No Cause for Shame: Understanding Anxiety Disorders

You know the feeling. Your heart pounds, your breath quickens, your vision slides into sharp focus. As adrenaline courses through your veins, your skin temperature changes and every muscle in your body tenses, ready to fight or flee.

Calm down, you tell yourself. It’s just a shadow. You take a few deep breaths, emit a shaky laugh, and begin to relax as your body realizes there’s nothing to fear.

But what if you couldn’t calm down? What if your body told you there was something to fear–even when you were perfectly safe?

Then you would know what an anxiety disorder is like. And if you have experienced an anxiety disorder, you know how it can disrupt nearly every part of your body, hijacking systems and recruiting portions of the body in an effort to combat danger that may not even exist.

Many people who have anxiety disorders, when they first begin to experience symptoms, believe they’re having a heart attack. Or they don’t understand whey they’re so sore all over their bodies. Or why they can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep. These physical symptoms aren’t the real problem, but they can be the most noticeable effects of anxiety. For most of us, runaway obsessive, worried thoughts don’t seem like a problem until they start to hurt physically.

But while anxiety can hurt our bodies, the root of an anxiety disorder is in our brains. It’s our brains that tell our bodies when to respond to threats–even when we aren’t actually in danger. And when that process is out of control, it takes the shape of the most common form of mental illness in the United States. Disordered anxiety means the anxious response has taken over and controls the person, rather than the other way around. And it will happen to almost 30 percent of us at some point in our lives.

People who experience anxiety disorders often feel ashamed. After all, being openly fearful and anxious is frowned upon in our society, even though most of us regularly carry stress levels so high, they might generate enough electricity to power a small country. Some Christians, in particular, love to shame people for out-of-control anxiety. “The Bible says to be anxious about nothing,” they say. “So just have faith and stop worrying.” But many people can’t stop that runaway process on their own, no matter how sincerely they believe (for more on what the Bible has to say about fear, worry, and anxiety, see my book Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry).

It’s important to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with fear or anxiety. In fact, when people don’t experience fear at normal levels, that can be serious cause for concern. If we lived in a perfect world, no one would need to fear. Fear and anxiety would be oddly out of place. But we don’t live in that kind of world, and fear and anxiety are very important. They help keep us safe, help us avoid danger in the first place, and equip us to protect others too. Fear and anxiety are not only necessary–they’re actually healthy. When they arrive at the right time, and go away when they’re not needed, they help us. Anxiety, specifically, can help us recognize threats, make wise decisions, and perform well when facing a challenge. For example, the anxiety I feel before I speak, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm me, can help produce the right mix of adrenaline and other chemicals that help me give a better presentation than I would deliver if I were perfectly relaxed.

But anxiety sometimes goes wrong and hurts us. When we’re not facing a challenge that requires a fight-or-flight response, anxiety can turn against us. It can literally make us sick. For some people, the healthy anxious response turns to a disorder.

Despite our judgey stereotypes, people who have anxiety disorders may not be more fearful or worried than the average person. Their bodies have responded in a disordered way because of trauma, genetics, or some other reason. Some people are simply more biologically sensitive to anxiety and other forms of stimulation. In them, the body’s healthy, helpful biological process works overtime. They reveal a problem. But the root of problem is present in everyone else too, even if they’re lucky enough that they’ve never had a panic attack.

An anxiety disorder is, essentially, too much of a good thing. While people with such disorders often feel ashamed and suffer condemnation from those who misunderstand, it is merely a healthy, God-given process that’s working too well.

An anxiety disorder requires treatment with medication, counseling, or both. It requires changes in thought processes and emotional habits. It may also require spiritual change, but an anxiety disorder is not an indication of a lack of faith or any other spiritual weakness. This condition is very different from voluntary engagement in worry.

A life characterized by worry and fear requires repentance, and so does a life marked by complete calm. We don’t get to use the consequences of our emotional habits to decide we’re better than other people. A life marked by a biological process that works too well and causes illness is not any kind of special cause for repentance. It’s a reason to get help. As with other forms of disorder, it’s important both to treat the symptoms of illness and to address the thought patterns and lifestyle issues that contribute to the problem.

If you live with out-of-control anxiety, please seek help for the problem. As with other disorders, there is no shame in the illness, but you still need to address lifestyle issues that might keep you from getting better (while you’re treating the illness itself). You can get better. And it starts by coming out from hiding and saying no to shame.

10 Comments
  1. Dori dyjstra says:

    Very encouraging to understand what makes each person respond differently to what might be the same stress point. Love and acceptance from others allows the person to look inside themselves with compassion and courage. Really appreciated your article and insight.

  2. Humiliated says:

    Amy: Thanks for your comments. This article is going in my ‘tool box’.
    I’m one of your regular readers. I’ve never admitted my fear problem with anyone but my wife, and then only when I couldn’t hide it any more. In a male, being weak or overly sensitive is seen as a huge and fundamental failure as a man.

    The details aren’t important, but beginning in my late thirties, I began having episodes where the sudden onset of anxiety/fear/panic causes episodes of suddenly passing out ( this is a bizarre adaptation of the ‘flight’ response). This of course becomes a circular cycle.
    The only real prevention options are 1)downing enough highly addictive tranquilizers to virtually put you in a stupor, or 2) getting prone and alone for a lengthy period the second I sense panic cresting a certain point. So understandably, it is preventing me (at present) continue my career as a business executive, speak or lead, or travel much.I can’t tell you how shaming it is to be part of a team making a presentation, realizing that while everyone else is anxious about selling a deal, you are mostly anxious about making it through the meeting and the following lunch without having a panic attack and passing out.

    As you say, qualified counseling, awareness and mental techniques and medication help, somewhat. But, medication’s effectiveness is limited and has significant side-effects, and for many people (rural in my case) decent counseling is difficult or impossible to obtain and only partly effective.

    The popular Christian-culture faith response to this problem I usually hear adds another level of anxiety. Faith and love cast out fear, so the implication is that clearly I am failing to produce either one. Now we also get to worry about whether we’re really ‘saved’. ‘Just Remember, perfect love casts out fear’ or ‘when you have saving faith, you won’t be experiencing worry in your life again’, usually with a citation of Matthew 6:27-30 ‘consider the lillies’ and concluding with instructions to pray more diligently. You wonder where on earth to turn: therapy, spiritual direction, or exorcism (joking, sorta)

    Thanks for reminding us that fear and anxiety really are debilitating for some people, and though our response can definitely make things better or worse, for some of us significant parts of fear/anxiety/panic are out of our conscious control.

    • Amy says:

      You’re welcome, and I understand what you mean. It is difficult for women to admit to feeling overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, but it is far more socially acceptable than it is for men. I wonder how sharing your experience with others might help alleviate one source of anxiety for you, as well as potentially provide some freedom for other men. That may feel impossible, but it might be worth considering.

  3. Sheila says:

    Thank you for this helpful article! So many uninformed Christians think that anxiety, worry, fear, are SPIRITUAL problems! Many times anxiety, especially when manifested in someone who has not historically been an anxious person, is evidence of some PHYSIOLOGICAL or BIOLOGICAL process going on, over which they have no control. For example, small strokes, or other vascular events in the brain – even migraines – can leave behind damage to certain areas of the brain that affect all sorts of emotional or physiological changes. Anxiety and panic attacks are real and scary and the pathogenesis can be completely biological, NOT spiritual, therefore the correction often needs to be medical. I realize there are forms of worry and anxiety that are spiritual in nature and sinful choices of our own sinful nature. But to assume that ALL anxiety, worry, fear, is a SPIRITUAL problem is SO wrong and misinformed and unsupportive to those who most need support. John Newton was a wonderful support to William Cowper in his mental illness. Even in the 1700’s Pastor Newton seemed to grasp the physical, biological nature of Cowper’s illness and did not charge him with sin or spiritual sloth.

    • Amy says:

      Good example, Sheila. Another one is the example of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. He was fearful and depressed, and he even expressed suicidal ideations to God. God did not respond by condemning him or telling him he needed to have more faith. He sent an angel to give Elijah food and allowed him to rest.

  4. Peter Coleman says:

    Very helpful.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.