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.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.