From the November/December 2019 issue of Discern Magazine

Surviving This Age of Anxiety

The term age of anxiety has been around for decades. Why are we still plagued by this seemingly unending problem? Is anxiety getting worse? Is there a solution? The Bible says there is!

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During the trying years of World War II, W.H. Auden wrote The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue. This poem seems to be the first recorded use of the term age of anxiety. However, since the poem’s release in 1947, this phrase has been applied to eras spanning from the late 1800s until today.

So, why are so many experiencing life-altering anxiety today?

To answer this question, we need to understand anxiety—to really dig into its causes and effects.

Anxiety in this era

If anxiety isn’t a problem for you, this might seem like a trivial topic that can be dismissed by quoting the apostle Paul: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

There we have it! Problem solved.

Except those who struggle with anxiety know that the solution isn’t quite as fast or simple as that might sound.

To be clear, this isn’t an article approaching anxiety from a clinical standpoint, nor is it a guide for diagnosing anxiety. What this article offers is firsthand experience in recognizing, accepting and working on overcoming anxiety from a biblical standpoint.

In our lives today, just as for people in previous generations, there can be many triggers for anxiety, some more common than others.

Here are three of the most common triggers in this age of anxiety:

1. Loss of control

Your heart pounds and your hands get clammy when you find yourself in the middle of a large crowd. You get nervous, even dizzy, in public places, unsure of what’s happening around you. You need to be at the front of the pack when driving so you aren’t boxed in.

This is what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other loss-of-control stresses can feel like.

Police officers, fire fighters and military personnel who have experienced combat are all susceptible to this type of anxiety, as are people in other high-stress, life-threatening professions. The need to be in control of their surroundings or current situation can bring on severe anxiety when that control is lost. And that need can remain even after the person moves on to other professions.

Having personally experienced this type of anxiety—having been the person who became nervous in crowds, who had to know what was around him at all times, who couldn’t drive behind anyone, ever—I know it takes more than just saying “don’t be anxious” to not be anxious.

So, how can we lessen this need for control and reduce anxiety?

The book of Psalms holds many passages of encouragement for those who struggle with the anxiety of loss of control. King David reminds us that God is our fortress, our deliverer and our shield, the One in whom we can take cover (Psalm 144:2). He also makes the point that we can release our fear because God is the stronghold of our life (Psalm 27:1).

The book of Psalms goes further than just telling us not to be anxious about loss of control; it explains why we can let go.

By strengthening our reliance upon God through prayer, Bible study, meditation and adhering to His instructions, we can learn to put our confidence in Him.

Accepting that God is in control can help us to gain a sense of peace. And in doing so, we can more easily release our need for control—and thereby release the anxiety that comes from a loss of control.Accepting that God is in control can help us to gain a sense of peace. And in doing so, we can more easily release our need for control—and thereby release the anxiety that comes from a loss of control.

2. Lack of self-esteem

Your mouth gets dry. Your head lowers. Your palms get sweaty. Butterflies well up inside you. You feel yourself blushing. Should you cry? Should you scream? Should you run away in terror? What’s the proper response to the coworker who asks you a question in front of three other people?

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

This is the anxiety that comes from a lack of self-esteem, also known as social anxiety disorder. This type of anxiety may describe you perfectly, but you may not know it as a sign of low self-esteem.

Or maybe you do.

Maybe this type of anxiety comes upon you because you feel like you have nothing to contribute—like you’re not smart enough, or funny enough, or attractive enough, or wealthy enough, or some other stereotype enough to be counted worthy of being included.

A 2006 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy determined that socially anxious people were less likely to associate positive words with themselves.

Our self-esteem can take a beating in today’s society. In the age of social media, people have found a way to be extremely judgmental. It has become easy for people to hide behind their screens while belittling, mocking and bullying others.

For those who struggle with this anxiety, slipping further into the abyss may be easier in this social media-driven age where we’re critically judged by every photo we post, word we type or thing we “like.” It’s also important to remember that physical, emotional and sexual abuse can be major contributors to low self-esteem.

As society turns away from God and the Bible, it’s easy to see how people can forget why and by whom they were created, and thereby lose their sense of worth. In overcoming this lack of self-esteem, it’s critical to understand what our Creator thinks of us.

We are created by our Father in heaven to become His children!

Think about that for a moment.

Before the foundation of the world, God planned for us to become His sons and daughters (see Ephesians 1:3-6). He wants us to be in His family—to share His love and nature. Not only does God want us to become His children, He paid the ultimate price to make that possible. Our Father, our mighty, loving Creator, was willing to give His Son, and Jesus allowed Himself to be beaten and scourged, to be crucified and die—and for whom?

For you.

For me.

For us.

It’s not about being funny enough. Or smart enough. Or attractive enough. Or wealthy enough. Those things don’t matter. What matters is that we’re important enough to God for Him to build a future for us.

It’s much easier to remove the anxiety of low self-esteem when we understand how meaningful we are to our Creator—and that He has a great future in store for us.

3. Stress

Stress does not discriminate. It can attack anyone. And it can hit us in many different ways.

“I can’t find a job.”

“I hate my job!”

“Everyone tells me I should get married, but I can’t find someone to love.”

“My wife is pregnant again, and we’re not prepared.”

“My family is being persecuted for our religion.”

“I didn’t get into the college I wanted.”

“The violence in my town is out of control.”

“I’m being bullied at school, but I’m afraid to tell anyone.”

“My boyfriend broke up with me.”

“I have terminal cancer.”

“My child has terminal cancer.”

Life is stressful whether we’re wealthy or poor—whether we live in a mansion or a shack.

The anxiety from life’s stresses may sometimes sound superficial, but the impact is just as real as any other type of anxiety.

And it’s not exclusive to adults with busy lives—children are also highly susceptible to anxiety caused by stressful situations. The stress of being shuffled from home, to daycare or school, to the babysitter, back to home day after day can cause anxiety. In more extreme cases, some children go without food or suitable shelter every day. They live in poverty, in areas plagued by crime, experiencing stress-induced anxiety every day of their lives.

Children can also develop anxiety due to their parents’ actions and words. An article on KidsHealth.org warns that parents should be mindful of how they discuss issues like finances, illness, and marital and work troubles when their children are present, because children pick up on their parents’ anxieties and start to worry themselves.

So how do we overcome the anxiety of our stressful lives?

Jesus told us not to worry about the concerns of life, like what to eat or drink. But He didn’t just tell us not to be anxious—He also explained why.

The Creator of all is watching over us and is aware of our needs. If we set our mind on the things of God—the things of righteousness—while trusting God to provide what we can’t, then our physical needs can become secondary and our anxiety can subside (Matthew 6:25-34).

This doesn’t imply that our needs will go away—or suggest that we’ll never suffer want. It simply means that when we align our priorities with God’s priorities, our physical worries and stresses are put into perspective and become less important. And when we allow our focus to be on the spiritual, we can reduce the stress and anxiety that come from the physical.

Don’t try to deal with anxiety alone

Anxiety is real and is difficult to overcome.

And sometimes—despite our best efforts, despite all we do to draw closer to God—anxiety can still grip us and become a weight dragging us down into an abyss of loneliness and depression. When this happens, or even if we think this is happening—whether to ourselves or to someone we know—seeking professional help is critical.

A study on “The Relationship Between Anxiety Disorders and Suicide Attempts” in 2011 found a distinct link between anxiety and suicide, most notably in those with panic disorders and PTSD (National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions).

Believe me when I say that someone who doesn’t seek help with anxiety can be in serious danger of turning to suicide as a solution.I’ve witnessed this side of anxiety. Believe me when I say that someone who doesn’t seek help with anxiety can be in serious danger of turning to suicide as a solution.

If you or someone you know may be having suicidal thoughts or considering suicide, there are resources in place to help. In the U.S. contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For suicide hotlines in other countries, see http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

Seeking God’s help and guidance is very valuable, but God actually wants us to also reach out to others for help. The worst decision we can make is to try to overcome anxiety on our own. The Bible says that “two are better than one” and that it can be detrimental for the one “who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

It’s important to reach out to others who can support us as we overcome this very real problem. If anxiety becomes a chronic problem that hinders you from living a healthy life, it can be very helpful to seek out professional help from a qualified counselor or psychologist (see the sidebar below, “Anxiety Disorders”). Seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

Exiting the age of anxiety

How can we survive this seemingly perpetual age of anxiety?

The answer is found in believing in and relying upon the Word of God. Paul told us to “be anxious for nothing.” The rest of the Bible explains how this seemingly impossible task is possible.

When we let God take control, when we realize how important we are to Him and when we put our worries, stresses and cares upon Him—that’s when we have a chance to be anxious for nothing, and when our personal age of anxiety can end.

 

Sidebar: Anxiety Disorders

Millions of people deal with various levels of anxiety. How can you know if your anxiety needs treatment? What can you do about anxiety disorders?

By Helen Richards

Do you worry—a lot? Are you continually restless—unable to sit still for work, classes, movies and concerts? When you are trying to concentrate, does your mind go blank and leave you unable to continue? Are you tense? Do you have muscle spasms?

Do you have difficulty in keeping yourself from snapping at other people over minor things? Do you feel tired, but unable to settle down and relax? Is it hard to fall asleep, or stay asleep?

You could be suffering from anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Listed above are the symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety is an emotion we often identify as fear or worry. For most people most of the time, it is a healthy emotion to experience. It warns us of danger and aids us in escaping it.

However, when these feelings are experienced frequently and are interfering with our ability to go to work, do our jobs, function at school or relate to friends and family, it is a serious condition and needs treatment.

How many people suffer from anxiety?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Americans affected by anxiety number 40 million adults every year (19.1 percent of the population). Approximately 1 in 20 children (including teenagers) experience anxiety every year. Only about 37 percent of people with anxiety receive treatment.

Anxiety disorders are more common in women than in men (23.4 percent of women compared to 14.3 percent of men). Among adolescents, the statistics are slightly higher (31.9 percent). Again, young women are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder (38 percent) than young men (26.1 percent).

Like all illnesses, anxiety disorders can range from mild to severe. Severe cases impair a person’s ability to function in daily life—at school, at work, in relationships and other aspects of daily life.

Among U.S. adults, about 22.8 percent of anxiety sufferers have severe impairment and about 33.7 percent have moderate impairment. Among children under the age of 17, about 8 percent suffer from severe impairment. Most anxiety disorder sufferers develop the disease before the age of 21.

Where does anxiety come from?

Anxiety is caused by both environmental factors and genetic factors. One well-known illness that is caused strictly by environment is post-traumatic stress disorder. This illness used to be classified as an anxiety disorder, however, recent research has placed it in a category by itself.

Environmental factors play a role in other anxiety disorders. It is well-known that negative or extremely stressful events in childhood can lead to anxiety in adulthood.

Genetic factors include a history of anxiety disorders or other mental illnesses in family members. Other factors that lead to anxiety are shyness or other inhibited behaviors. Even physical conditions can cause anxiety, such as thyroid conditions or heart arrhythmias. The use of caffeine or other drugs can also produce anxiety.

Anxiety is manifested in the brain by the imbalance of certain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters regulate the transmission of nerve impulses from one neuron to another. Serotonin affects the emotional centers of the brain, and when there is not enough or too much serotonin in the system, those structures that govern emotions do not function as they should. The result is a host of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders.

You cannot feel the serotonin in your system, but you can feel the effects of imbalance. You may have a feeling of doom or tension in your muscles. You may have trouble sleeping. You could develop the symptoms of a panic attack: heart pounding, dizziness, light-headedness, sweaty palms. You may feel as if you are going to die. Many people go to emergency rooms believing they are having a heart attack, only to be told it’s anxiety.

What can you do about anxiety?

If you recognize yourself in this article, what can you do about it? The good news is that anxiety is treatable. Along with the advice in our article “Coping With Anxiety,” the first step in a treatment program is to go to your primary care physician and have a complete physical. Tell him or her about your symptoms. He or she may test your thyroid levels or order tests to check your heart.

If those test results come back normal, the next step is to go to a psychiatrist. This doctor is specially trained to recognize the symptoms of mental disorders and recommend treatment. If your symptoms are mild and do not interfere with your life to the point where you are not able to function effectively at home, work or school, the doctor may recommend the least intrusive treatment. And that would be counseling.

There are many types of counseling that are used to treat anxiety. What they all have in common is helping you examine your thought patterns. Part of the anxiety cycle is that when you start to get anxious feelings, you automatically develop thoughts that make those feelings worse. And you tend to ruminate on them. That is, the thoughts keep going around in your head like a hamster on a wheel. And you cannot seem to stop them.

The counselor can help you identify what your thoughts are, develop thoughts and phrases to stop them, and turn them in a different direction. The most well-known and tested type of therapy for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy. But there are other types, so you may want to search for the one that is right for you.

If your anxiety is more severe and interferes with your ability to live your life, a psychiatrist may recommend medications. In the past, the go-to medications were in a class called benzodiazepines, which act on a different neurotransmitter than serotonin. However, these medications may cause dependence, so they are not prescribed as much today.

Another class of medications is the antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). These medications work on the serotonin levels in the emotional centers to bring them into balance and have been found to be highly effective. But research shows the best treatment combines medication and counseling.

Anxiety and the Bible

The Bible has much to say about anxiety. It describes where anxiety comes from and how it can be overcome. Listed below are a couple of scriptures that describe sources of anxiety:

  • Matthew 13:22: “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word and he becomes unfruitful.”
  • Luke 21:34: “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on your unexpectedly.”

These verses describe sources of anxiety. They warn us that being too involved in the cares of this world and life can make us spiritually unfruitful and unprepared for Christ’s return.

Anxiety can be caused by external events that induce fear. This produces a physiological change in the brain.

One focus of therapy is to learn what types of thoughts or circumstances trigger your anxiety. It takes effort and practice to develop this skill. Once you do, you can develop lists of words or phrases to contradict those thoughts.

Bible verses can be helpful in this process. Reminding yourself of God’s care for you, His love and His plan for your future can be useful in contradicting thoughts of worry, doubt and fear. A list of possible verses is provided below, but you can use any scriptures you find that give you comfort.

Helpful scriptures for dealing with anxiety

  • Trust: “Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:1-5).
  • God’s provision: “Then He said to His disciples, ‘Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?” (Luke 12:22-24).
  • Assurance of God’s sovereignty: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
  • Power of prayer: “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 understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
  • Good things to think about: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
  • God’s care for us: “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Meditating on these verses and praying about them can help to lessen your anxiety. Remember, you are dealing with a physical illness of the brain. Having anxiety doesn’t mean you don’t have faith, but strengthening your faith can help you be rid of the uncomfortable, sometimes distressing, symptoms of anxiety.

For more, see these related articles and blog posts:

Helen H. Richards is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. She holds an A.B. degree from Sweet Briar College in Virginia and a master of science in counseling from Texas A&M, Commerce. She has extensive experience working in the mental health field with patients young and old.

About the Author

David Hicks

David Hicks

David Hicks is the managing editor, graphic designer and a contributing writer for Discern magazine. He’s also the managing editor and designer for booklets produced by Life, Hope & Truth, as well as One Accord—a newsletter for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in McKinney, Texas. In addition, he provides graphics and illustrations for other areas of need within the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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