Article Jan 30, 2017

Helping those who struggle with anxiety

It doesn’t take much for me to worry. A news story. A sick child. An unexpected bill. A phone call late at night. Whatever the worry, I dwell and mull over it endlessly. I fret and think, “What if?” I search the internet for hidden solutions and anticipate all potential scenarios, sometimes to the point of losing sleep.  

The problem of anxiety

We all know what it’s like to worry about something; it’s a regular companion for many of us. As it turns out, so is its close cousin: anxiety. According to NAMI, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the United States. Approximately 18 percent of adults and eight percent of children and teenagers have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety, while related to worry, is different in that it’s persistent, ongoing and broader in scope. While we can usually work through our worries to find a solution—not so with anxiety. Anxiety is excessive worry about multiple things, even when there isn’t anything wrong. Such anxiety fills people with dread, fear and apprehension. They anticipate the worst and are always wary and watching. It also expresses itself physically. They feel tense and irritable. Their heart races. Their stomach feels sick, and they can’t sleep. Some who struggle with anxiety have panic attacks—which often feel like a heart attack—bringing on even more anxiety.

Anxiety can take on a variety of forms. A person can be anxious about life in general or about specific things, commonly called phobias. Some forms of anxiety bring on ritualistic behaviors, such as checking, cleaning, picking and counting. Whatever its shape, anxiety makes it difficult to function in relationships, work and the responsibilities of daily life.  

It can be a lonely condition, for the things that often make the hair on anxious people’s arms stand up, their stomachs tighten and their heads pound, don’t bother others at all. When they voice their anxieties with others, they are told to relax, trust God and let it go. As a result, they feel more anxious because no matter how hard they try to let go of anxiety, it simply won’t let go of them.

Hope for the anxious heart

Those who suffer from anxiety need help, heart and hope.

Help: The prophet Elijah was emotionally spent and filled with despair after his encounter with Jezebel. He feared and ran for his life. “He asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (1 Kings 19:4). God didn’t tell him to pick himself back up, set aside his despair and get back to work. Rather, God met Elijah’s physical needs. He provided him a place to rest and food to eat. We are not just physical beings, nor are we only spiritual beings; we are both. Therefore, when people struggle with anxiety, they need to address their physical needs as well. Sometimes this will mean talking to a doctor or other medical professional about their anxiety and receiving medical treatment. There’s no shame in needing help. If anxiety keeps them from fulfilling normal daily tasks, they need to get that help.

Heart: Anxiety is isolating. It causes people to fold in on themselves. A person with anxiety needs kindness and compassion from those who are tender-hearted. They need friends and loved ones who won’t say, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but who seek to understand and walk alongside their suffering friend, instead. To be diagnosed with anxiety, a person has to have symptoms for at least six months. To move through anxiety and come to a place of peace will take time as well.

Hope: The Bible has a lot to say about emotions, including worry, fear and anxiety. It doesn’t gloss over the harsh realities of life. The psalmist voiced fear when pursued by his enemies, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also” (Psa. 31:9). Even our Savior felt such dread at the horror of the cross that he sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

Those who are anxious need gospel-centered hope. They need a godly counselor who can point them to truth. They need to be reminded that Jesus conquered their greatest fears at the cross—eternal separation from God—so he will also be with them in all their lesser fears. They need to be reminded that Jesus was the Man of Sorrows who knew sorrow, grief, fear and temptation. They have a Savior who gets it. While others may look at their anxiety and wonder why they don’t just let it go, Jesus understands.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4: 14-16).

There’s great hope in knowing that Jesus was fearless when no one else could be. And because he was, we have the freedom and confidence to cry out to God for help. Jesus came, not for those who have it all together, but for those who are hurting, including the anxious at heart. He calls us to come and find our rest and peace in him, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).