Few know how much I have struggled with anxiety in the past. This secret monster seems to rear its ugly head whenever I go through a lot of change or a transition in life. Two years ago, I went through my most horrific experience with anxiety to the point that my heart would race and I had insomnia. Experiencing these physical side effects made me realize that it was time I fully dealt with this all-consuming emotion. My usual coping mechanisms of distraction and repression were only making matters worse.
Within the Christian realm, anxiety is often not a fashionable topic of conversation, however, it is one of the most prevalent struggles for Christians today. Only three months ago, I sat around my Bible study group of several strong, seemingly unshakable women and shared about my past issues with worry and anxiety. To my dismay, over half the women in the group admitted to having severe struggles with anxiety at some point of their lives, to the point it would manifest itself in debilitating physical symptoms. It lead me to wonder if anxiety is so prevalent among Christians, why is it often swept under the rug?
I believe there are two main answers to this question, both equally dangerous. Often we look at “worry” as something we just all do. In fact, it is assumed that every good mother worries. However, the Bible is clear in saying “Do NOT worry”. In other words, “worry is non-optional”, as it will only add trouble to our day (Matthew 6). Unfortunately, I feel like I have down-played this sin of worry in my own life, only to allow it to spiral out of control. John Piper once said that “The root cause of anxiety is a failure to trust all that God has promised us in Jesus”. If we don’t trust God with the small things, we eventually open ourselves up to distrust God with the big things. Our distrust relinquishes our thoughts and emotions to focus on ourselves and the result is inevitably fear. The alternative is to draw near to Him, knowing that He has full control and cares for us more than we can comprehend. This is when we can experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:6-7).
The other reason I feel the problem of anxiety often goes unaddressed is that so few people will admit they struggle with it. When I have struggled in the past, I didn’t want others to know because I was afraid someone would think I was crazy. I was afraid that if I told someone how much my thoughts were consumed with worry, it would discredit me and my ability to do my job properly.
Worry or anxiety left unchecked will manifest itself in an array of physical symptoms including sore muscles, headaches, insomnia, racing heartbeat and stomach issues, just to name a few. However, what can be more detrimental is the emotional and spiritual upset that anxiety can produce. At the very least, it will rob you from the blessings God wants you to enjoy and a steady mindset that allows you to be open to the God-given opportunities around you. When you allow worry to go unchecked, it will inevitably snowball.
Researchers have found that when we have a thought, it makes a neurological connection in our brain. When we think the same thought over and over again, the connection becomes deeper much like a trench that is widened with every swipe of a bulldozer. With every repetition of the same thought, that neurological connection is stronger, especially if the thought is connected to an emotion. Therefore, problems arise when the thought is associated with fear or anxiety. When we worry, we think the same anxious thought over and over and the trench is made ever deeper in our brain. With each repeating thought, the fear becomes more consuming as this thought is more prevalent and easily accessed. Before we know it, a small worry can snowball into tremendous fear as this connection is already augmented in our brain. This is why worry can be so difficult to overcome and why a very small (almost undetectable) thought can result in a panic attack for some. Therefore, small worries can quickly become overwhelming if this process isn’t stopped and reversed.
To remedy this problem, psychologists suggest to think a positive thought every time the initial worry comes to mind. This will work eventually but you have to have a positive thought for every negative thought to undo this neurological connection and “backfill the trench” completely. For professional worriers like myself, this could take a while.
However God gave us a short cut! God’s Word is so powerful that it is exponentially more effective than mere positive thinking. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The Bible is not simply a history book or large devotional but it is the actual inspired Word of the very creator of the Universe, who breathed life into each one of us. So surely, it is powerful enough to help us with anxious thoughts. When we confront Satan’s lies with God’s Word, it refills this trench much more quickly and completely until our negative thoughts are completely filled with the truth of God’s Word. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthian 10:5) Isn’t it amazing that through God’s Word we take captive every anxious thought and make it obedient to Him?. This means we don’t just harness our worries to keep them from building, but we completely transform our anxious thoughts into thoughts that honor Him.
I know what you’re thinking … “That sounds great Karin, but you have no idea how strong my fears have become.” I’m here to tell you that I get it and I realize how horrific anxiety can be. At times it can be like a swirling tornado of fear that you feel like you can’t escape – simply because you can’t run from your own self. Fortunately, through relying on God and meditating on His Word, He will provide us with a way out.
When you feel a fearful thought coming on, your first step should be to go to God’s Word. When I struggled two years ago, I summoned the courage to share about it in a Bible study group for mom’s. To my dismay, another young mom in the group named Katy came to me afterwards and said she was struggling with the exact same thing. She said that when we feel anxious we could stop and pray for one another and we each did just that. She also sent me a list of verses that she had written out on cards that were especially helpful to her. She said when she felt an anxious thought come on, she would stop and recite one of the verses on the list. Here is the very list she emailed to me that day and now I pass them on to you:
Joshua 1:9 – Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Psalm 34:4 – I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
2 Timothy 1:7- For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.
Phil 4:6-7 – Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Jeremiah 29:11- For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Isiah 40:31 – But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
1 Thes 5:18 – Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
.Exodus 14:14 – The Lord your God will fight for you, you need only to be still.
The verse that stuck out to me most was Exodus 14:14 It made me realize that my only job was to sit at His feet and seek Him – that He would fight the battle for me. So, when I had an anxious thought, I pulled out my verse card and read this verse, sometimes out loud. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I repeated this verse over and over again and it helped like nothing else before. I could see that there was power in praying God’s Word and that He was having victory over my anxiety.
What’s fascinating about this list of verses is that Katy had used this same list to combat her fearful thoughts. She had gotten the list from another friend in our Bible study group who had used the same list for the same reason, before she passed them onto Katy. Sharing my struggle with others made me realize I was not alone – that others had struggled as I did and came out on the other side stronger than before. God orchestrated the situation perfectly. He put us in the same group at various times to support each other when we needed it most.
During this time of anxiety, I grew exponentially more than any other time in my life. The experience allowed me to realize the power of God’s Word and the depth of His love for me. In my hour of need, He not only didn’t leave my side but He made sure I had constant reminders of His love for me.
That November, I saw a strange number of butterflies outside, which seemed odd for the beginning of winter. Every time I went outside, one seemed to cross my path. Whether I was driving or went outside with Morgan, they were everywhere, popping up in the times I needed a distraction the most. When I was inside, I was still seeing butterflies at various times on TV, on a sign at store, on a thank you note, etc. Eventually, I realized God was trying to tell me something. God was trying to communicate that He loved me enough to transform my thoughts, just as he transforms a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. I realized that this process of transforming my thoughts was just that….it was transforming me as a person. I learned that exposure to the truth of God’s Word always results in change – transformative change that allows you to be more like Him. When God sends His Word out, He promises it will never return void. He always sends it out to accomplish something (Isaiah 55:11). It was not overnight, but through this process of praying Scripture and repeating His Word in my head, I began to see a light at the end of the tunnel – a new freedom and trust that allowed me to have a better view of His love for me.
If you are struggling with anxiety on any level, know that you are not alone. Feel free to email me so I can pray for you at Karin.firstname.lastname@example.org. Part 2 of this post will describe strategies to help us to hold His Word at the forefront of our minds when anxiety strikes.