There is another epidemic sweeping western culture that, while acknowledged, seems to be insurmountable and is not spoken of much in the public domain. In my experience it is affecting more and more people and causing a significant loss of enjoyment of life. The current issues facing us aren’t helping one bit. This other epidemic is anxiety, and not just the situational anxiety that occurs before an exam or an important business meeting, but the crippling persistent anxiety that sucks the light and energy out of life.
What follows is my own testimony. I would like to share how anxiety shaped my life, how burnout caused me to face anxiety and learn to manage it, and how God in His infinite grace and mercy freed me from a generational curse of anxiety (which I had no idea was even present in my life). In the following paragraphs I am going to share some personal ideas on how to not only manage anxiety, but how to gain mastery over it. It is my hope that, if this is something that you are living with, you may find support and hope. All the following examples are my own and in no way constitute medical advice – I need to say that up front.
I used the heading ‘Anxiety sucks!’ for two reasons.
1) It is a state of being that is just plain rotten. Its bad news!
2) It literally sucks the light and life out of living. It causes our lives to shrink down in to small spaces that we feel safe in. It stifles creativity and adventure.
Recently I discovered that the word anxiety comes from the Latin word ‘angere’ which means ‘to strangle’ – how appropriate.
Looking back, I now know that anxiety had been a part of my life from an early age. I remember as a young child being physically sick at the start of each school term as the thought of being apart from my mother was too painful. Being left in the car while Mum did shopping errands was at times an anxious experience for me as well. As I grew older I discovered ‘safe’ paths through life, how to not rock the boat, how to do things that met with approval from parents and people in authority that minimised my exposure to anxious situations (or so I thought). This gave the appearance that anxiety was not an issue, and yet at 33 life came crashing down in physical and mental burnout as I alluded to in my last post. (which you can read here)
Burnout, by definition, is the result of pushing the adrenal glands too far by living at too high a level of stress for too long, so that the body and mind have nothing to call on and effectively shut down in order to preserve life. At the time this happened for me I was commuting away from home every week for work, returning home in the weekends and trying to do way too much with little or no down time. This went on for 22 months before everything fell apart.
Anxiety surfaced immediately after the burnout with regular panic attacks which I had never experienced before. If you have had these then I know what you have been through. If not, a panic attack, as the name suggests, is a sudden onslaught of panic that seems to come from nowhere and fills you with dread. It is usually accompanied by thoughts of perceived disaster or fear and causes the heart to race, breathing to quicken and the surroundings to close in. It can sometimes feel like you are having a heart attack.
Apart from the panic attacks, I was in a near constant state of anxiety for a long time. Burnout created confusion in me as to what was true and right, and at that time I was unable to face people, work more than 2 hours a day, or even engage in life. As recovery progressed the severity of the anxiety decreased, and as I learned a new way of living I was able to manage it … but I’m getting ahead of myself. Please read on.
I have come to look at anxiety as ‘future fear’. This crippling emotion resulted from the perception that something bad is about to happen. In most cases the thought presented itself as truth (but wasn’t) and convinced me that I was not safe and could not cope. Therefore, the basis of anxiety is actually a decision to believe an irrational thought to be real, when in fact most eventualities never occur.
Okay, so I know that now, but back then when those panic attacks were occurring, I was not aware of the cause or even why they were happening, and they would happen at the worst times. For me they would happen before flying anywhere and only medication could alleviate the symptoms. They would happen in crowded environments like shopping malls. They would happen when I was tired and driving home from work. The concentration and traffic noise would set off an attack. It was the perception and thought of being trapped and not being able to get home. I’ll touch on this situation again in the next section.
The humble donut
This sweet treat is actually an appropriate illustration of what happens when living with anxiety. Due to the perception that something bad is about to happen, an anxious person is not able to see the iced doughy ring but will see the hole. They cannot see what is in front of them, they will only see what is not there. Also known as a ‘lack attack’. This illustration was passed on to me during counselling and I have found it invaluable.
When an attack of anxiety was happening I had to force myself to resist the irrational ‘what if’ thoughts and refocus on what was actually real. Going back to the panic attacks in traffic, one of the things that helped bring them under control was picturing a donut and reminding myself that I was a good driver and in fact had driven for years and could handle peak hour traffic. Re-presenting the truth dispels the future fear!
It can be beaten
I would like to share some things that helped reshape my life during the process of understanding, and gaining freedom from, anxiety.
As we know, the mind is such a powerful part of who we are and a lot of what empowers anxiety is driven from thoughts and perceptions. For me counselling played a significant part in helping identify the thought patterns that contributed to a state of being anxious. I had a Christian counsellor who helped me after the burnout and his support was invaluable. I still remember the first session I had with him. At the end of the hour I was convinced I was better and thanked him for his help. He was very gracious and informed me that we weren’t done, in fact we had only gotten started, and that I would need to come back the next week. So it went on for nearly two years.
Two of the most significant insights from the counselling sessions for me were…
1) Anxiety attacks begin with a trigger
Understanding what triggers the anxious thoughts is huge. These can be many, but in my experience most triggers were related to thoughts like ‘I can’t do this’, ‘What if this happens’, ‘If only I had ….’. I call this the ‘ woulda, coulda, shoulda’ trigger. Learning to catch those thoughts in time and challenge them with the truth disempowered the anxiety. There were other triggers for me like visual over stimulation if I was exhausted. I couldn’t watch a rugby game or any competitive situation on TV without anxiety rising. Learning and accepting my physical limits was helpful.
2) Retraining the narrative
Here the Word of God played a significant part. Learning the truth of my identity in Christ and memorising Scripture that speaks of the truth of who I am (Ephesians 1, Psalm 139) changed my perspective in moments when self doubt or future fear surfaced.
Philippians 4:6–8 is a well known Scripture that speaks directly to the anxious person. This was one of the first passages I memorised, as I could not get past the opening phrase ’Do not be anxious about anything’ (NIV). The Holy Spirit was very purposeful in using these words. If He is saying ‘Do not be anxious’ then it must be possible with the Lord’s help to not be anxious at any time.
In verse 6 Paul encourages us to bring our petitions and prayers to the Lord with thanksgiving and this is another powerful key to overcoming anxiety. In the moments as anxiety rose I found that if I purposefully began to thank God verbally for who He is, and what He has done, my mind was lifted off of myself and positioned before Him. In that space anxiety can not speak! So good!
Verse 7 shows what happens when we pray with thanksgiving. The peace of God….will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The Greek word used here for ‘guard’ means ‘to block the enemy from attack’. In those moments the peace of God stands between us and the attack of anxiety!
The Word of God is all powerful and precious. As Pastor Wes has been encouraging us recently, it is wise and prudent for us to appropriate it in our lives more and more, especially now. I could share a lot more on how the Word has transformed my life, but I’ll leave it there for now. Memorise it, speak it out as part of daily conversation. Let the Word renew your mind and watch it transform your life.
Diet, exercise and a hobby
In my experience I have found that there are certain foods that made me more susceptible to anxiety. Sugar, carbohydrate heavy foods and caffeinated drinks seemed to exacerbate episodes of anxiety. During the early months after my burnout I would find that large releases of sugar into the body would cause stress to rise and anxiety would result because I was not able to burn the stress off. Even after recovering from burnout I found that sugar loaded foods seemed to highten episodes of anxiety. Cutting back and substituting with more protein proved beneficial.
Exercise was difficult early on, but now I find it invaluable in maintaining manageable levels of stress. My go to exercise is either cycling or swimming, and in my experience, it doesn’t have to be high intensity. In fact, since I am now in my 50s, I have found it better to dial back the intensity and extend the duration. It is being active that is the key. Even a gentle walk in the sun helps.
There are some useful mineral and vitamin supplements that I have found helpful over the years. B vitamins are good for managing anxiety levels and magnesium is great for helping relax muscles and minds. There is an amazing herb called Withania (Indian ginseng) that supports the brain during times of stress and fatigue which I have used and still do from time to time. I offer these only as suggestions, since I found these helpful in supplying nutrients that help minimise anxiety. Please research these and others for yourself.
Having a hobby – something that is just for you, that you enjoy, is helpful in managing anxiety. I was encouraged to try one as part of my recovery from burnout, but found it also helped to overcome anxiety. The hobby is not something that has to be finished by a certain time. It is something that can be picked up and put down and enjoyed in the moment (that’s the key here). Staying in the moment and enjoying the process is a big key to overcoming anxiety. Here is the hobby I enjoy. Taking a bunch of plastic parts, painting them and creating a race car. These can take months to finish but I learnt to enjoy the journey and not focus on the destination.
The final word
Thank you for staying with me through my story. The final word, though, goes to my loving and amazing Heavenly Father. On October 28th 2018 at the evening service at Living Waters there was a word of knowledge given regarding someone with tension in the chest and breathing problems and that God was going to heal that person. That night I was playing bass in the worship team and immediately thought of my daughter who was in the congregation. After the service I approached the person who gave the word and asked if they would mind praying for my daughter. As we were walking down to where she was sitting, I turned to the person and said ‘Actually, can you pray for me as well?’ They came right up to me and said ‘In the name of Jesus I break the generational curse of anxiety off his life’ and I hit the deck.
Lying on the carpet I felt like I was in a bath of warm oil and the peace in that moment was intense. Five days after this Joy and I were preparing to fly to Sydney for a holiday with our son and I realised that the normal anxiety I had previously experienced before a trip wasn’t there! In fact, while we were in Australia I kept wondering when the anxiety would start and I felt the Lord say early one morning ‘This is your new normal’ And it still is! He is so gracious and merciful and I am still in awe of what he has done.
It is my passion to see people set free from anxiety and released into the fullness and freedom of life that God has prepared, and I believe it is time for anxiety to be banished from the family of God.
If you are one who is currently struggling with this unruly tenant then I hope you have found some hope in this story. It can be evicted from your life! It does not define you! The Lord has a strategy of freedom for your situation! Ask Him to reveal it to you.