How much anxiety is too much?
An anxious person posted: “I’m VERY laid-back. I only care about two things: (1) Every person on earth and their opinion of me; (2) the crushing psychological weight of being alive.
We all relate, and about a third of us relate fully. The global lifetime prevalence rate for anxiety disorders is about 30 percent. That means that for nearly a third of us our fears will be diagnosable at some point in our lifetimes.
This shouldn’t surprise Bible students who read of the entrance of fear in Genesis, where the once-calm Adam dives behind some scrub bush, admitting, “I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10).
So here we are, nervous systems aroused, wondering how to get back to a state of equilibrium. Let me share some information and action steps that have helped me, and others, stay calm in a frantic world.
What Is Anxiety?
Almost everyone gets butterflies before public speaking; and most of us have experienced intense nervousness before a high-risk conversation, such as asking someone out on a date or disputing a charge on a hotel bill. Nearly every human being finds large animals such as bears and lions threatening; and which one of us hasn’t felt our heart flutter when something went bump in the night? These are examples of normal anxiety in the face of actual potential threats.
It’s when anxiety heightens to the point that it is triggered by the possibility of danger, rather than its probability, that anxiety becomes unmanageable. Then our productivity and functioning as human beings is harmed by it, and it becomes pathological.
So we arrive at another definition: An anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by feelings of worry or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities. Do our anxieties disrupt our ability to function, to work, to love, or to stay healthy in one way or another? If so, we may have an anxiety disorder.
Let’s examine the physiology of anxiety. The nervous system can be thought of as having two basic branches: somatic and autonomic. The somatic nervous system is controlled by conscious thought. Lift your arm into the air a foot or two. That was your somatic nervous system working. Now, keep lifting it for another minute, again and again, faster and faster. Because of increased conscious activity, your heart rate and breathing will increase. The autonomic nervous system controls those because they’re unconscious. Who has to remember to breathe? Who tells their heart to beat? No one. We can thank the God of the autonomic nervous system for that.
Let’s more closely examine the autonomic nervous system. It also has two “branches,” or functions: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic brings about activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system and the parasympathetic calms it. The interplay of the two systems enables us to respond to threats with increased nervous energy (as in fight or flight), but then to calm back down when we realize those threats to be nonthreatening.
Science has recently begun to understand a more nuanced version of the sympathetic response. We’ve known about fight or flight for a long time, but now we know that persons can experience fight, flight, or freeze. Freeze describes the deer-in-the-headlights response we sometimes experience in the face of a threat.
In any of these fear states, several physiologic phenomena occur: The adrenals increase production of adrenaline, which increases heart rate and breathing. Adrenaline also shunts blood away from the internal organs into the extremities, dilates our pupils, reduces hearing, and shuts down peripheral vision. These changes temporarily turn us into Wonder Woman and Superman so we can fight off or run from the enemy.
In contrast to the fear state, calm sees the blood move back into the internal organs, the senses return to normal, and our breathing and heart rate slow back down to normal. In contrast to “fight or flight,” this calm state is sometimes called “rest and digest.”
Interesting new developments show that we reach this calm state best when we are socially engaged. That doesn’t mean chatting it up at a party. “Social engagement” refers to the state of feeling bonded or connected to others. Apparently we humans experience calm best in a relationship. This validates the truth that we’re made in the image of a relational God, a being who, for all His might and sovereignty, lives in a continual state of bondedness. Lonely, isolated people tend to experience more chronic anxiety than those who feel connected.
Is Anxiety Bad?
Clearly, anxiety has its use. When I’m standing on top of a seven-story building staring downward, the adrenaline shooting up my back gives me a clear message to secure my position. Because of a working anxiety system, I don’t react the same to a man brandishing an AK-47 as I do to a child waving a toy gun. God has allowed for the fear response to help protect us in a dangerous world.
Fear actually drives attention. We can see this in the biblical concept of fearing God. Quite often God tells us to fear Him (see sidebar).
Is this because God wants to control us? scare us? keep us hidden behind a bush in our own little Garden of Eden, peering out like scared rabbits? Is it because God is, ultimately, dangerous?
Not exactly. It’s because He wants to get our attention. The Greek word for fear is phobos, which simply means nervous system arousal. God wants to arouse us, get our attention, then get us to examine the perceived threat.
What will we then find? That He isn’t dangerous at all. In fact, He is love. And His perfect love perfected in us expels our fear (1 John 4:18). Thomas Chalmers called this “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Love comes in and pushes out fear.When we transition from feeling unsafe with God to feeling safe with Him, well, fear is gone.
So the reason God says to fear Him isn’t so we stay afraid, or even that the predominant emotion we feel toward Him is fear. It’s to arrest our attention so that He can ultimately take our fear away. In other words, the Bible’s route to a cure for anxiety is through redirecting our anxieties to the God who ultimately calms our fears.
While our fear response has its use, the mechanism itself can go awry and cause an additional problem. Fear, especially for some of us highly sensitive types, tends to take on a life of its own. Once it jumps the track from its appropriate use, anxiety can become a significant threat to the quality of life.
How Is Anxiety Treated?
The treatments that help anxiety the most involve all four components of life: physical, mental, social, and spiritual.
The physical aspect of treatment helps because anything that improves the health of the body helps the brain. “Natural doctors” work to improve neurotransmitter balance. Practices such as plant-based eating, exercise, sunlight, rest, the use of water, abstaining from caffeine and alcohol, fresh air, and trust in God all have their place. Science validates these things again and again.
Did you know that hydrotherapy is used in Europe to help the mood?1 Would you be surprised to learn that deep, slow breathing can ward off a panic attack?
The mental aspect of anxiety treatment has been addressed through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps individuals control their thought lives, “casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Ellen White wrote: “If the thoughts are wrong the feelings will be wrong.”2 But those thoughts and feelings can change as we receive the truth in Jesus. He can change our narrative from, “I’m a loser” to “I’m a precious child of God”; and “There’s nothing to look forward to” to “There’s enough labor in God’s field to keep me happy until Jesus comes again.”
The social component of healing means that we move away from the isolation that comes naturally to people in emotional distress into relationship with others. A healthy church is an excellent place to find friends and fellowship in a dark world.
I hasten to add that this is why we have to make sure that our churches are safe places for the downtrodden and distressed. Strife over doctrines and issues too often poison our churches and send struggling souls back to the world for refuge. When the world is kinder than the church, we know we need to review our affections.
Finally, trusting God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves will give us a peace that passes understanding. Why not trust in Him who gave His only Son, at infinite cost to Himself, as a free gift? Why not trust Jesus, who gave Himself to a lonely cross so that He could take our trembling selves into His capable, loving arms for eternity?
- Ellen G. White, Maranatha, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), p. 222.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, L.P.C., N.C.C., is director of ABIDE Counseling (www.abidecounseling.com), as well as an author, speaker, and musician.