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Anxiety: How Can I Cope?

God’s Word is filled with many good, useful, and true things that are meant to help you in your struggle with worry and fear.
By David Powlison


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

You know the feeling—the same thoughts keep spinning around and around in your mind. You feel like a frenzied juggler. Your worries, problems, and fears whirl around in your head like so many china plates. And you feel so afraid, preoccupied, obsessed. You're afraid that if you lose focus for even one second, your whole life will come crashing down.

You have plenty of company. Anxiety affects everyone—no one escapes. In a worrisome world, we all feel anxious sometimes. You might not feel all of the unpleasant effects of extreme anxiety—the churning stomach, the fluttery feelings, the cold hands, the going over something in your mind a hundred times—but the problem of worry and obsessing is universal.

God made you, so He knows all about your anxious thoughts. He knows the troubles you face. He knows that everyone experiences anxiety. So His Word is filled with many good, useful, and true things that are meant to help you in your struggle with worry and fear.

The capacity for anxiety is God-given

Begin by asking yourself this question: Would you want to live your entire life with no anxiety? Before you quickly and enthusiastically say, "Yes!" think for a moment. Isn't the opposite of anxiety being inert—indifferent to the world around you? If you really want to be anesthetized, there are drugs, meditation techniques, and life philosophies that will stop you from caring. When you stop caring, you won't be anxious anymore. Detachment doesn't feel anxiety and concern.

But what would you be missing? Anxiety, when you get to the bottom of it, is a God-given capacity for knowing that something bad is going on in your world—either in the past, the present, or the future. This is not necessarily negative. There's a right kind of anxiety that leads us to express loving concern for others in the midst of their trouble, and draws us to take refuge in God when we are in trouble. (2 Corinthians 11:28; Psalm 94:9)

Think of it this way: Anxiety is like the red light flashing on your car's dashboard. When the "check engine" light goes on, you know something is wrong with your car. You don't know exactly what's wrong, but you do know that it's time to visit the mechanic. Would you want to drive without those lights to warn you of an engine problem? Probably not—it's better to take care of car trouble before you break down on the open road.

The same is true of your anxiety. It's warning you about trouble in your world and trouble in your heart. God has hardwired us to be aware of trouble. If you don't feel intense concern from time to time, you are ignoring real trouble. Instead of looking for a technique to numb yourself, you need to understand, harness, and channel your anxiety in constructive ways.

You have good reasons to be anxious

When you look at your world, it's easy to find reasons to be anxious. See if you can find some of your worries on this list:

  • Death is a fact of life. No matter how pleasant our lives are, some very big, bad news is waiting at the end: Each of us will die. Everyone we love will die. Death is the source of very intense anxiety for almost everyone. This anxiety fuels our fears, not only about our death, but also about our health and the health of those we love.
  • Relationships don't last. Relationships are also a huge source of anxiety. We value relationships, but they change and sometimes break apart—a spouse dies, a marriage fails, children leave home, and friends drift away or even turn on us. We fear the loneliness, the loss, the hurt, and the betrayal that comes with broken relationships.
  • We don't have enough money. Most of us worry about money. We can't escape this anxiety—it touches every part of our lives. Money worries are tied to so many things: security, identity, status. Each can be affected by how much money we have or don't have.

This list goes on and on. Jesus said that in this world you will have trouble (John 16:33), and you do. There's trouble in your family, in your neighborhood, in your country, and in your world. Your capacity to feel concern about the trouble in your world is a creational gift from God. When you are intensely concerned, you know something is wrong. Anxiety can serve a useful function in our lives when it alerts us to trouble and drives us to bring those troubles to God. But, it also can go way off the rails.

Your anxieties reveal your heart

How does anxiety misfire? First, we overreact to real trouble. Second, we become upset about things that ought not to trouble us. In both cases our bad anxiety reaction reveals what is really going on in our hearts.

In every situation where you feel sinfully anxious, you believe something is threatening your world. Your world feels out of control; you're afraid something bad might happen; and you are trying to control your world to keep that bad thing from taking place.

If you want to know what makes you anxious, fill in the blanks in these sentences:

  • I need _____.
  • I want _____.
  • I don't want ____.

When you don't get what you need or want—the love of someone, your good health, the good health of someone you love, money, a certain job—you can easily panic. The things you get that you don't want also make you anxious. They feel wrong, evil, bad, and you don't want them; you want their opposite.

Imagine that you're facing real trouble—your child has been diagnosed with a progressive, incurable disease. You don't want your child to be ill; you do want your child to live a long, healthy, full life. You should be concerned, but what do you do with your concern? Do you express genuine love for your child? Do you learn an even deeper dependence on God? Or do you erase God and become full of fear, worry, grumbling and bitterness?

Now picture yourself in a situation where there isn't real trouble, but you are still anxious. You are going to a party where you don't know anyone. You don't want to be excluded, criticized, ignored, and rejected. But what you do want? You want approval, you want to matter, and you want someone to notice you. You shouldn't be concerned, but you are. How do you deal with that?

How you deal with your anxiety in both these situations will reveal your heart. How do you respond when you don't get what you want? Or when you get what you don't want? Are you full of fear, anxiety, and worry? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you become obsessed with your problem? Does your mind go over your troubles again and again like your tongue going to a sore place in your mouth?

All of these responses give you a window into your heart. They help you see which of your hopes, dreams, and wishes you have organized your life around. They tell you what it is that you believe you can't do without. They let you know which of your desires has become your master. The Bible has a very graphic phrase for those desires—it calls them the "desires of the flesh" (1 John 2:16).

Our modern-day use of this phrase focuses on sexual passion or lust for money, but the Bible uses the phrase much more broadly. If you are in a social situation or in the spotlight and you feel anxious, take that feeling, unpack it, and you will see that it's your lust to perform well, to be well thought of, and to be somebody that is actually driving your experience of anxiety.

Why we can respond to trouble with faith

Because there's trouble in this world, we have good reasons to be anxious. In the midst of trouble our hearts forget God, and we get attached to other masters—all kinds of desires, needs, and beliefs. We get anxious for bad reasons, and we overreact even to the good reasons we have to be anxious. Living in a world where there is trouble, with hearts that quickly stray, means we will always be tempted to lose sight of God. When we lose sight of God, we try to control our world on our own, and become filled with worry.

But don't despair: You can learn to remember God instead of forgetting Him. God wants us to know Him so intimately and trust Him so completely that our desire to fix our troubles in our own way will no longer consume us. As we grow in our love for God, we will experience the right kind of concern in the midst of our troubles.

A wonderful sentence in Psalm 94:19 says, "When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, your consolations delight my soul" (NASB). This is a fascinating passage. The writer of this Psalm is clearly very aware of his own inner experience. He is aware that he can get preoccupied and burdened. The way he says, "when my anxious thoughts multiply within me," gives us a sense that his anxiety is like an atomic reaction—the atom splits and splits and pretty soon it seems like the whole world is shattered into little pieces and about to land on his head. But then he says, "your consolations delight my soul."

What are these consolations? The writer of Psalm 94 speaks of some of these when he declares that God is his "stronghold" and "the rock of my refuge." And then consider the apostle Paul's words in Philippians 4:5-7:

…The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard our hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In this passage Paul is not telling you to get a grip, be a stoic, or pop a pill. Instead, the passage gives you reasons to not be anxious—God's consolations for his anxious people are right alongside His admonition to deal rightly with your anxiety. Consider how these consolations change how you deal with your anxiety.

The Lord is near

If you think about your bad anxiety reactions—the unhealthy worry, fretting, and churning—you will notice that you have always forgotten that the Lord is near. If you remember, in even the worst circumstances, that the Lord is near, then you have a rock on which your heart can rest. You have a hope that is bigger than any threat, even death. You draw near to the Lord who is close.

After all, this Lord created the whole universe and controls every moment of your life. He counts the hairs on your head and notices each one that falls. You are living in His world. And this Lord is not only the all powerful Creator of the world, but He has also experienced firsthand the anxiety-producing fragility of life. This Lord anguished honestly—He became human and, although He didn't want to experience devastating suffering, He chose to commit Himself to his Father. He trusted his Father with his life because He knew His Father's love.

This Lord is near you. He is raised from the dead. He will raise you with Him. When you know this is true, then you have a hope bigger than any loss. What you have been given in this Lord, what you are being given, and what you will be given on the day you see His face is greater, weighs more, and has more lasting power than anything you might lose here on earth.

When you know that Jesus is near, the worried, obsessed, sinful anxiety dissipates. The caring, concerned, trusting sort of anxiety grows, and you grow in faith and love.

So when you are anxious, start by remembering that your Lord is near.

The Lord is listening

Paul tells you in this passage to make your requests known to God. Think about that for a minute. If the Lord is near—if He is someone who knows what's on your heart, who knows what weighs heavily on you and preoccupies you—then He's a hearer of His beloved children.

Often the Psalms (such as Psalms 28 and 86) start out by pleading with God—Lord listen to me, bend your ear, you must hear me, I need you to listen and act on my behalf. These are not calm psalms; they are intense and pointed. In Psalm 28 David says to God that he will die unless he hears from Him. This is faith talking, and David talks this way because God is listening.

God's listening does not guarantee that what is making you anxious will go away—that your financial problems will be solved, that you will be cured of cancer, or that whatever else is worrying you will disappear. You may not be healed, people you love may die, and you may struggle with financial stress. But this God has a way of comforting, strengthening, and giving hope in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. Jesus did not want to drink the cup of God's wrath. But God strengthened Him, and He was fully willing. There's help from Him for whatever worries you.

So when you are anxious pour your heart out to God. He is listening.

The Lord is guarding you with His peace

Here is another consolation that will "delight your soul" in the midst of anxiety. Paul says, "…the peace of God which surpasses all compassion will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

The peace of God guarding and watching over us is a theme that runs through the whole Bible. In Psalm 121, for example, David says seven different times that God is watching over you. Who is watching you? The Lord—the creator of the whole universe, and the One who has ultimate power over every circumstance. And when is He watching? By day and by night. Nothing that happens during the day or the night can harm you, because the Lord, your good shepherd, is on guard.

When the good shepherd is present, His peace is present. Paul says, "…the God of peace will be with you," (Philippians 4:9). When you read about David in the Bible, the constant refrain is that the Lord was with him. His life was blessed because the Lord was with him. He failed, he sinned big, he often blew it, and still the Lord remained with him. He grew very frail, and yet the Lord was with him. His life was a picture of living faith—a faith that faced trouble squarely and still knew the peace of God because he knew that God was with him.

When you are anxious, remember that your God is guarding you with His peace.

The godly opposite of sinful anxiety

These consolations taught Paul a secret we all need to know: the secret of contentment. Contentment, unlike indifference, is the godly opposite of worrying and obsessing. When you worry, you're trying to hold onto what you might lose, or you're grabbing for what you don't have. Indifference means you are trying not to care about what you don't have or might lose. But that's not contentment. In contentment there's a fundamental stability—a stability that comes from knowing that the all powerful Lord of the universe is near, He is listening to your cries, and guarding you day and night.

Paul learned contentment by depending on this Lord. He said, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Paul knew that no matter how the circumstances of his life changed, God would be his constant, faithful, loving protector.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

How can you live with the same confidence that Paul had in God? The antidote to anxiety is not some mental trick like, "Rehearse some Bible truth. Say this calming promise over and over to yourself. Remind yourself that you are a child of God; and your anxiety will disappear."

God is after bigger game. You are His child, and He wants a relationship with you. He wants you to talk to Him. He intends for your anxiety, your troubles, and your response to your troubles to drive you to Him. God's peace comes to you as your relationship with Him becomes deeper, more honest, and more intimate.

How does this happen? Let me turn again to Paul's words in Philippians 4.

Let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6).

God wants to know what's on your heart. He wants you to need Him, to go to Him, and to plead with Him about your real problems. He wants you to tell Him all about your troubles—the health problems, the financial worries, the straying child, the struggling church, and the grief and loss you have experienced. He wants you to confess to Him the sins that drive your sinful anxiety—the idols that have hijacked your life. He wants you to ask Him for forgiveness for your lack of trust and faith, and for desiring His good gifts more than Him.

Begin with total honesty and say, "Lord I don't understand. Help me to understand You." Admit to Him that although your words say you believe He is in control, your anxious thoughts reveal the truth—you still desire to be in control. Ask God to teach you how to close the gap between what you say you believe, and how you think and function on a day-by-day basis. God will use your honest confession to build a relationship with Him that will give you true and lasting peace. Your growing and deepening relationship with God is what will transform your anxious thoughts into humble faith and trust.

Park your mind in what is true.

Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things."

You must also be careful where you let your mind dwell—where you park your mind. Anxiety is full of lies.

What are some of these lies? First, you believe that the world needs to be under your control. Second, you think that it is out of control. And third, you imagine that your worry will get it under control.

But the truth is that this is God's world: He controls it, and your worry will not change a thing. So when you are tempted to worry, reject the lie that it is up to you to keep yourself and those you love safe. Especially reject all lies that have the word "more" in them. For example: "I would be safe if I had more friends, more money, more time, and more respect."

Also reject all the lies with the word "different" in them, as in, "I would be safe if I had a different spouse." Or a different family, different friends, different job, different house, different church. These statements are all fundamentally false. Dwell instead on what is true—the promises of Scripture, the attributes of God.

Tackle your real problems in the right way (Philippians 4:9).

Paul ends this section in Philippians 4 with a call to action: "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."

There is something to be done right now—we are to practice the lifestyle of contentment. Jesus said much the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matthew 6:34, ESV). Practicing the lifestyle of contentment means doing something today—we are called to address only today's trouble.

Begin by getting a grip on your mental juggling. Write down everything you are fretting about. You will find that it is comforting to write them all down, because you will notice that it is a finite list. When all your problems are spinning around in your mind they seem bigger and more numerous.

Now, what is God calling you to do about today's trouble? To help you answer that question, begin by imagining two circles: one six feet in diameter and another six inches in diameter. What you need to do today is in the little circle. Whatever is in the large circle should be left in God's hands, because you can't control or do anything about those worries.

Now look again at your list of worries. Put all the problems you can't solve into the larger, six-foot circle. For example: if you are worrying about whether or not you will get Alzheimer's disease, you can say, "You know, Lord, this is something I can't control. Please help me to trust you and take this worry off my list."

Or perhaps you are worried about your children. You want them to grow up into men and women who love God and others. You want them to be safe. But is there anything that you can do that will absolutely ensure how your children will turn out? No, you can't do anything to guarantee their future godliness. Their future is in God's big circle, not in your little circle.

Perhaps you're anxious about your teenager, and the choices he or she faces in today's culture. Ultimately your child is in God's hands, but consider the smaller circle. In that circle you will find God's call to love your teenager well today. What could you do? Slip a note in with his lunch? Pray for her heart to change? Share something God has taught you recently? Listen to what his world is like? Welcome her friends? Raise a problem specifically and constructively without nagging, hostility, or panicked accusations?

Remember, your step of obedience will always be smaller than the problem. In every area of your life where there is trouble, God is calling you to a small step of faith and love. He is not calling you to solve what is wrong—tackling the problems in the large circle is His job. Your call to love will never be as big as what is wrong.

Go through your entire list of worries. Notice that what God is calling you to do is always less than the bad things that might happen. Just knowing that will bring peace and sanity back into your life.

Your troubles do not rest on your shoulders. You are living in a really big, confusing world where there is trouble, but you are in a relationship with an even bigger God who is in charge of His world. He has a purpose for you in every situation where there is trouble: God is calling you to be constructive in a very small corner of His world.

An ecology motto reads, "Think globally, act locally." Apply this motto to your day-to-day life. Think globally—remember every day that God is in charge of the world and that He is watching over His sheep. And then act locally—each day ask God to show you what small, constructive thing He is calling you to do.

Your bad anxiety is a fruitless response to the real trouble you will encounter in this world. God's alternative to worry and obsession is for you to trust Him for all the big things and then do the small things that count in God's world. God promises that when you come to Him and cast your cares honestly and frankly on Him, you will be filled with the peace that passes all understanding.

FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS

What about taking medication to help control my anxiety?

Medication, as any honest doctor will tell you, is about alleviating symptoms. It doesn't deal with the underlying issue of how a frail human being, living in a very threatening world, deals with life. Does that mean medication is always wrong? No. If you are in a complete panic and medication helps to calm you down, that can be a good thing. But don't kid yourself and think that because medication (or a vacation, a good movie, a beer, or intimacy, etc.) takes the edge off of your anxiety that you don't have to do the hard work of learning to trust God and depend on Him.

Medications for anxiety are notoriously over-prescribed, and they have unpleasant side effects. In our culture, medication is often the first resort. But it is better to use medication as a last resort. If you and your doctor decide you should use medication, then make a commitment to not ignore the troubles that are making you anxious. Instead, use the temporary relief the medication provides as the context for learning to deal with your problems in a godly way.

Also, make sure that you have a trusted, wise, and godly friend to talk with about your troubles. Don't depend on your medication to heal you; learn to depend on God for the real, deep down change that will fill you with peace in the midst of your troubles. As you learn to live wisely, your restless, obsessive, bad anxiety reactions will diminish.

I have anxiety attacks that are so bad I end up in the hospital. What should I do?

One of the hard things about anxiety is that two unpleasant things are happening: First, there is the trouble you are anxious about. Second, there is the anxiety experience itself, which is extremely unpleasant. So you can be anxious about being anxious—this is often described as "free floating anxiety."

Sometimes this feeling can become the atmosphere in which you live. It is a terrifying experience. You are constantly in free fall—you feel like you are falling into a bottomless pit. You have an icy chill in your gut that never goes away. You are afraid—afraid that you are having a nervous breakdown, and that you are cracking up and will never get a grip. Your body goes cold and then hot, you have heart palpitations. Your anxiety can become attached to some really small thing, or it can run chaotically.

Think of an anxiety attack as a one-step-removed problem. When you focus only on your anxious feelings, it is easy to lose sight of your real problem. So start by slowing down your anxious thoughts. Begin by simply remembering that you live in God's world, and then, if possible, go out into God's creation and take a long walk. Talk out loud to God. Pour out your heart to Him, and then pray with a trusted friend. Your goal is to slow your mind down so you can face what is really bothering you.

Are you afraid you will never get married? Are you worried about your death? Are you facing a big change in your life? Did someone ignore you or say something hurtful? Are you anxious because you feel guilty? Perhaps you lost your temper, committed a sexual sin, or cheated on a test. Whatever is bothering you has spiraled into a very unpleasant emotional experience. Your goal is to face it concretely.

Remember that anxiety is like a red warning light on the dashboard of your car. The red light tells you there is a problem, but it doesn't tell you exactly what the problem is. The anxiety you are experiencing is pointing to a real problem.

Ask God to show you the problem underlying your anxiety. Then bring that problem to Him and ask Him to help you trust Him with all the big and small things that are troubling you. Ask Him to show you what you are trusting in instead of Him, and ask for forgiveness. Dare to believe in the forgiveness of sins and that God's good care of you is constant through all of your very real troubles. Then decide what small act of love God is calling you to do today, and take a step of faith and do that one small thing.

Remember what we said in the beginning of the main article: Your goal is not a bland, "no worries" way of handling life. When you read a verse like Philippians 4:6 that says, "Be anxious for nothing," you might think that God is telling you to never become agitated or emotional. But in that same letter, a few chapters earlier, Paul talks about being intensely anxious for the welfare of those he loves (Philippians 2:25-28), and in other letters Paul speaks of his daily anxiety for the churches he started (2 Corinthians 11:28).

So there is a right kind of anxiety that's actually an expression of love and faith. You are not looking for an anxiety-free life, but for a life where you, minute by minute, cast all your cares on Him who cares for you.

Find more mental and emotional articles

© Copyright 2010 by the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For more help on anxiety, read these resources from New Growth Press:

Running Scared

Living in a Dangerous World: Moving From Fear to Faith 

More information about the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation is available at its website. To look at all available CCEF resources, visit New Growth Press.

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D., is a faculty member and counselor at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) with over thirty years of experience. He has written several books, including The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context; Seeing with New Eyes; and Speaking Truth in Love; and numerous minibooks, including Breaking the Addictive Cycle; Facing Death with Hope; Grieving a Suicide; Healing after Abortion; I’m Exhausted: What to Do When You’re Always Tired; I Just Want to Die: Replacing Suicidal Thoughts with Hope; Life Beyond Your Parents’ Mistakes; Recovering from Child Abuse; Renewing Marital Intimacy; Sexual Addiction: Freedom from Compulsive Behavior; and Sexual Assault: Healing Steps for Victims.

 



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