• Help Me Understand Your Anxiety Disorder: Medication

    This is the fifth post in a series that I am writing to help people in the church better understand mental health, and particularly anxiety disorders. Click to read the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

    As I’ve explained, anxiety disorders at their core are a physiological disorder of the nervous system. This is one of the reasons that medication can be helpful if you have an anxiety disorder. Medication can decrease the intensity and frequency of free-floating physical feelings of worry and fear. It can help your parasympathetic nervous system activate after your sympathetic nervous system has activated, instead of letting your sympathetic nervous system continue dumping adrenaline into your system with no countervailing force.

    Not everyone’s symptoms will respond to medication in the same way. Note: I am not saying that if your symptoms do not respond to medication that there is no physiological component. In almost all cases you cannot definitively ascertain the exact nature of the imbalance between the two halves of your nervous system. By that, I mean that in the vast majority of cases there are no tests that can show you the exact chemical or other physiological imbalance at work because the brain and body are unimaginably complex. Managing mental health issues with medication is therefore often both a science and an art.

    I find that medication for mental health issues is the issue that Christians struggle with the most when it comes to mental health. In many cases, we have been trained to resist medication in this area unless we think that we know we need it, and to be skeptical of other people’s use of it. But we, of all people, should most appreciate the intricate and sometimes mysterious ways in which our bodies, minds, and spirits are knit together.

    Taking medication for your anxiety disorder does not, in my experience, mean that you will no longer experience physical feelings of worry and fear. Rather, it means that you will experience them when you are actually feeling (mentally and emotionally) worried and afraid. The goal is not to be numb, or to medicate away your problems, or to simply take a pill and pretend that there are no worries and that you don’t have to lean on Christ. In the church, I have heard people who take medication for anxiety characterized in all of these ways. If this is how you speak about people suffering from anxiety, please stop. Although the idea that you can take medication and therefore avoid taking your fears and worries to Christ often gets bandied about among some Christians, I have never met one person with an anxiety disorder who has used medication to simply mute their fear or worry and who does not still have to lean on Christ with all that they have. I’m honestly not sure that it’s even possible for someone to do that, and I think it’s mostly a myth that is not grounded in reality.

    In my experience, when medication diminishes the severity and frequency of free-floating physical sensations of worry and fear, things like prayer, reciting God’s promises, and reminding yourself of God’s sovereignty over all things are actually able to be effective. If your body is gratuitously dumping adrenaline into your system without trigger or cause, you can do these things as much as you want, but you will still feel physically anxious, often to a debilitating degree, because that is what happens to your body when it is flooded with adrenaline, especially for extended periods of time.

    In my experience, being on medication doesn’t mean that you have no feelings or are abnormally calm. It just brings your body more in line with your brain and lets you use truth (including Biblical truth) in a way that actually impacts your body. Medication that acts in the long term can stabilize your nervous system to allow this; medication that acts in the short term can arrest a free-floating anxiety or panic response and keep your nervous system from continuing down a path of disregulation without cause.

    *Please note: I am not a medical or counseling professional and this series is not intended to be any sort of substitute for any counseling, medical treatment, or other care you or anyone else has received for mental health issues. I am simply sharing my own experience for general educational purposes.*