Anxiety, Panic Attacks, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Anxiety is undeniably unpleasant. Regrettably, it is worsened by a senseless social stigma hanging over it. General ignorance is such that many with anxiety feel misunderstood or even looked down on by those so fortunate as to never having suffered from severe anxiety. Men can feel unduly shamed by it – as if it were somehow unmasculine to suffer certain afflictions. Christians can feel like failures, or even get mad at God, for suffering from it – as if having God as your best friend were somehow meant to make one immune from being human.
Actually, anxiety is an invaluable spiritual opportunity. All of us are alarmingly vulnerable to spiritual deception until we learn to live by faith, not feelings. Like so many important things in life, there is only so much we can learn from a book. We desperately need real-life practice. Anxiety gives us a rare chance for hands-on practice in living by raw faith, when highly convincing feelings scream the opposite to spiritual reality. If you can become a concert pianist after a single thirty-minute lesson, you might quickly learn how to live by faith. For the rest of us, it makes many laborious years of practice.
Anxiety is also annoyingly mysterious. Some people are anxious about specific things. Not so, for those who have generalized anxiety. Even when various triggers can be identified, however, the deeper cause can remain elusive. There are strong anecdotal pointers to there being a medical component: some form of imbalance in one’s body chemistry. Identifying the precise nature of the imbalance, however, can be exceedingly difficult. For a specific individual, it could be one of any number of possibilities. For some people it might be as simple as a mineral or vitamin deficiency (but which mineral or vitamin?). For others, it could be hormonal or something quite different.
Anxiety can drive many afflictions, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), phobias, panic attacks, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If you suffer from guilt or OCD, there’s a special version of this webpage that I suggest you now go to: Guilt, Fear, OCD: What Should a Christian Do?
It is worth praying about seeing a doctor. Medical solutions often take the edge off anxiety but, even then, some of it lingers. So, medical considerations aside, when hit by anxiety what should a Christian do?
Nothing. Yes, you read that right.
Despite an overwhelmingly strong urge to avoid anxiety, fear it, run to someone for reassurance, beat yourself up for feeling it, fight it, or beg God to end it, the most Christ-exalting counter-attack is to do all you can to ignore it.
I am acutely aware that choosing to do nothing in this situation is both exceedingly difficult and the exact opposite of what feels like the correct response. Note, however, that if doing what comes naturally were the answer, you would not be reading this; you would already be free from these attacks. You need a radically different approach – probably one you have not even considered.
Regardless of how intense, prolonged and repeated those awful feelings are, it is perfectly safe to treat them as if they did not exist or had never happened. As shocking as it seems, you should view them as being of not the slightest consequence.
You might have grown so used to letting anxiety alarm you, that reacting in fear whenever it comes has become a deeply ingrained, unthinking habit. And habits are hard to break. In fact, as ridiculous as it is, not being afraid can seem scary. It is time to break the cycle by choosing to act as if these unwanted feelings were not even happening. Don’t interact with them in any way. Don’t fear them, don’t be ashamed of them, or worry about them, or fight them, or ask forgiveness. Just, as much as you can, remain relaxed and unconcerned, and move on.
Not only does acting in fear achieve nothing positive, it achieves less than nothing. It ramps up fear by reinforcing in one’s mind the lie that there must actually be something to be scared of.
Let’s forget psychology and look at this spiritually: behind anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD and so on, is fear, which leads to ‘works’ – our own desperate attempt to save ourselves. What makes doing nothing the perfect counter-attack for Christians is that the spiritual opposite of both fear and ‘works’ is faith. Deliberately doing nothing in response to these attacks is faith in action. It is declaring to the entire spirit world that there is nothing to fear and that Jesus, not your efforts, is your Savior.
Fighting the symptoms gives the illusion of helping because it can temporarily ease them. The sad truth, however, is that it actually ends up worsening them by reinforcing the unspiritual notion that you should act in fear, rather than in faith. Since fear fires the problem, you need to put out the fire. Instead, frantically fighting the symptoms – reacting as if there were something to fear – fans the fire and so inflames the problem.
I once hyperventilated. It vividly illustrates why choosing to do nothing when hit by anxiety, is the ideal response.
I was feeling a little unwell and began to focus on my breathing. Thinking I needed a little more air, I breathed slightly deeper. That did not seem to help, so I calmly breathed still deeper. That make me feel as if I needed even more air. I breathed even quicker and deeper. Soon I was caught in a vicious circle in which I found myself gasping for more and more air. Then my hands began to uncontrollably clench and go numb. Thinking I must be having a stroke or something, I panicked even more, which further affected my breathing. Someone with nursing experience placed a paper bag over my face (not recommended these days). Certain that I needed more air, I tried to fight her off.
When it was all over, I was flabbergasted to learn that the entire incident had been fear-driven. Every part of me had seemed to be screaming that I needed more air and that I was having a medically dangerous episode. It turned out that it was not that I needed more oxygen, but that I was actually getting too much. I simply needed to calm down (not easy when so worked up) and act normally.
That’s what it is like with anxiety. When in the midst of it, panicking and trying harder and harder seems the appropriate, Christ-honoring response and yet it drives a vicious circle that makes everything worse. As counter-intuitive as it seems, you actually need to do the exact opposite of what fear tells you.
This is the safe, God-honoring thing to do, but it will not feel that way. Fear feels like a friend that protects you and helps you be a better person, when it is actually an insidiously cruel parasite that sucks spiritual life out of us and robs God of the glory he deserves. So reverse this. Choose to honor God by accepting that, regardless of all your turmoil, through Christ you are accepted by God. (If you have difficulty understanding or believing this, see this tiny note: Approved by God.)
Despite this spiritual reality, anxiety causes us to panic and continually focus on a molehill until it looms in our mind as enormous as a mountain. So honor God by doing the opposite. Let even the molehill shrink to nothing by disregarding it.
Anxiety is just a feeling until we start fearing and obeying it. Then we let it become a life-controlling problem. We expect that by yielding to it we are making life easier on ourselves. Nothing could end up further from the truth. To yield to anxiety is to empower it. Each time we obey its demands, it grows stronger and we grow weaker.
Anxiety is like having the most annoying itch that incessantly demands to be scratched. If, despite that intense urge, you leave it alone, it will eventually calm down. Give into its demands, however, and do what feels like the natural thing to do – scratch it – and you will feel temporary relief but the itch will soon return even stronger than before. With eczema, for example, scratching can even cause infection. Enduring that irritating itch and refusing to scratch it, is agonizing and feels so unnatural, but it is the only way to stop it from getting worse than ever.
This is the dilemma you face: will you do what feels natural and give the anxiety the attention it seems to demand, or will you trust that God can handle it? Will you act out that faith by deliberately doing nothing, despite the infuriatingly strong urge to believe the anxiety, or to fight it, or whatever you have been doing? Will you put your faith in Jesus or in your own efforts? Will you, by faith, accept that what seems to you a terrifyingly enormous mountain is nothing because of your almighty Savior? Or will you act as if he is pathetically weak and needs you to sweat, struggle and strive?
You cannot stop fear from taunting you but you can stop yourself from doing what it says. It is not your choice whether fear follows you wherever you go but it is your choice whether you turn around and follow it, making it your god by doing whatever it screams. What fear does is up to fear, but what you do is up to you.
They have to be serious
because if they smiled
we’d see they have no teeth.”
– Grantley Morris
The goal is not to try to stop anxiety but to disobey it. Don’t wait for anxiety to stop bothering you before deciding to no longer let it control your actions – you would be waiting forever if you chose that path. Instead, press on regardless of its presence. Let fear roar. It’s a clawless, toothless tiger. Despite every appearance of being ferocious, it is merely a feeling. It is harmless. The only way it can hurt you is if you give into it by doing what it says. To let fear order you around is to needlessly let a mere feeling become a life-controlling tyrant. |
None of us want to dethrone God in our lives and replace him with fear as our source of truth (the one we believe) and the one we obey. Nevertheless, it’s a hole we easily fall into. Thankfully, reversing this catastrophe can happen in an instant – just like at any moment an alcoholic can say no to a drink. What is difficult, however, is keeping fear off the throne – just like it is exceedingly hard for an alcoholic to keep saying no, day after day. Whether it is an addiction to obeying fear or to obeying the urge to drink, the first week or so is the hardest. Thereafter, however, occasionally the temptation to revert to old ways will again be agonizingly intense. That’s just the nature of a past addiction. Hold out during these times and life will get better and better.
To squander one’s energy on trying to fight anxiety would be like an athlete in the midst of a marathon race continually running off course to scold random people for not applauding you. Focus your efforts on the real enemy: being intimidated by fear. The real battle is won by refusing to let fear bully you into obeying it, and by believing that through Jesus you have already won. That’s challenging when obeying fear has become a way of life. Nevertheless, you can do it. If you are on a journey, it is easier on yourself if you never slip and fall. Ultimately, however, what matters is not how often you slip up, but how often you get up. No matter how hard it might seem, if you get up each time and keep going, you will make it.
Micah 7:8 Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. . . .
Proverbs 24:16 for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again . . .
Proverbs 24:16 for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again . . .
A righteous person? That’s you because of Jesus.
This webpage has been about the power of doing nothing. Rather than moving on from this theme, the next page will move us closer to it. Having no kinship with escapism, we will discover that doing nothing is actually doing something profound: it is facing head-on the reality of our smallness and God’s greatness; our powerlessness to achieve anything of eternal worth and our utter dependence upon the Eternal Lord. It is letting our incompetence be swallowed up by his competence.
In contrast, escapism is distracting oneself in the rat race of frantic activity; it is getting giddy and so high on the adrenaline rush of desperately running around in dizzy circles that we fall prey to the delusion that we can save ourselves.
The next page is about ensuring that doing nothing is not cold, tense emptiness – a place where anxiety could grow – but filled with warm contentment. And, even more powerful and fulfilling, letting God fill it with himself.
If delighting God by doing nothing is a startling concept for you, now might be a good time to pause. First, bookmark this page, or record the web address, so that you can return to it when you are ready for more. Then, by all means, take a break but, if possible, before getting distracted by other things, let the insights so far discovered settle deeper into your heart right now by taking time to ponder and review them. That’s like adding cement to a carefully constructed sandcastle so that all your efforts are not lost by the incoming tide.
When you are ready for more, return here.
There’s more: Anxiety Solutions for Christians
Not to be sold. © Copyright, 2020 Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged and it is not used in a webpage. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at www.net-burst.net Freely you have received, freely give. For use outside these limits, consult the author.