Odds are, you and I have very similar stories. Worry and stress have been annoying companions for most of our life. Decision-making can be a nightmare. All the “what if’” worries chase us around like howling wolves. Stress can feel like a vise squeezing us from all sides. Fear of being wrong. Worry we’ve hurt someone we love. Pounding heart, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, inability to sleep, overwhelming anxiety. How do we make it stop?
I’ve spent more than 16 years personally wrestling with this question. There’s no simple answer. You can’t “just put it out of your mind” or “think about something else.” It’s unnerving to be a confident, mature adult one moment, and feel utterly helpless and terrified the next. Bible verses tell us to cast all our cares on God, all things are possible with God and how he doesn’t give us more than we can bear. You and I know all these things, tried to push worry aside, and developed coping mechanisms for the stress. But it’s still there, lurking underneath the mask we’ve learned to create.
My journey to freedom began many years ago on the client side of the counseling couch. I poured out all the ways I’d tried to deal with stress, worry, and fear—sharing my disappointment at my failure to control those qualities. Learning to look through God’s eyes at me and my life has significantly changed my approach to stress. Utilizing a healthy strategy to process that stress determines the quality of our life experiences.
Looking back at my life, I see my worry, anxiety, and fear came from three sources: Biological/Physiological, External, and Internal.
My family tree contains anxiety and depression symptoms, so I received those genes honestly. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates 1 in 4 adults (approximately 61.5 million) Americans experience mental illness every year. Approximately 14.8 million people live with depression and 18.1% (42 million) live with anxiety disorders. Understanding there’s a chemical component to our symptoms helps to correctly identify it as a medical/psychological issue. Just like dealing with heart disease or diabetes, some folks need medication for a period of time to adjust or regulate the chemicals that affect mood. I found medication to be helpful. It allowed me to do the work in counseling to move toward hurt, pain, and fear.
External sources include all the voices that speak into our life. Parents, teachers, preachers, etc. Their life beliefs and theology are often given to us by way of rules and expectations which we can experience as constraining and guilt-producing. Looking at those voices and critiquing the beliefs we’ve internalize is an important part of understanding why we feel anxious and how do we move towards freedom.
Internal anxiety is tied to the emotional reactions we experience toward people and events. God creates us with core longings and legitimate emotional needs. We come into this world expecting to be loved perfectly, because that’s how our heavenly father loves us. But no parent is perfect and when those needs are dismissed or not met to the degree we need, we feel sad, disappointed, unsafe, unprotected, devalued, etc. Feeling such deep feelings towards those we love and legitimately expect to love us can bring confusion, hurt, and pain. Feeling guilty for bouncing between anger and sadness leads to anxiety.
What I learned in 16 years of digging into my heart, mind, and soul revolutionized my healing journey. I absolutely believe our bodies are impacted by genetics and physiological chemical issues that result in anxiety and depression. That’s why God gave us the ability to find homeopathic and chemical resources for both medical and psychological conditions. But there’s also an emotional component which is very real and often debilitating.1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Think of all your worries and fears. Aren’t they primarily rooted in not feeling loved or afraid you won’t love others well? My lightbulb moment came when I realized moving from fear to freedom happens in the context of relationship.
I will never love God, myself, or others perfectly – but I don’t think God expects that of me this side of heaven. 1 John 4:18 tells me is there’s a connection between not feeling loved as the person God created me to be and my worry, anxiety, and fear. Being able to receive love, mercy, and grace significantly affects our ability to decrease fear-based symptoms. Fear breeds secrecy and shame. Opening ourselves up to receive love from God and safe people allows us to see what is true and hold onto hope.