by Heidi Dirks
Note: This article is intended to provide general information and is not a substitute for professional assessment and interventions.
You’ve spent the past two hours hiking and are almost at your destination, a high rock overlooking a gleaming, teal blue lake. As you approach the lake you see a large bear. You stop in your tracks, you feel your heart begin to pound, and you start to breathe quickly.
You’re sitting in class, listening to the teacher talk about Canada’s Confederation, when you hear the teacher say your name. Your mind goes blank and you feel like you can’t move or speak. You’re quickly able to focus, and you ask the teacher to repeat the question.
You feel a lot of fear at the thought of going on the city bus and being in a crowd. You do whatever you can to avoid leaving your house; and when you do go out, you take your sister with you. You feel nauseous and lightheaded the whole time, and you get back home as soon as possible. This has been going on for over six months now, and is making it nearly impossible to go to school.
Everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their life. Anxiety is a normal response to a situation that is dangerous, like exiting a burning building, or a situation where we need to be alert and prepared, such as an important presentation at work. But when someone experiences extreme anxiety about everyday situations that are not dangerous and this interferes with their life, they need additional supports to address the anxiety in their life.
In the three scenarios above it sounds like the person is experiencing some anxiety. When anxiety is in response to danger or an everyday situation that you are able to work through, like in the first two scenarios, the anxiety is a normal part of being human. But when the anxiety is not a response to danger, and it is interfering with your life, you likely need some more supports.
Anxiety as a Mental Illness
Anxiety can be experienced in different ways, and anxiety disorders all contain elements of disordered physical responses, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Anxiety may be seen through fear, such as fear of an object or being in specific situations. Anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is used by medical professionals in North America to diagnose mental illnesses.
Some examples of anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Individuals with GAD experience excessive worry about life events that they cannot control. PTSD includes experiences of nightmares, flashbacks, and changes in their mood, among other symptoms. People with OCD will have obsessions that make them anxious which lead them to engage in behaviours (compulsions) to lower that anxiety.
Anxiety in Youth
Up to 25% of youth experience a mental health struggle or illness, with many of them not getting the help they need. The good news is that there are many resources that can help individuals to learn to cope with and lessen their anxiety. Professionals, including doctors and therapists, can help and be an important part of overcoming anxiety. A doctor may diagnose an anxiety disorder and prescribe medication. A therapist can help you learn to work through the anxiety you feel and develop healthy coping strategies. Self-help workbooks, such as those based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), can help you become aware of how your thoughts impact your feelings and behaviours. Faith communities can provide supports and help you remember God’s truth about your worth.
Being told to just stop feeling anxious isn’t going to help. Anxiety doesn’t go away instantly, but there are many strategies that you may find helpful if you are feeling anxious. Slow, calm breathing can help to calm your body and lower anxiety.
Anxiety is often based on the future or past, so strategies to be in the present moment can also help to lower anxiety. Become aware of your thoughts and self-talk, and challenge thoughts that aren’t true or are reinforcing your anxiety. People may find that music, art, animals, and being in nature can help when they’re feeling anxious.
It’s also important to eat and exercise in healthy ways and get enough sleep. Pay attention to any unhealthy ways you are coping with anxiety, such as using caffeine, non-prescription drugs, alcohol, food, tobacco, compulsive exercise or sleeping to escape anxiety. These may seem to provide immediate relief but they may contribute to long-term problems.
Anxiety in a Biblical Worldview
In both Scripture and our lived experiences we are reminded that the world is not how it was created to be. Sin has impacted all aspects of the world, and this is seen is in our disordered thoughts and behaviours. Christians struggle with mental illnesses, including anxiety. Anxiety is not a sin, nor is it a reflection of someone’s relationship with God. The good news of Jesus is that through his death and resurrection we are reconciled to God, and that God is working to redeem his creation.
A wholistic and multi-faceted approach to dealing with anxiety is important, and Christians may want to intentionally include spiritual practices in their lives as part of coping with anxiety. Christians can be intentional to focus their thoughts about themselves on the truth of who we are in Jesus, and that we have inherent worth and dignity as image bearers of God. We can spend time in nature, meditate on scripture and though prayer, listen to uplifting music, and spend time with supportive friends and family. Parents can connect their children to needed supports, and help them to discover what strategies help them cope with and lower their anxiety.
Scripture and Anxiety
When quoting Scripture to comfort or instruct people struggling with anxiety, be cautious to use Scripture in context to bring freedom, rather than to condemn or give overly simplistic answers. Philippians 4:6-7 may be one of the more frequently quoted verses about anxiety. When it is used to tell someone to stop what they are feeling it may cause increased anxiety for not being able to stop feeling anxious, or it may lead to strained interpersonal relationships if scripture is seen as a simplistic or judgmental answer to a difficult and complex experience. When read in context scripture can be an important resource to people struggling with anxiety, but it is not enough to relieve an anxiety disorder. People struggling with anxiety disorders also needs the support of mental health professionals, and possibly medication, to address their anxiety.
In verses like Philippians 4:6 we see the contrast between prayer and anxiety. We are invited to focus on God and his truth rather than focusing on our problems. This focus does not negate the seriousness or real pain of our problems, nor does it necessarily solve those problems. When we focus on God we are reminded that the Gospel is good news for all people, that we are set apart for a special purpose (1 Cor. 6:11), our sins are forgiven (1 John 1:9), and through Jesus we have eternal life (John 3:16). We see that there is truth beyond ourselves, that God is at work in the world, and we look forward to Jesus’ return.
If you want to read more about anxiety, and how to support youth who are struggling, check out the following websites:
www.cmha.ca (Canadian Mental Health Association)
Heidi Dirks, BEd, MA (counselling), is a member of the EMC’s Mental Health Initiative committee and the Board of Church Ministries. She is part of Aberdeen EMC.