It true to say that at no point do we truly view the world with objectivity (that is how it actually is) instead we view it subjectively (that is through the damage, memories and beliefs that we have formed around our world-view). This is a very important thing to remember when we think about worry and anxiety. At some point every person will suffer from some irrational worry or fear. When we are alone in our homes we ask questions like, “What was that noise?”. Nothing is different about our homes apart from the fact that we are alone but we interpret a threat because we feel vulnerable. Normally we believe ourselves when we tell ourselves not to be silly and with a shrug of our shoulders the anxious thought is dismissed and sails out of our minds with little further consideration.
However for at least 10% of the population these idle worries can become more significant, sparking off a huge chain of both physical and emotional responses that are distressing and upsetting. This is where worry really becomes a problem. Sadly many of us suffer for years with these experiences without realising that we actually have a problem or that there is a way out of worry. Jesus really wants us to live life to the full (John 10:10), and with his help we can. Unfortunately because of a lack of understanding about stress and worry many Christian responses to worry have actually increased the problems rather than decreased them. Anxiety has often been classed as a lack of faith, or a sin, when in fact for some people, it is more like having a broken leg.
One of the central misunderstandings about worry is that the worries themselves are significant or meaningful. Now, if you have a serious worry that has a genuine basis such as exams, a serious illness or financial burdens I am not talking about your worry. Problem worriers often move from one topic to another several times a day or week. These worries have no real basis although the worrier may try and find evidence to prove that he or she is right to be concerned. A good example is watching ‘East Enders’ where the storyline follows a person’s journey into a life threatening illness. The worrier watches the show, and then worries that they might have the same illness. They then go on a search to find evidence that proves that they are right, noticing headaches, becoming aware of muscle pains etc. Other classics are worrying about weight, looks, abandonment, acceptability, offending God, and acting inappropriately. Again all normal people will have these thoughts from time to time but to the worrier they trigger whole range of upsetting responses.
What are these responses? Well they work in a vicious cycle that is understood by the letters A,B,C. A’s (Actions) are the trigger for worry, they might be thoughts (90% normally are) but they could be something that someone has said to you, an image you have seen or a memory of an event that happened to you. The B’s (Beliefs) are the belief that we hold surrounding these A’s. They are like a pair of 3D glasses that we use to view the A’s. Just like 3D glasses they make things a lot more scary and real than they really are. Often the B’s lead to catastrophic thoughts, which are completely inflexible. Worriers might think, “I am going to die, I am going mad, I am ugly, I am fat or I am worthless”.
The C’s (Consequences) are the consequences of viewing the A’s through the B’s. Our bodies are so clever, they are trained to smell danger and respond to it like lightning. As a response to the believed worry the C part of the cycle may include all manner of physical sensation including very scary Panic-Attacks, tension headaches, shaky limbs, hot and cold chills…the list goes on. The other result of the C’s is that chemical changes that happen in the brain as a result of the stress chemical Cortisol increases the intensity and number of frightening thoughts or A’s and so the fear cycle ABC begins again.
Some Christians I meet are suffering from deep anxiety that comes from fears they have developed in relating to God. A really common one is the fear of having committed “the unforgivable sin”(Mat 12:31). Other common fears include; being outside of the will of God, having weird thoughts about God, making the ‘wrong’ decision and the fear of loosing your belief. The other major worry that many Christians suffer, relates to Jesus teaching on adultery (Mat 5:28); that thinking is the same as doing. The problem is that every person has a subconscious stream of thoughts that runs through the brain continuously and then into oblivion. In a similar way to a gutter, this subconscious stream contains a lot of rubbish, including weird, aggressive, sexual, religious and nonsensical ideas. Christians often develop anxiety problems when they believe that these ‘brain blips’ are genuine thoughts that they are responsible for thinking, choosing to have or really capable of doing. Some people will say, “Because I thought X I must be a psychopath, potential murderer or mad man/woman.”
There is a vast difference between deliberately entertaining thoughts that are wrong and recognising brain blips that cause distress. These two things are not the same. If we try to stop brain blips, become anxious about them or believe that they say something serious about us, we will develop more stress, more blips and more fear. It is essential that the worrier gives them no attention at all, see then for what they are…just a misfire in the brain. 2 Corinthians 10:5 help’s us deal with these. We are challenged not to reason things through but lead thoughts away making them captive to Christ.
When worriers look back they often realise that they have worried about thousands of different scenarios that never came true. Yet as much as a friend might point out that the worry is irrational and silly the worrier can’t shake it off, instead that fact that they realise that their fears are irrational only adds to their distress and the next a worry might be “Now I am going Mad”. The difficulty is that if you are struggling with worry you are probably experiencing stress, this sounds simple, but if you think about the most stressful times of your life they are also the times of greatest worry. It is slightly chicken and egg but it is a mistake to think that a genuine worry leads to stress…more often than not a lot of stress will lead to lots of distressing false worries.
So how on earth can you live a less worried and stressful life? Jesus asks us not worry but to trust him in all things (Mat 6:25, 26) Surely this is exactly what we all want and this is especially what we want if worry and stress has become incessant and painful. So here is some simple step by step advice to help reduce both worries and stresses.
1) Thoughts are only thoughts…you have the power to choose how you respond to them…either with fear or with calm. How you respond will directly impact how you feel and continue to feel.
2) If you are worried, your stress chemistry is high…meaning that you will have more worrying thoughts and preoccupations. If you lower your stress levels you will dramatically reduce your worries and life will return to normal.
3) Feeling compelled to work your brain blips out (ruminating) or trying to avoid frightening thoughts that trigger your worry just makes them stronger. You need to teach your brain that they don’t deserve your consideration. Ask yourself how many of your anxious thoughts have come true in the past.
4) Anxiety, worry, eating disorders and minor depressions are all classed as behavioural disorders…This means that you haven’t caught them…you have learned them...therefore you can also unlearn them.
5) Deep abdominal breathing, meditating on the peace of God, good sleep, reducing caffeine and eating healthily are all things you can do to reduce your stress chemistry and reduce the power of the ABC stress cycle.
6) Just because you have frightening, odd or weird thoughts it does not mean that you yourself are odd, weird, dangerous or frightening…every normal person has a subconscious stream of these brain blips.
7) Accepting how you feel at the moment is important…it is a temporary state…you will get over it if you apply these principles.
8) Think about a moment when you forgot your worries…like when you woke up in the morning. The fact that you felt fine then is proof that you are fine…your anxiety system is working correctly but not appropriately.
9) Your mission is to reduce your anxiety not stop anxiety all together.
10) Get further help if you continue to struggle with thoughts and symptoms.
You can get help from a number of different sources some listed below. However, remember that not everything you read on the Net is helpful or true. Also remember that you have not got an illness, you are working perfectly but not appropriately. Well meaning Christians may offer to try to release you from something or condemn you for not trusting in God. Neither of these things will be helpful if you are struggling with real anxiety. Praying for Jesus healing is very helpful, but remember that you are asking him to help you to change your behaviour and not heal you from a disease. You must cooperate with Jesus by trying to change your response to worry if you are to get better, in the same way that you try to modify your behaviour to please God as well as asking him to help you.
The Dummies Guide to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Rob Willson)
Overcoming Anxiety (Helen Kennerley)
Battlefield of the Mind (Joyce Mayer)
Psalms for People Under Pressure (Jonathan Aitken)
You should always see your GP if you are struggling with anxiety to rule out some physical illnesses that can cause some of the same symptoms.