Anxiety: Comfort for the Drowning Disciple
I didn’t want to get off the couch. I knew that when I did, the cycle would start all over again. My heart would race, my palms would sweat, my chest would tighten, my mind would race, my stomach would churn, and I would pace my house trying to make it all stop. Then I would crash, mentally and physically exhausted, back on the couch.
So I just laid there as long as I could. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to leave my house. I couldn’t eat. I lost 15 pounds in a week. All I knew to do was pray. Over and over I prayed, “God, please take this away. Just take this away.” I prayed sitting, kneeling, walking, lying face down, and even yelling. I read my Bible and memorized scripture. But for the first time, I felt like God was light years away.
This went on for a few days and gradually improved over the course of a few weeks. It was, without a doubt, the lowest point of my life. But not just because of the way I felt, but also because of how I responded.
I hid. I told no one except my wife and my pastor, who was also my boss. My family and closest friends had no idea this was going on. When I walked into church the following week, I faked it perfectly. People asked me how I was, and I smiled and said, “Great.” I didn’t want anyone to think I was struggling or crazy or weak.
But I was. My sinful pride convinced me to hide instead of seek help. Thankfully my wife convinced me to see a doctor. I also went to see a biblical counselor. That’s when God gave me what I desperately needed: open-heart surgery.
Was It My Brain or My Sin?
The doctor looked me in the eyes and said, “This has nothing to do with you. The chemicals in your brain are imbalanced, and we are going to fix that.”
That sounded nice and comforting in the moment, but I knew deep down, for me, that wasn’t true. Biblically, we know that people are made up of body and soul. I knew that both of mine were out of whack. The difficult question is, was my soul affecting my body? Or was my body affecting my soul? That’s another post for another time.
Throughout this series on mental health, I have tried to walk a controversial tightrope. I said from the beginning that I’m not convinced all of our mental health issues are totally physiological, meaning chemical imbalance in the brain. But I also don’t agree with the other side that says, “All mental health struggle is sin. Repent and pray, and it will all go away.” I fall somewhere in between. I think things are much more complicated than that and can’t be explained with sweeping statements.
So let me make this clear. I am not speaking generally to all cases of anxiety and depression. I am simply sharing my story and experience. If you are dealing with anxiety, depression, or some other mental health issue, you absolutely need to see a doctor to make sure nothing is going on physically. There are certain things in your body that can cause anxiety and depression when they function abnormally (like your thyroid). So please see a doctor.
I would also encourage you to get counseling. I am a huge believer in counseling, specifically biblical, Christ-centered counseling. I believe every single person could benefit from one-on-one counseling. You need someone to help you care for your soul and see what’s going on in your heart.
When you are struggling with a mental health issue, remember that God made you with a body and a soul. You need to get both checked out. But as a pastor, I’m going to speak to the soul side of things. I don’t feel equipped to speak on the chemical makeup of your brain or why you should or shouldn’t take medication. But I’ve learned a lot about my own soul and how it has manifested itself in anxiety. I want to share what I’ve learned in hopes that it will help you deal with your possible heart issues.
How Did This Happen?
This episode of intense anxiety didn’t just fly in out of nowhere. It seemed unexpected at the time, but I learned that I had been struggling with anxiety and fear my entire life. Rather than dealing with it, I chose to ignore it, excuse it, and hide it. This choice ultimately led me to this really low point.
I remember getting sick to my stomach growing up. A lot. I never really understood why either. It would always come at the worst times too. Like when I stayed at a friend’s house or hung around a girl I liked or went on a trip.
After I had my episode, I looked back and realized that my stomach sickness wasn’t a health issue. It was a nerves issue. When I was anxious, even when I didn’t really recognize it, my stomach did. There’s a reason they often describe nervousness as “butterflies in your stomach”.
I saw this pattern throughout my life where I would respond to certain situations with fear and anxiety, which would then cause me to feel sick to my stomach. These certain situations usually involved people, people I wanted to impress or to not let down or to earn their approval. This is called the fear of man. (I plan to write an entire post on the fear of man because it’s a common struggle. But I don’t have the space to elaborate here.)
Instead of dealing with my fear of man and the root reason I kept getting anxious, I either avoided the situations or tried my best to hide my feelings in misery. Over time, things got worse and worse and worse. Which ultimately led to me on the couch.
I think this is true for a lot of us. We have these blow-ups in life where everything goes haywire and we feel incredibly down or stressed or angry or confused. And we look around to try to find answers. We can blame it on other people, we can blame it on our circumstances, we can blame it on our brain makeup. Or we might find that often times, we are the main culprits. We have continually made choices over a long period of time, ignoring warning signs, and we are now reaping the result of our soul neglect.
Comfort in the Midst of Anxiety
Anxiety feels a lot like drowning. Like it’s impossible to escape your own head. Your thoughts are all attacking you, while your body is trying to fight an enemy it can’t see. Literally, your body will activate its fight-or-flight response which leads to the sweating, pacing, rapid breathing, and elevated heart rate. The only problem is, it’s hard to fight or to run from your own mind.
In the midst of this chaos, I have found great comfort in knowing Jesus. I still deal with anxiety, and I think I always will in some ways. But I am continuing to learn about my own weakness and my sinful flesh, and God is continuing to give me the grace to deal with it.
Let me share with you a few ways I have found comfort in my anxiety:
1. God used my anxiety to expose some sinful patterns in my life.
During this season of intense anxiety, God performed open-heart surgery on me. He began rooting out some things in my heart that had been hidden a long time. It was painful. But it was long overdue.
I am a recovering people-pleaser. I spent most of my life seeking the approval and acceptance of others. This desire morphed into an idol that I worshipped in place of God. As that idol claimed more and more territory in my heart, I became more and more anxious. Until it all blew up.
But God graciously intervened. What seemed so painful was actually God’s grace. The most loving, merciful thing he could have done was to break me down. And that’s exactly what he did. He exposed some patterns in my heart that led to this low point in my life.
I now seize every moment of worry, panic, anger, or frustration. I use those moments as opportunities to examine my heart. They are like signals, pointing to something below the surface. Then I have the opportunity to point my heart again to Jesus.
2. God reminded me of my weakness and total dependence on him.
I’ve never been more desperate than in those few weeks of intense anxiety. But that’s exactly what God wanted. He wanted me to see that I am desperate, desperate for him. He brought me to the end of myself, and there was literally nothing else I could do but cry out to him.
Now with every turn of my stomach, every moment of panic, every rapid beating of my heart, I remember that I am a weak sinner who is totally dependent upon God. I am nothing apart from him. If I didn’t struggle with anxiety, I honestly would not pray nearly as much as I do. I would not daily fall on God’s grace like I do.
Paul said, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
My anxiety keeps me humble. It keeps me weak. It keeps me desperate for God’s strength and Christ’s power.
3. God enabled me to help others.
I am not ashamed of my struggles. But I am ashamed of my pride that makes me think I can fight this alone. I regret not reaching out to the people who love me when I needed them. That won’t happen again.
One of the greatest tools we have as believers is other believers. We are not meant to carry our burdens alone. Trust me. I tried and failed. Stigma is stupid. It’s time we admit that we are all weak. It’s time we stop pretending and admit it. Once you do, you are one step closer to finding comfort in Christ.
I’m done acting like I have it all together. I’m done worrying about what people think. It’s a vicious cycle. I worried about people’s opinions of me, which made me anxious. But I couldn’t tell people about being anxious because I was worried about their opinions of me.
I’m going to talk about my struggles. And the more I talk about them, the more I discover that it helps people. That’s one of the ways God redeems our struggles and our mistakes. When you’ve been through something, you now have the opportunity to help someone else.
So praise God for his redeeming love. Praise God for using our lowest moments for his glory and our good. Praise God for using messed-up people like me to reveal his perfect plan.
And praise God for letting me drown. Because if he hadn’t, I would have never learned how to swim in his grace.