Anxiety can trouble our minds and distract us from the normal flow of life. Anxiety can be anything from annoying to distracting to debilitating. Anxiety can be caused by and produce physical conditions. Anxiety can make people sweat, increase heart rates, causes nausea, headaches and even changes in brain chemistry.
Interestingly, “… anxiety is a uniquely human experience. Other animals clearly know fear, but human anxiety involves an ability to use memory and imagination to move backward and forward in time that animals do not appear to have. The anxiety that occurs in post traumatic syndromes indicates that human memory is a much more complicated mental function than animal memory. Moreover, a large portion of human anxiety is produced by anticipation of future events. Without a sense of personal continuity over time, people would not have the ‘raw materials’ of anxiety” (Medical Dictionary)
“Anxiety often has a social dimension because humans are social creatures. People frequently report feelings of high anxiety when they anticipate and, therefore, fear the loss of social approval or love. Social phobia is a specific anxiety disorder that is marked by high levels of anxiety or fear of embarrassment in social situations” (Medical Dictionary).
When anxiety becomes a disorienting and debilitating state of mind, it’s characterized as an “overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it” (Webster).
For some people anxiety is more than an occasional disruption to the flow of life – it’s where they live their lives each day. This degree of anxiety can be paralyzing and spiral people into endless cycles of irrational fear and panic attacks. I know people who have been surprised by waves of anxiety that seem to have little rational cause.
Sometimes those who endure traumatic experiences or oppressive circumstances spiral into anxiety because their brain chemistry has been affected by their circumstances. When this happens it usually becomes more difficult to navigate out of fearful perspectives that lack rational cause.
People who experience this level of anxiety often feel stuck and unable to change. The sources of encouragement that help others seem unable to lift the cloud of anxiety over them.
Helping the whole person
Sometimes well-intentioned but unhelpful people will wrongly interpret biologically based anxiety as solely spiritual and volitional.
They tell those who struggle that they need to trust God more or stop fearing man. They assign Scriptures to memorize like Philippians 4:6-8 and I Peter 5:6-9. These are very helpful passages but until the physical matters are addressed application could be difficult to the point of discouragement.
These counselors fail to respect the multi-dimensional way God has created us. Reducing all problems to spiritual causes, they fail to adequately assess the social and physical factors that could be involved in debilitating experiences of anxiety. Sadly, by treating severe anxiety as volitional based, they only heap more anxiety on those they sincerely desire to help.
This is not to say that spiritually based counsel shouldn’t be given but that such counsel will not reach someone with biologically based anxiety in the way it was intended. Instead, a process of elimination should be used to diagnose the cause or causes behind anxiety.
The path to restoration should also be multidimensional. Some counselors are too hasty to assess the needs of others by jumping right to the spiritual without adequately looking at the whole person. This is a failure to be faithful to all that Scripture teaches about the way God made people. It’s also often a simplistic reduction of the effects of the fall of man from God. The body’s chemistry can affect one’s mind and emotions. When assessing crippling emotions like anxiety or depression, we must respect the physical, social, spiritual and mental dimensions of personhood.
I encourage medical doctors not to give patients prescriptions for medicines to help anxiety or depression without making sure that other means of support are in place. Similarly, I am certain doctors wouldn’t want me to point people to three bible verses to heal these challenges.
As Christians, we must honor the way our Creator fashioned us and the effects of the fall by evaluating the whole person not just one dimension. When Christian counselors become one-dimensional, they bring disrepute on the Church. Sometimes they think they’re just trying to be faithful to the Bible by putting spiritual things first.
This is where they’re being misled. Faithfulness to the Bible entails respect for the physical, social, spiritual and mental dimensions of personhood. It also considers paths to restoration involving intellectual, emotional and volitional changes.
There are helpful medications people can benefit from if they are in the grip of life-controlling anxiety. Consultation with a family doctor is essential for this step. Efforts to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs are destructive in the long run.
They also reflect a kind of stubborn pride that chooses artificial control over the transparency necessary for true help.
If a doctor prescribes a medicine and it proves helpful, please do not see it as a problem solved. Rather, it’s wise to see it as a first step toward restoration of life on many levels. The medicine often enables a person to receive benefit from other sources of help. In most cases, social and spiritual areas of life need attention along with the physical. This usually requires the assistance of a wise counselor and some trusted friends. It sometimes requires a kind of restructuring of life and relationships to experience full restoration.