Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as (a) an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse); (b) oppression of the mind weighed down by responsibility or disquieted by apprehension.
Anxiety is a natural response to stress. It's a part of life. But 40 million Americans have at least one form of chronic anxiety. This is when anxiety mounts to such an intensity that they're no longer able to cope with it and it negatively affects their quality of life.
- My Struggle with Anxiety
One thing that helped me "hide" my anxiety was that my very best friend was the total opposite of me. She was a social butterfly and pretty much carried me with her. With my anxiety, it was very hard for me to initiate conversation but she was usually there to do it for me. (Thanks Steph!)
As close as we were, even she did not know that I had a horrible fear of social situations or that my self-consciousness was on steroids and constantly preoccupied with what others thought of me. I would review interactions with others in my head as well as my performance in sports and other school activities and negatively critique my performance over and over again. I damaged my own self-esteem with negative thoughts about myself. And don't even get me started on stage fright. I would lie awake at night worrying and fretting over the events of the next day like UIL contests, basketball games, track meets, etc. Other times I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow out of exhaustion only to wakeup feeling wired, mind racing and unable to calm myself. I constantly second guessed myself in everything and persistent self-doubt was my shadow. I was fatigued and had muscle tension throughout my body from my inability to relax. I won't even get into the panic attacks and heart palpitations.
I managed to graduate as Valedictorian (definitely by God's grace) and I couldn't even fully celebrate because my self-doubt was so bad that I couldn't help but think that they had made a mistake and gave it to the wrong person. I felt so undeserving despite the fact that I had very painfully earned it.
The summer after I graduated, I met Jordan. I was immediately drawn to his confidence. Just being in his presence made me feel confident.
We were married two years later. Although being married to Jordan was definitely a confidence booster (he complimented me constantly), I never shared with him my struggle with anxiety. He just thought that I lacked confidence. I was so ashamed and embarrassed by my struggles that I couldn't even admit to the person closest to me that I had a problem. I continued to suffer in silence.
After we had our firstborn, Josiah, my anxiety grew worse. All the pressure of being new to the ministry, coupled with being a new mom, on top of my unaddressed issue of anxiety was a heavy burden to bear. It grew even worse after our second and third children, Eli and Addy Jo, were born. I all but withdrew from the world. Granted I was very busy as a mom to littles, but I almost always played the "mom card" when things were asked of me that required any kind of leadership role or put me in the spotlight. I knew that saying "yes" would mentally and physically exhaust me and take the life out of me. The rare occasion when I did say "yes" to something kept me up at night with worry and I could never perform to the best of my abilities due to the panic attacks, heart palpitations, and extreme nervousness. I also had very few friends and I kept everyone at arms length. I was very aware that so many great opportunities were being stolen outright from underneath me by my own self-sabotage. I felt like a failure as a pastor's wife and failure as a person in general. And when Josiah was first diagnosed with autism, I blamed myself. I just knew that it had to have been my fault. This all led to anxiety-induced depression.
He Who is Greater in Me
I didn't see it at the time, but Josiah's diagnosis of autism was actually a blessing in disguise, in one sense anyway. It was through that hard journey that I learned to completely trust and rely on God fully. I was helpless. I couldn't hide the autism like I did my anxiety. I completely turned Josiah over to God, realizing that he was God's child before he was mine. The song "It is Well with My Soul" became my anthem. I believed that God was sovereign in all things and that God created Josiah with a purpose in mind, autism and all. I also firmly believed that God could heal Josiah if it was His will, but I fully realized that it might not be His will. God didn't need me to understand everything, he just wanted me to trust Him. Fully recognizing God's sovereinty and coming to peace with it was a pivotal moment for me.
It's not that I hadn't believed these truths about God before. I had been born-again many years before. But it's easy to believe God from the shoreline. I didn't fully know Him until I floundering in the deep and unable to save myself. Josiah's diagnosis was my deep moment. It was the moment that I truly realized exactly how much I needed God. It was the moment that my belief in God and His sovereignty trumped all my circumstances as I turned all control over to Him. That complete trust and raw belief began to spill into every area of my life including my struggle with anxiety. (you can read more about our journey through autism in earlier blog posts.)
I began to pour over scripture and passages that specifically addressed anxiety, fear, and worry. I prayed continuously for courage and strength and that God would do a mighty work in me. I put my faith and trust in Him, knowing that He could overcome my struggles. I prayed specifically that He would lead me to the right resources to help me. Along with my bible reading, I began to consume books written by other people who by God's grace had overcome their anxiety. I kept scripture and encouraging quotes nearby when I felt a panic attack coming on. By this point, I had confessed to my husband of my struggles and he was extremely supportive. He also said that it made a lot of sense and it explained a lot about me! I will say that just getting it off my chest and finally admitting my problem to another person was completely liberating. It helped greatly to have him as an encourager and accountability partner on this journey of overcoming.
We decided that it would be in my best interest to see a doctor and find out for sure that what I was dealing with, was in fact, anxiety. As it turned out, it was anxiety and I was prescribed medication. I was so excited because I thought the medication would be an easy fix. However, this was not the case. The medication helped a little but not nearly enough. The symptoms were all still there, just dialed down a bit.
So I continued to pour into scripture, prayer and books that I found encouraging. Little by little, I began to step out of my comfort zone and I began to say yes to God and the opportunities placed before me. I began to actually use the gifts that He had given me. The first step was the hardest, but it got a little bit easier each time.
But there were times when I wanted to slip back into my comfort zone...when I found myself in that place, I would recall how uncomfortable I really was in my "comfort" zone. That risk-free life was miserable and it was a form of unbelief in God. I was determined not to go back. So I kept going. I kept saying yes. I pushed through by the grace of God. I had faith that my efforts would pay off in the end and that I would come away praising God for the change He had made in me. This was an opportunity to bring God glory. I knew that I couldn't overcome my struggles by myself. It would have to be God in me overcoming...I would have to fully rely on Him to break my chains of anxiety just as I was relying on Him to heal Josiah. There was something incredibly freeing about casting those burdens on Him. Some of the scripture and quotes that I found encouraging during that time follow:
"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." -Joshua 1:9
"We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are." -Max DePree
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
"For God did not give us a Spirit of fear, but of power, and of love and of a sound mind."
-2 Timothy 1:7
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you." -Maya Angelou
"Your largest fear carries your greatest growth."
"Perhaps you were born for such time as this." -Esther 4:14
"If you never try, you'll never know."
"Don't let insecure thoughts ruin something amazing."
"Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” -Deuteronomy 31:6
"Find yourself by losing yourself in God."
"Often times God will use our doubts to build our confidence by calling us to face our fears and do something we would never choose to do on our own. But when we depend on Him, we experience victory we never thought possible."
"But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” -Mark 5:36
"Fear paralyzes. Fear in its mildest, tamest form...is a wet blanket that smothers the fiery passion God deposited in your heart when He formed you. Fear freezes us into inaction. Frozen ideas, frozen souls, frozen bodies can't move, can't dream, can't risk, can't love and can't live. Fear chains us." -Stasi Eldridge from "Becoming Myself"
I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken."
"Fear in its most wicked, powerful form cripples our souls and warps the very fabric of our true hearts. It reshapes our inner reality until we bear no resemblance to the lives we are meant to be living. Fear robs us of our very selves."- Stasi Eldridge
“Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” -Isaiah 12:2
Sanctification takes Time
The change in me didn't take place overnight. I had to take one day at a time, one situation at a time. I had to constantly recall scripture to mind. I had to learn to see myself the way Jesus saw me...as His beloved daughter who had been washed clean by His blood. I had to replace damaging thoughts about myself with truth from His Word. I had to put myself out there, fully vulnerable. And when the "old me" reared her ugly head and I faltered, I had to get back up and keep going.
As you read this, I need you to know that I do not come to you as a completely healed person. Everyone has their own "thorn in the flesh" and I believe that anxiety will always be mine. It will keep me on my knees in prayer, fully relying on God. It will keep me humble. But I have made it over the side of the mountain. I have gone from "woe is me" to "yes, I have a problem but I'm not going to let it cripple me for life."
When I get discouraged about how long the healing process is taking, I look back to who I was just a few years ago. The change that God has made in me is truly remarkable. My quality of life has increased tremendously and I have joy. So much joy! My God truly is a God of miracles.
We Will Overcome
I know that I am not alone in this. Anxiety is said to affect over 40 million Americans. Before that vital moment when my belief in God became real, I could never understand why God would give someone a heart for ministry and not take away the very thing keeping them from ministry. Little did I know that God would eventually use my story of anxiety to minister to others going through the same thing. Looking back now, I find it ironic and totally amazing. It was through my weakness that God displayed His strength. He is my Overcomer.
Anxiety may not be your "thorn in the flesh", but it is safe to say that everyone from time to time lets insecurities, worry and self-doubt keep them from being the person that God created them to be. I believe that there are so many God-given talents that people everywhere spend significant amounts of time and energy neglecting, dismissing or actively covering up...creative voice and ventures aborted and prematurely abandoned by the powerful force of self-sabotage.
There are many other forces of self-sabotage at play in this world other than anxiety. Just to name a few: procrastination, eating disorders, self-injury, people-pleasing, addictions to drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, porn, sex, etc. I could go one. No matter the form that one's self-sabotage takes, the approach of overcoming remains the same. Through Jesus Christ.
It is of utmost importance that I point out that before the healing can begin, you must first have a relationship with Jesus Christ by being born again. You obviously already recognize your need for a savior so call out to Him in all honesty confessing that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and His saving grace. Thank Him for dying on the cross for your sins. There are no right or wrong words to say. There isn't a specific prayer that you have to repeat. Just be sincere as you pour out your heart to Him. Confess your need for Him. He will not turn you away.
God never promised us an easy life, even after salvation. He did promise us that He would always be with us and never leave us. We live in a fallen, broken world...heartache and adversity are sure to come. We can't blame that on God. It is our own sin and the sin of those before us that cursed the Earth. It started with Adam. You know the story. But we find it so easy to blame our troubles on God. I'm guilty.
No, this life is not easy. It's not perfect...far from it actually!...But it's part of God's perfect plan. For those who are born again, one day we will be surrounded by perfection in all of the glory of God when we enter into our heavenly home. Until then, we must fight the good fight while we are here on the Earth. God does want us to thrive here on Earth. And by that, I mean, He wants us to discover who He created us to be. He wants us to use our gifts and talents for His glory. He wants us to fight against our flesh and embrace the sanctification process that He has for us. He is able. I am proof of that.
Steps to Healing
Sometimes, before we can embrace the life that God has planned for us, we have to forgive ourselves or forgive someone else, before the healing process can take place. I don't claim to be an expert. I do not have a degree in counseling, psychology, or psychiatry. However, I can share with you some of the things that have helped me overcome my anxiety disorder. Everyone is different but hopefully what helped me will prove to be of help to you.
My Personal Steps to Healing
1. Name it!
It took me awhile to even realize that what I had was anxiety. But once I did the research, all the symptoms lined up and my doctor confirmed it.
Do not be afraid to pray for a miracle. God is able! Don't get mad if He doesn't give you a miracle. He is sovereign and it may be that He is trying to teach you something very valuable through this. Remember that miracles do not always happen over night.
3. Evaluate your belief system.
Do you say that you believe God and believe in who He is but don't trust Him? There is no real belief if you do not act on it. Faith and trust go hand in hand with belief. I believe in Him and who He is, therefore I trust that He knows what He is doing in my life. I have faith that He is sovereign over all things and nothing happens by accident.
4. Read the Bible! Keep scripture and encouraging quotes on hand!
The Word of God is full of stories of ordinary people, just like you and me, who stood courageously. Many of them had serious personal issues that hindered them, but they looked to God for courage, and He supplied everything they needed.
Give God the first fruit of your day and wakeup in His Word. (Remember that a strong relationship with God means you need to spend time with Him) Read the stories, of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Esther, David, etc. These stories were surely inspire your courage.
I listed several Bible verses and encouraging quotes earlier that I kept on hand. During moments that I felt my anxiety creeping back in, these verses/quotes gave me confidence.
5. Seek help!
When struggling with something such as anxiety, it helps greatly to confide in someone whether it be a family member, a friend, a pastor, doctor, counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc. I would actually suggest that you confide in more than one person because each person may help you in different ways. For example, a doctor can help you with medication if you need relief from the symptoms, while a pastor can help you work through the spiritual and mental side of your struggle, digging down to the root of the problem. A trustworthy friend can prove to be the accountability partner that encourages you to keep pushing through. It's important to approach your struggle from every angle and not depend on just one avenue.
6. Go to the root of the problem! (what started it?)
They say that the best way to approach a problem is to go to the root of what's causing it. Anxiety orders may be caused by environmental factors, medical factors, genetics, brain chemistry, substance abuse, or a combination of these, and stressful situations are what usually trigger it. In my own case, I could never pinpoint exactly what the root cause of my anxiety was. Of course, being the over-diligent analyzer and thinker that I was, I had a few theories as to what I thought the root was, but it could be that I was simply born this way. I was definitely born with a perfectionist personality, so the standards that I set for myself were very high...too high to even reach, most of the time. And when I didn't reach my standards, I was incredibly harsh with myself. I thought all kinds of negative thoughts about myself. It has taken me awhile to put a stop to that bad habit and I still slip up from time to time. But I have learned to stop setting such high standards for myself. Most of the time.... Like I said, I'm a work in progress. I now try to focus on what God's standards are for me realizing and accepting the fact that His standards do not usually conform to the expectations and measures of human success. As a born-again believer, my main standard is that I live my life in the light of eternity.
Have you discovered the root cause of your struggle? Please do not skip this step as it is vital to the healing process.
7. Reduce the stress in your life. Less stress=Less anxiety
Stess is often what triggers anxiety. So do whatever you can to alleviate as much as possible.
- Learn to say "no". It's probably no surprise to you when I say that we live in a culture that worships being busy. We take on way too many activities and projects and struggle to find the time to accomplish it all. Let me give you a hint: It's okay to say "No". If this is hard for you to do (it was for me), then I suggest reading The Best Yes by Lisa TerKeurst. In this book Lisa challenges her readers to say "No" to things that may be good in order to say "Yes" to the better things. We can't do it all people. Remember that God doesn't expect you too. Remember to evaluate your standards and make sure that they line up with God's standards. The same goes for your priorities. Say "No" to whatever doesn't make the cut.
- Get organized. There are not many things that stress me out more than disorganization, whether it be my house, work place, an event, or just my day in general, I really cannot stand disorganization. It's a big stressor for me. If you are having trouble organizing your days/schedule, buy a planner that includes a monthly calendar and a breakdown of each week and day. There are so many neat ideas for getting organized out there today. So just do it. You won't regret it. It's a big stress reliever for me.
- Exercise. Obviously, we can not alleviate all stress from our lives. But exercising can help to relieve it. When you exercise, your body releases natural endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body.
- Eat healthy and stay hydrated. Easier said than done, but it makes a huge difference. Each of us respond to foods differently, but for me, a low carb diet is the way to go. I am pre-diabetic so my body does not process carbohydrates the way it should. When I consume carbohydrate and sugar laden foods or drinks, my blood glucose levels skyrocket and then come crashing down. This makes me dizzy, moody, irritable and stressed, so it's best for me to avoid these types of food altogether. But everyone is different. Find the diet that works for you. Drink lots of water.
- Get plenty of sleep. Lack of restful sleep harms you in many ways and will form a vicious cycle that involves anxiety and the inability to rest. For years I dealt with restless leg syndrome and twitching in my sleep and I was surprised to find out that it was a result of my anxiety.
8. Put yourself out there and get back up when you fall down.
This perhaps is one of the hardest steps. It was for me anyway. One of the things that I have always loved to do is sing. I love music and how God uses it as a channel to minister to people. I love how while we are being ministered to through song, God is being lifted up and praised. It's like a win/win situation for me. But an anxiety problem doesn't exactly mesh well with the gift of singing. I was unable to share my gift with anyone but Jordan for the longest time because of anxiety. Even the thought of singing in front of people made my heart race and my palms sweaty. But once I began the healing process, I begin to put myself out there. It was so hard to take that first step, but I did. I sang a solo at a nursing home and I was SO nervous that my heart was racing, I couldn't hardly breathe, and I was shaking all over. I had NO confidence. It sounded horrible. I'm pretty sure that one of the nursing home residents was laughing at me. I wanted to crawl under a rock. But my accountability partner (aka my husband) wouldn't let me give up. He encouraged me to keep trying. Now I'm singing on the Praise Team at church and I enjoy it so much. I'm still working on being more comfortable with solos and not holding back. I believe that God will continue to strengthen me in this area as I grow more confident in the gift He has given me.
I share my journey of overcoming anxiety with you, not for pity or for you to say "look how far she has come." If it wasn't for God and His power to sanctify, I would still be wallowing in that pit of self-sabotage. I can accredit the change in me to Him alone.
What are you struggling with today? What is holding you back from living the life that He has for you? What is keeping you from sharing your gifts/talents?
He wants to help. He is able.
The ball is in your court. Will you ask Him to be on your team and make Him captain?