“What we’re trying to do is—even when the anxiety stays—help you learn to live with it,” said my therapist for the umpteenth time.
My therapist and I have been working on managing my anxiety for over two years now. Some days I feel like I’ve made enough progress and should be “graduating” from therapy soon. But whenever new stressors appear, I feel like I’m back to square one—that burning sensation in the head, heavy tightness in the chest, unable to think and do what needs to be done.
I know what my therapist said is true, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. I don’t want to “live with” Anxiety. I want to kick it out and bludgeon it to death. But I’m also learning that’s not how it works, because no amount of fighting and overcoming has been effective in purging it from my system.
And yet, gentle coaxes and handholding have made some headway . . . because Anxiety is not the enemy. It is the inner child who’s been locked up and ignored for years, wailing to be let out and nursed and healed. It is coming to terms with years of downplayed and dismissed emotions, of repeatedly being told, “Don’t cry” and “Don’t think about it”.
To an anxiety-ridden person, freedom can feel like a foreign concept. But in His infinite mercy, God reminds me of all the times He has carried me through: The summer I cried my way through my thesis. The weeks I lived through daily anxiety attacks while teaching. The day I decided it was better to quit and start over than end my life. The time I landed a new job that was kinder to me. The year I survived an overwhelming amount of work and a difficult manager. And many, many moments in between.
In this journey, freedom is not a one-time thing. It is hard won, the relief is fleeting, but it is not imaginary or absent. Jesus has come to save me every time, and I know He will continue to do so until the very end.
And so, as strange as it may sound, this is what freedom looks like for the anxious me:
1. Free to cry and give up—surrender the fears of failure and shame
Growing up, I had been conditioned to think that crying was for the weak, quitting was for the lazy, and failing was for the incompetent. So for most of my life, I kept my crying to myself. And before my mid-20s, I had never quit or failed anything major, as I wouldn’t start anything unless I was absolutely sure I could finish it well.
But when my anxiety reached its peak, I quickly learned that crying becomes the release valve, and allowing myself the possibility of quitting or failing brings a sense of relief.
And so I cry. I relinquish my fear of what others may think of me. I know God receives my tears and fears (Psalm 116:1-6), and assures me that I am a beloved work in progress.
Though written under different circumstances, Paul’s words still bring me immense comfort: “Pressed but not crushed, struck down but not destroyed”, “so we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:8, 16). For all my weaknesses, God gives His surpassing power (v.7), so even when I fall, He brings me back to my feet.
2. Free to say no—detach from impossible deadlines and demands
From time to time, I come across people who will work to the bone and say, “We can and we must.” As inspiring as they may sound, picturing myself having to do the same makes me feel ill and unhappy.
When people come in with unrealistic expectations and schedules, freedom comes when I recognise and accept the limits of time, resources, and my own body. It frees me to say no to what I am not able to do, so I can prioritise and say yes to what is truly important.
We are free to be our finite selves, because the infinitely powerful God cares for us (Psalm 73:26). And when we work for the Lord and not for men (Colossians 3:23), we learn to put His expectations and desires for us above everyone else’s.
3. Free to retreat—rest at the end of the day
When my body tires from work and anxiety, a point comes when I find that I have nothing left to give. But even so, it doesn’t necessarily mean my body and mind automatically know how to rest.
It has occurred to me that for all the years I’ve asked God to give me strength to work, I hadn’t been asking God to teach me how to rest—until now. Because rest means relinquishing control. It means knowing when and how to stop even when you want to keep going.
As the wise Teacher’s painfully accurate words go:
What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest.
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:22-25)
So, at the end of the day, I look at my to-do list and accept that I’ve accomplished some and left some undone, and that’s okay. I thank God that He saw it good to create night and day, and I ask Him to help me gladly receive His rest.
1 Peter 5:6-7 says:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
But these verses are not a magic incantation that makes anxiety disappear. Rather, they point us to the heart of the matter by showing us how anxiety and humility go hand in hand.
As we recognise our position in light of God’s power, we are moved to trust Him, to cast our anxieties of failing and being humiliated, and to exchange them for humility. We learn to exercise the freedom of giving up, saying no, and retreating.
Each time my anxiety looms, it is a prompting for me to do these “trust exercises” with God—to fall back on His endless mercies and grace, take on His yoke, and learn His gentle and humble heart (Matthew 11:28-30).Back to Homepage