• Help Me Understand Your Anxiety Disorder: Spiritual Practices and Other Means of Support

    This is the sixth 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 firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth posts.

    After all I’ve shared in this series, you might be asking: if you have an anxiety disorder, and you are a Christian, how do you know if what you’re experiencing is sinful worry and something to repent of, or a symptom of your anxiety disorder? I understand wanting an answer to that question. It’s one that I’ve asked many times over the past few years and have grappled with in counseling with my Christian counselor. I don’t want to be complacent; I want to kill sin in my life at every turn. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist, and a rule-follower, and really want the security of knowing that I am doing everything correctly.

    But at the end of the day, the answer is: you can’t perfectly untangle it. If you have placed your faith in Christ alone for salvation, you are in Christ, and you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. The Spirit will convict you of sin, and as you find sinful worry and fear in your life, you turn to Christ, repent, and remind yourself again that in him you are righteous. But you will likely never be able to perfectly delineate exactly whether every thought you have is springing into your mind from a misplaced reliance on self and lack of faith in God versus being driven into your mind by your disregulated nervous system. 

    In many cases, believers with anxiety disorders are extremely vigilant about rooting out sinful worry, because they are more aware of their tendencies and they have done a lot of work to understand and confront their fears and worries with truth. I know this is true for me. In fact, while my anxiety disorder has been a source of great suffering for me, it has also been one of the greatest sources of my sanctification. 

    I truly believe that God could heal me at any moment, and I have begged him to—but at the same time, when I see the good fruit that has come from my suffering, there is a part of me that has great peace about continuing to bear it. I hate having an anxiety disorder—and yet, how can I hate the thing that has made me the most like Christ?

    If you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder and still feeling crushed under the belief that it is solely due to your own sin, or if you are someone who persists in believing that the root of all anxiety disorders is sin, I would simply say this: I think a good rule of thumb is that sin does not make you more Christ-like. If something is making a person more like Christ, it’s very unlikely that it’s caused by unrepentant sin. We are all sinners, but if you think of someone experiencing an anxiety disorder as more of a sinner than a sufferer, I plead with you to reconsider.

    If you are a believer with an anxiety disorder, you surrender yourself to God and you do the work that you can, as best as you can. There are lots of things that will affect the severity and frequency of the disregulation of your nervous system and the physical symptoms that you experience. For example, sleep has an enormous effect on the body’s ability to regulate itself. So, you do what you can to get good sleep—but if you’re a new parent, or have to work long hours to make ends meet, or any of a host of other reasons why you might have disrupted, too little, or low-quality sleep—you may experience more symptoms. You are not failing if this happens—you are simply experiencing the reality of life in this broken world.

    If you are a believer and you think you may suffer from an anxiety disorder, I highly, HIGHLY recommend that you see a counselor. The primary counselor I see is a Christian counselor, meaning that she incorporates our mutual convictions about God, sin, and the gospel into my therapy, but is also educated and knowledgeable about various methods of evidence-based therapy that are not solely based on the Biblical text. This is not true of all counselors who are Christian. You should RUN, not walk, away from any counselor who does not acknowledge the basic realities of how mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders, work. If you go to a counselor and it’s clear that they believe anxiety is only sinful, they are not educated about the role of physiology in anxiety disorders, and deny or only pay lip service to the common grace God has given us in medicine, medication, and psychological research, their approach is not Biblical, but rather Gnostic. If this is their approach, they likely are not even qualified to assess whether your anxiety is clinical in nature. Please be wary, because there are many purported counselors who are Christians and take this sadly misinformed approach.

    I have also found good support in working with a counselor who is trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Especially if you are prone to panic attacks, this approach can be extremely helpful.

    This is how I have learned to wisely manage my own anxiety disorder. I don’t simply throw up my hands and say there’s nothing that I can do, but I also accept that God has providentially allowed this limitation, this suffering, this particular form of brokenness in our sin-crushed world, into my life, and I cannot ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, or make it go away unless and until He wills it. I accept that there is grace for me in my imperfection. He knows my frame; he remembers that I am dust.

    Fellow sufferer, he knows your frame, and he remembers that you are dust. We are not simply disembodied brains floating around in the world—we are embodied souls. When God created us, he gave us our bodies—the ones that betray us, yes, but also the one that is an integral part of who we are, that is part of our whole humanity, that will one day be redeemed and glorified.

    I have only scratched the surface in this series, and there is so much more that can be said about issues of mental health and the church. I am passionate about the church understanding these issues. If you have questions, please let me know. If you have an anxiety disorder, I hope this is encouraging to you. If you do not, I hope this is educational. My fervent prayer is that we, the Church, would not inadvertently wound those who are suffering from anxiety disorders or other mental health problems due to misinformation or ignorance about these issues.