This is the third post in a series that I am writing to help people in the church better understand mental health, and particularly anxiety disorders. Click here to read the first post, and here to read the second post.
At the outset, I want to make clear that as I go through the differences between fear or worry versus clinical anxiety below, these are based primarily on my own personal experiences. Therefore, please don’t understand me to be speaking for every person who has an anxiety disorder, because these disorders can manifest in a variety of ways, and it is not my intent here to discount or negate someone else’s experience. I simply want to offer my experiences as one means to provide understanding and education about anxiety disorders.
People who have anxiety disorders, like every other human being, experience worry and fear. If you are a Christian, you believe that a person also experiences sinful worry and fear. However, speaking from my own experience, the primary indicator that you have an anxiety disorder is NOT simply that you worry a lot.
I’m going to say that again.
The primary indicator that you have an anxiety disorder is NOT simply that you worry a lot.
Let me explain.
Think about a time that you were worried–say, about a big test, or a review at work, or because you were about to see someone with whom you have a strained relationship. Now, think about how your body felt in that moment. If you have to, close your eyes and recall it. How did you know that you were worried? Did your stomach feel slightly sick? Was your heart beating a little faster than normal? Did you feel lightheaded? Did you feel slightly shaky? Were you sweating? Did your brain feel a bit fuzzy or easily distracted? You may not have felt all or any of these specific things, but if you pay close attention, there were physiological changes that caused physical sensations in your body that you associate with being worried.
Okay, similar exercise. Think about a time that you felt afraid, say, when your home alarm went off in the middle of the night, or you almost got into a car wreck, or you were walking alone on a street at night and thought you heard someone following you. How did your body feel in that moment? Again, if you have to, close your eyes and recall it. Did you feel your heart beating in your chest? Did you feel blood rushing in your ears? Did you feel your face flush and get warm? Did your heartbeat quicken? Did you suddenly feel colder or warmer? Again, you may not have felt any or all of these specific things, but because you are an embodied being, your experience of feeling fear included some number of physiological changes caused either by having an emotional experience of fear or an instinctual response to a threatening situation. These changes, in turn, caused physical symptoms that you associate with being afraid.
Still with me? Okay. If you have an anxiety disorder, one of the things that happens is that your body experiences the physical sensations that you associate with worry or fear when there is no external stimulus that is causing you worry or fear and you are not actually emotionally experiencing worry or fear. One more time, just to emphasize: if you have an anxiety disorder, one of the things that happens is that your body experiences the physical sensations that you associate with worry or fear when there is no external stimulus that is causing you worry or fear and you are not actually emotionally experiencing worry or fear.
I find that many people don’t even realize that the body plays a role in their experience of emotions until you point it out to them. In fact, at first, many people will say that they don’t experience any physical symptoms or sensations when they are experiencing an emotion. We tend to have this idea that emotions are something that is purely a matter of the mind, or maybe the mind and the heart. We often are so tuned out from our bodies that we don’t even realize the role that they are playing in our experience of the world. Unfortunately, there is a particularly significant lack of understanding in the church about the ways in which the brain and body play a role in causing and experiencing emotions like fear and worry.
In extremely simplistic terms, your autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Typically, the two balance each other out. When your sympathetic nervous system is activated and your body pumps out adrenaline and other chemicals which have corresponding physical symptoms, your parasympathetic nervous system then kicks in to calm the body back down when this function is no longer needed.
However, if you have an anxiety disorder, your parasympathetic nervous system does not function properly and does not kick in to regulate your sympathetic nervous system as it should. Therefore, your body is unable to properly regulate your sympathetic nervous system response, and it can spiral out of control, because there is no counterbalancing system kicking into effect. In this sense, the term “mental illness” doesn’t really capture the reality of suffering from an anxiety disorder, because what in actuality is occurring is a physiological malfunction that can then have emotional and mental consequences.
Next time, I’ll talk more about what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder and some helpful and unhelpful ways to respond.
*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 that you or anyone else has received for mental health issues. I am simply sharing my own experience for general educational purposes.*