Image of a glasses with a positive view on anxiety

When I Stopped Viewing Anxiety as My Enemy: 3 Lessons I Learned

Written by Rosie Yip, Australia

I’m no thrill seeker, but every time I’m at a theme park, I end up going on a few roller coaster rides with my friends. It’s fun standing in the queue, jumping up and down, attempting to not show how nervous we really are.

But it’s usually once I’m seated, and the attendants start doing their safety checks that I’m regretting my decision to go on the ride. There is an internal war within medo I stay on or should I get off? Back and forth I go between those questions and before I know it, the ride has begun. It’s too late to change my mind now. The train slowly chugs up the lift hill. For me, this is the worst part of the rollercoaster experience. Heart racing, hands clamped down on the handle, time drags as the train continues to click up the hill. Everything in me wants to get out but I am completely stuck and there is no escape. Panic would fill my stomach. I find it hard to breathe. I feel like I’m about to die and that feeling continues to grow as the train gradually arrives at the peak of the rollercoaster.  

And that’s what my anxiety feels like. 

But unlike roller coasters, where the fall inevitably comes after arriving at the peak and the ride is over in a matter of minutes, my anxiety can leave me feeling this sense of dread for days, if not weeks and months.  

Sometimes my anxiety has specific triggers. For instance, reading a certain article can result in flashbacks to a traumatic event that happened when I was a child. Sometimes, something said in a meeting can trigger an anxious thought. And there are days where I’d feel anxious for no apparent reason. It’s hard to pinpoint why I’m feeling anxiousI just feel it.

Other times, it’s a build-up of daily stressors, like pressures from work, family, chores, and social obligations. When the pile up of stress happens, even sending a simple text such as, “How are you?”, to someone can throw me over the edge. An innocent text turns into an out-of-control spiral of toxic thoughts if they do not reply instantly.  

Why are they not replying?  Did I do something wrong?  Maybe I shouldn’t have asked them how they were. Did I word that sentence badly? I must have said something that upset them. I need to apologise. They hate me. I’m the worst person on this planet and I should just disappear. 

When it gets super overwhelming, I’ll turn my phone off or put in Do Not Disturb. I’ll walk away from my phone and busy myself with something else to stop myself from checking my phone. And because I’m so careful with how I word my texts, I have formed a bad habit of not replying to texts, (or when I eventually do, it normally takes days before I’d reply) 

Upon reflection, anxiety has always been a part of my  life, long before I understood what it was and how to manage it. Up to a certain point, it never affected my way of living except for the occasional panic attack I would experience. 

Growing up, these attacks looked like hyperventilation. My first panic attack was when I was on the plane to Australia, leaving my dad behind in Hong Kong, to migrate to a new country. I started hyperventilating on the plane journey, it was so bad that  the air stewards had to bring the oxygen machine because I couldn’t breathe. 

At some point in my adulthood, I eventually broke down. And this breakdown made my entire world come to a sudden halt. I experienced anxiety in a way that deeply affected my life and completely changed the way I live my life.   

Looking back now, it was a slow build-up of many stressful events that led to this breaking point.  

The breaking point 

For one, when I was in my mid-20s, my family had started a business in 2011, which I was pressured to be involved in. I had no experience running a business and felt completely out of my depth. A particular low point was one night when I was in the office by myself; I found myself sitting in my chair, crying for no reason. I remember waves of sadness washing over me and as I became conscious of my thoughts and emotions, I desperately called my friend because I found myself petrified of my own train of thoughts.  

My relationship with my mother was strained due to this business, and we were constantly arguing about business directions and finances. 

By the time I got out of the business, I felt like I had gotten sucked into a black hole for the five years I worked at my family’s business,  and was spat out completely empty.  

With my newfound freedom, I quickly jumped into what I really wanted to doministry.  I joined the staff team at my local church, serving the community I had grown up with. But shortly after joining, our team found ourselves having to deal with one crisis after another.  

For three years, we were in a constant state of emergencyfrom our senior pastor and my spiritual mentor leaving due to disagreements with our church board, to major leadership failures and serious pastoral issues. 

For our small, local church and a young inexperienced team, where most  of us were in our mid-20s, it was a lot to deal with. We put up a united front; we were all trying to do our best. I felt like I was responsible for holding everything together because I was a staff member. So, I felt I wasn’t allowed to fall apart because if I had, everything would really crumble. And so, I held it together, and held it together . . . and held it together. But the dam burst, and I collapsed.

Absolutely and completely. 

The mental breakdown

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment I realised something was terribly wrong. I remember having to walk out of a meeting because I couldn’t breathe, and a few days later, I found myself running out of church two minutes before I was supposed to lead worship. 

Fear gripped me like never before. Making a decision became impossible, even the simplest of decisions. The panic attacks began to happen at a frequent rate. I was strung out and exhausted.   

Sleeping turned into a battlefield and eventually, I found myself unable to leave my house without falling apart. On the worst nights, I found myself sitting on the ground at 3 a.m., curled up next to a wall, knocking my head against it to try drowning out my own mind that had seemingly turned against me. 

A few of those nights, I came very close to ending my own life. The temptation was so great that I would hold a pair of scissors against my skin, but I could never make the actual cut. I just couldn’t do it because it has been ingrained in me, since I was young, that suicide was the worst sin of all, there was no redemption, and I would go to hell.

Whether this was true or not, I didn’t have the audacity or the will, to commit such an outrageous sin that would end me in hell. So, even though the temptation was there, I could never bring myself to carry out the act. 

Frustrated at myself, at God, and at the devil, and generally, everyone around me. 

I was frustrated and angry at myself, at God, and at Satan. I was also frustrated at the people who didn’t know what to say or said the wrong things. People would stare at me, shift awkwardly, before looking away. Once, someone said I was “too weak, too emotional”, and another person tried sharing 1 Corinthians 5:7 to me (which felt like the wrong thing to say to me at the height of my anxiety)

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. I specifically remember mustering up what little courage I had to book an appointment with my doctor, and after telling him what was happening in my life, he said, “Looks like we’re going to have to find someone to fix you”. I went to a psychologist because that was supposed to “fix me”. 

Spoiler alert, it didn’t.  

And then there was my faith. God was supposed to fix me, snap His fingers and I would miraculously be healed. Instead, God  seemed so out of reach. I found it almost impossible to practice my spiritual disciplines, especially the ones that I used to rely on when I was in a troubled spotto pray, to read His word, to sing songs of worship to God.  

It was hard practising spiritual disciplines because it required me to think and to feel, and I was uncomfortable doing things which required both. You see, I couldn’t differentiate which were my thoughts, which were the enemy’s and which one’s God’s. My aim was to get through everyday without feeling anything, because it was too overwhelming.

At the back of my mind, I recognised that I was in the middle of a spiritual battle. Yet, I had no energy or will to fight this battle. In that season, a fear that I constantly struggled with was: what if God’s love isn’t enough? What if His perfect, unfailing love can’t save me? Not because of Him, but because I was broken beyond fixing.  

It was like being severely injured and having to learn how to walk again. Over the next couple of years, it has been a slow process of figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other, learning how to live my life again. 

The process was painful.  

A painful process of trial and error 

Firstly, I had to learn about my anxiety. I had read about treating anxiety like a friend. I was to talk to it, get to know it, and to understand it. I found I had more patience, and was even more empathetic towards it, when I stopped viewing it as my enemy.

I found rating my anxiety on a scale of 1-10 particularly useful as well as it helped me decide what I should do or shouldn’t do on that day. If my anxiety ranked between 9 to 10, I would not push or challenge myself, but instead give myself permission to rest. It would be a day of staying in bed, with my phone turned off.  If it was in the 6 to 8 range, I knew I could still head out to get the groceries or have coffee with a safe friend. 

My dad was instrumental in helping me with the process. He was always home, he’d cook for me, clean the house for me, and stock it with groceries. 

On one particularly bad day, when I was petrified by my own thoughts, I made a frantic call to my dad. He had gone out for lunch with his friend, but he immediately said goodbye to his friend and came home to be with me. He never judged me, never pushed me beyond my limits, and made sure to create a safe space for me at home.

But just because I had worked out a process didn’t mean recovery was imminent.

It would be one step forward and two steps backwards; full of bad days with the occasional good days.  

It has been three years since that breakdown. Today, I envy the girl I was before my world shattered, yet I celebrate the woman I have become. Some days I look in the mirror and I find myself practicing how to smile, how not to look so sad. I’ve embraced that anxiety is now part of my life but have learnt to not allow it take centre stage. I continue to discover the depth of God’s love for me. I am more certain than ever of His goodness. Slowly, quietly, He is restoring me.

 Here are three lessons I’ve learnt from this season:

1. You don’t need to have the answers to everything

Even though I have anxiety myself, it’s difficult for me to understand someone else’s. We often want to provide a solution to people’s problems, even when they haven’t asked for solutions. Unsolicited advice helped my loved ones feel less helpless as they watched me become less and less like myself. 

On my part, I take the effort to tell my close friends and my family how they can best support me. The conversations were exhausting, but it helped them to understand how to love me when I was most probably, unrecognisable to them.Listening is powerful. Sit beside your loved one and listen to them as they share their vulnerabilities with you.    

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”  – Brené Brown   

2. Ask questions and pray instead

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When people asked me questions about what I was going through, I felt heard and cared for. It also felt like the other person was giving me permission to express myself without judgement. At times, their questions would challenge my thoughts. One thing I found helpful was to ask, “Would I say what I had just said to myself, to a good friend?”  And as I pondered on it, it would at times lead to a small breakthrough.  

In addition, if you say you’re going to pray for someone, really pray for them. It meant the world to me when people let me know they prayed for me. When I couldn’t utter my own prayers, it’s difficult to express the comfort I felt knowing that there were people praying for me. It strengthened me and was a soothing balm to my tired soul. 

3. It is important for the church to be a safe place for people who are struggling

Growing up, I was taught that the Church is a place where we will be accepted in the same way Jesus accepts us. We are persuaded as Christians to believe that this is a community where we can be vulnerable and authentic with one another.  

But I have seen for myself first-hand how harsh the church can be to someone who is hurting and vulnerable. 

In my case, I was blessed to have a pastor who had his own mental health challenges, and was therefore able to help me with mine. The other ministry heads were just as understandingthey looked out for me on Sundays, gave me permission not to attend church events if I didn’t want to and took a lot of responsibilities off my hands. 

But on the other end, I saw how the church could be harsh towards high-functioning individuals, like my friend (she’s able to function despite her anxiety, while I shut completely down).  It left people baffled. And instead of extending compassion, they judged and rejected her. They just couldn’t believe she had anxiety, even though she  tried telling them about it. 

We preach unconditional love and loving our neighbours, but when we come face to face with the sin and brokenness of others, this love we preach so much comes with conditions attached. The person has to act or behave in a certain expected manner, otherwise, we distance ourselves from them.  

Through my own experience, I realised the great importance for our church pastors and leaders to be equipped to care for those who are struggling in their mental health and that we make sharing about our challenges a norm within the church.

In my own team, we have begun a journey of putting a spotlight on mental health regularly. On top of focusing one sermon series on mental health every year, we  organise workshops with professionals to equip both our staff and our congregation on the topic of mental health. As church leaders, we set an example of authenticity by going to church just as we are. I found that when I began to share my own mental health journey, it created space for others to also share theirs. The conversation around mental health has begun to grow within our local church as a result.

By doing the above, we’re able to live out 1 John 4:16-18 as a church.

When the church meets the needs of the hurting, of the sick, of the one who is in pain, we reflect the love of God. In the Lord’s perfect love, fear is chased out. Let us be a safe refuge for those who are seeking shelter.  May we not turn away from what is uncomfortable for us but instead, carry one another’s burdens and bring restoration with gentleness as God requested of us (Galatians 6:1-2).  

 

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