Written by Madeleine Grace Scholefield, Australia
I feel it sitting heavily on my chest like one of my weighted blankets. I wheeze it into my lungs, and cough out the burning taste. It is sweat; slick and salty on my skin, and a dizziness; the kind that rushes to your head and screams in your ears. It is here, I can feel it.
I was an anxious child. At four I paced around with a little frown, asking serious questions, and trying to prepare myself for the big wide world.
At 12, I would lie awake with a churning stomach and restless thoughts. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I was worried about, but I could have described the feeling of overwhelming dread that clouded my mind and followed me into each day.
In high school, I became the queen of schedules and to-do lists and colour-coded calendars. I thought that if I could control something, I’d be able to ignore the terrifying grip that anxiety had on me. Sadly, it didn’t work. Whenever I didn’t do well on a test, or fell behind in class or had an argument with my friends, the anxiety came crashing back.
Uni held its own challenges, and the lack of structure and routine in my classes quickly toppled any sense of control. I was anxious about getting good grades, making new friends, getting around campus and even how to email my professors. Instead of confronting the anxieties and working through them, I chose to withdraw and procrastinate and pretend I didn’t care about Uni at all.
I didn’t use the word “anxious” to describe what I felt for years, until the psychologist I was seeing explained it to me. “Anxiety isn’t like stress,” she told me. “Stress is based on external things, like working to a deadline or being really busy. What you’re describing is anxiety: it’s always there, whether your plate is full or not. It’s internal, because it doesn’t need to be triggered by things going on around you. It’s just there.”
I’m 23 now, and the anxiety hasn’t disappeared.
It doesn’t always look like fidgety hands and tight lips and panic attacks, though. Sometimes, it looks like indecision between red or green apples at the supermarket—like feeling so paralysed by choices that you end up leaving the supermarket in a daze and walking to your car empty-handed. Other times, it looks like heavy eyes and an oversized hoodie and crying in a bathroom cubicle. There are days when my anxiety looks like the loudest and silliest person in the room, and other days, it’s a long pause on the phone or weeks without responding to a text.
Let’s make something clear; anxiety isn’t simply stress, and it’s not “being a negative person”. It’s not something we carry around as an accessory that we can put down whenever we feel like it. I believe that, much like other mental illnesses, we all have different genetic and environmental factors that can make us more susceptible to anxiety. Some of us will struggle with it more than others, and that’s okay.
We’re growing up in an age where feelings are to be listened to, and emotions are to be worshipped. We’re told to be in tune with our inner selves, and to let that guide our decisions. But what do we do when there are more emotions under our throbbing scalp than any human can possibly interpret? What do we do when it’s not as simple as praying about it, or controlling anxious thoughts?
Making sense of anxiety and faith
I was scrolling through Instagram recently when I came across this quote on a Christian account: “Anxiety is the antithesis of trust. You simply cannot trust in God and be anxious. The two are mutually exclusive.” Pretty background or not, the quote stung. I’m all for being open to hearing hard-hitting truths that challenge us in our faith, but to me, sentiments like that one aren’t helpful. In fact, they’re kind of damaging.
What does it say about my faith if I’m someone who battles with anxiety? Why would I want to tell someone at church that I’m struggling if they’ll just say I need to put more trust in God? Why isn’t it that simple?
When I told my church group that I was seeing a psychologist for my struggles with anxiety, they were confused. “But you know God,” they said. “Just lean on Him.”
For years, I felt like a failure in my faith. I did trust in God. I talked to Him daily. So why was I still struggling?
Countless Christian friends and pastors have given me counsel over the years, some more helpful than others. One person told me that my faith must be weak. A guest speaker said I simply had to decide not to be anxious. Though well-meaning, these pieces of advice did not help. What did help was when I finally had a conversation with fellow Christians who understood the battle. They didn’t invalidate my anxieties or question my faith. Instead, they told me that I didn’t need to be ashamed of my struggle, and that it was something God could use to draw me closer to Him. Hearing that gave me hope.
The verse I’ve heard most commonly popping up in reference to Christians battling with anxiety is Philippians 4:6: “Don’t be anxious about anything, instead, pray about everything.” Many Christians take this to mean that if you’re wrestling with anxiety, you’re directly disobeying God’s command not to be anxious. But is this really what the verse is saying?
Through my personal battle with anxiety as a Christian, I have come to understand that anxiety is a lot like a form of temptation. Temptation itself is not a sin, and it’s something that even Jesus—who was blameless—experienced. It’s what we do with that temptation that matters. In the same way, I believe there is nothing sinful with having an anxious thought, or being caught in the tumble-drying-horror of a panic attack. It’s what we do with those anxious thoughts that matters. In this way, I read Philippians 4:6 as an invitation to prayer and intimacy with God. I believe the verse is saying that when we feel anxious—which we all will at times—we pray about it. We let God in on how we’re feeling. We don’t hide or ignore it and pretend we’re not anxious, but we acknowledge those thoughts and pray for His peace.
Romans 12:2 says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. I find hope in this verse. Transformation doesn’t always happen overnight. We are not promised a one-size-fits-all solution to mental illness. But the word renewing is a verb, and it isn’t passive. It means we can work on our minds little by little as we take every thought captive and make it obedient to God (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Making the distinction between having and being
A few years ago I attended a language school to learn Spanish. One of the things I immediately noticed about Spanish was that there is a clear difference between describing passing feelings, and describing characteristics of someone’s identity. For example, instead of saying “I am hungry” in Spanish, you’d say “I have hunger” (tengo hambre). Rather than saying “I am anxious”, you’d say “I have anxiety” (tengo ansiedad).
It sounds small, but learning to make the distinction between being anxious and having anxiety helped me change the way I saw my identity as someone who struggles with mental illness. You see, I am not an anxious person; it is not who I am. It is something I struggle with.
We might not always control the thoughts that come to us in the stillness, or the ones that slip in when we’re too busy to notice. But when those anxious thoughts make their presence known, as we know they will—we do have control over how we decide to act.
And so I encourage you, dear reader, to turn to Him, because our God is so, so good. He is our fierce protector, and He fights our battles for us when we hand them to Him. We can trust Him, because He’s already won.
So on the days when it’s all a bit much and we feel the anxiety clawing at our heels, we can turn to Him. Tell him what’s on your mind, and ask Him to fill you with His peace.
It’s the kind of peace that defies all reason.
And gosh, it’s good.
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