family member who is struggling with anxiety? If so, the following account may resonate with you. This article may not apply perfectly or adequately to every person’s experience or conviction but it is a message of God’s sanctifying work through my own wrestling with anxiety. With it, I hope to bring an awareness to both the church and the struggling individual.
General Anxiety Disorder, (GAD), is a disease that affects 18.1% of the U.S. population over the age of 18. Shockingly, less than half of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. In the abstract of an annual review written by a team of psychologists, it was said that GAD “is associated with substantial personal and societal cost yet is the least successfully treated of the anxiety disorders” (NCBI, 2013). I’m going to suggest that there are those in the church who have GAD and are either refusing treatment or are not yet aware of their need for it. Together, these two items might be the contributing factor to the ‘lack of treatment success’. Simply, too many are living in the bondage of anxiety without the intention to ever seek help. It’s the urgent task of identifying GAD that motivates the publishing of this article. How can the church be a catalyst in the treatment of mental illness if it can’t see it? How can you pursue healing if you are bound by the taboo of mental illness? Below are examples of various symptoms you might experience as someone living with GAD:
General Anxiety: Restless, Wound up, Irritable, Difficult time concentrating, Muscle tension, Extreme fatigue, Difficulty controlling your feelings
Intense Anxiety (sometimes called panic attacks): Heart palpitations, Trembling /shaking, Shortness of breath
At this point, you are probably wondering how to discern the difference between GAD and normal anxiety. Most professionals put it this way; if anxiety starts to interfere with daily activities for longer than six months, you may have GAD. Whether or not you identify with any of the symptoms above, let me take you on a brief journey through my own experience. I humbly write this with the hope that God will graciously reveal to all of us the danger of minimizing anxiety and stress in our lives. It overcame me during a season in life because I was blind, so may the bolded words in the following pages act as a siren in your heart.
A Story of Anxiety
Coming up to my summer class exams in June 2017, my brain was on overload. Who knew it was possible to dream the organic structure of dihydroxyacetone for a week straight. I was fully invested in not only passing my Biochemistry course, but receiving an A (perfection). However, I found myself agonizing over the difficulty of the content. Exhaustion started to reign both physically and mentally. I found it harder to get along with family, my desire to go to the house of worship wore thin, and time that I would have invested in friendships became little to none (isolation). The ones I love most forewarned me that my life-style wasn’t sustainable (over-commitment). But of course, I was wiser and figured that if I just kept plugging away, my mind and body would become accustomed to the pace of life I was living (pride).
At 12:17 am on June 16, I was lying in bed gazing up at the ceiling as I agonized over the state of my churning stomach and the roller coaster of thoughts and emotions (racing thoughts). It didn’t take me long to realize that the state of my stomach was probably due to the mayhem in my mind. I was so uncomfortable that I went from my bed, to my floor, back to my bed, to the basement couch, to the bathroom floor. All the while, my mind was only accelerating. I held my head with both hands silently screaming, begging God to take this physical and emotional pain away.
At 3:04 am I woke up and suddenly became violently ill. I called for my mom when I realized I had vomited almost two pints of blood. My mom lovingly supported me as I started to pass out. A few minutes later my body began to feel clammy, my limbs felt detached, my vision blurred. By the time emergency medical personnel arrive, the strange episode had passed and I was slumped in a chair utterly exhausted. But as they check my vitals, another wave rolled in. My vision dissipated quickly and I heard an excruciating high pitched ring in my ears that blocked every other noise. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear. These were the most chaotic and despairing moments in my life (despair). Following the ambulance ride and brief hospital stay, the next few days consisted more of physical exhaustion and mindlessness rather than pursuing answers from God and sanctifying the traumatic experience to my heart (trauma).
Two months later, I ended up back in the hospital with another episode of major blood loss, most likely due to the fact I convinced myself I was superwoman after the last incident (ignorance). This time I received even more tests and my stay in the hospital was three days longer. Yet the doctors still had no medical explanation for what caused my blood loss. I began to ask the question why such events had followed the worst mental state I had ever been in. I knew I struggled with anxiety and racing thoughts (for which I was receiving counseling), but never did I dream I would be the victim of a full-fledged anxiety attack. After two blood-loss episodes and no answers, I started to wonder if this was my body screaming at me to just STOP (when mental illness fuels physical illness). Together with my parents, I asked the doctor if I could speak with a psychiatrist. A very scary word when you are talking about yourself. I reluctantly explained my experience of anxiety with the head psychiatrist and two of his interns. They did not question any of what I said and before I knew it, I was taking a mild dosage of anxiety medication (medication). I left the hospital just as confused as the last time, but with a pill in my hand.
Hope in Anxiety
These events are just a small part of my battle with anxiety. What was left unsaid were the months spent sitting across from my counselor, the years of trying to meet the expectations of others, and the incredibly deceptive assumption that I had to be involved in everything and do it all perfectly. Anxiety, I realized, is an illness of the mind. Like any illness, it needs to be diagnosed in order to be treated. It took the series of events told above to convince me I needed serious healing and lifestyle change. My mission for this article is to help initiate the restorative journey for those who have not taken seriously the signs of mental illness in their life and are living in confusion and emotional chaos. Doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, pastors, etc., are all able to assist you in analyzing your symptoms and reclaiming peace and calm in your life. Maybe you nodded your head at those bolded words woven throughout my story. Continuing with the analogy, if a bodily illness continues undetected, it worsens quickly. Please, don’t wait to identify, confront, and attack the enemy of anxiety, something I must do daily myself. Take the following truths to heart as you begin this process. May they be the life and strength behind everything you do in pursuit of peace.
First, if you are a Christian, your identity is not in anxiety or mental illness, but as a precious child of God. 1 John 3:2-3, “ Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure”.
Second, true joy and comfort in the midst of suffering comes from the Father. Psalm 94:19, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul”.
Third, Scripture is in no way short of the hope it provides to God’s people. John 16:33, “In this world you will have sorrow, but take heart I have overcome the world”.
Now that you have filled your heart with essential truths, you may be wondering what the next steps look like. Please, seek out a mentor, pastor and/or counselor to walk you through these next phases as you seek healing in the weeks, months, and years ahead.