It was typically midway through an anxiety attack that I’d reach for my Bible, holding its translucent pages in a sweaty, white-knuckled grip.
“Why are you in despair, o my soul? And why have you become restless and disturbed within me? Hope in God and wait expectantly for Him, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.”
Psalm 42:5 (AMP)
I’d read those words repeatedly and often rush to the verse’s end, where I’d command myself to hope and wait and praise and give thanks. Praying that all those spiritual-sounding verbs might squeeze my anxiety out.
Have you ever done this, too? When you feel the anxiety rising, you gather all the prayer and trust you can muster and try to will yourself to stop feeling it?
That’s the way I learned to navigate many uncomfortable emotions in life. Fear. Grief. Anger. I had a grit-your-teeth, clench-your-fists, pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps mentality. I grew up in the church and often pleaded with God to help me conquer my battle with anxiety.
Can I outrun it? Outsmart it? Rationalize myself out of it? Intellectually take a whack at it? Can I employ enough spiritual grit to obliterate it out of my body? I’ve willed myself in and through a lot of hard things. But not anxiety.
I hate the sickening nausea and clammy palms. That rush of anxious adrenaline and underlying sense of feeling afraid of nothing in particular. It’s made me feel deeply inadequate. Not enough on the soul level. Doesn’t Scripture say to cast your anxiety on God (1 Peter 5:7) and to not be anxious about anything (Philippians 4:6)? In other words…
I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO FEEL THIS WAY.
For years, I’ve tried to hack off my anxiety. I’ve fought it like I’m fighting an interior world war. And all that it’s done is left me feeling battle-worn from the inside out. Pummeled with an onslaught of over-stuffed and unexpressed emotions.
As I’ve hacked, I’ve realized that there’s tenderness underneath all my commandeering, like a crying child hiding behind my armor. I’ve been ashamed of my struggle. I’ve wanted to lock it out of my life. You can’t be a part of my story.
Because the story I’ve carried in my body has told a different story than the triumphant one I’d learned to expect and esteem in the Bible. Something must be wrong with me, I thought.
But can I tell you something that I’ve discovered?
Prayer and trust are good and holy things, integral to the Christian life. They are components of healing from anxiety, but they are certainly not the only solutions. They were never intended to be.
There’s a difference between a sacred, intentional turning towards God and slapping Christian words on wounded places. Prayer that exiles emotion and trust that strangles honesty isn’t the way out of anxiety. It simply compounds it. I know from personal experience that the longer we suppress our anxiety, the louder it screams. The louder we shout at it to go away, the louder it has to shout over us.
Anxiety is like a blinking light on the dashboard of our hearts indicating that something deeper is going on inside of us. That feeling of spiraling overwhelm is often our brain’s way of telling us that we need to pause and pay attention to what we’re actually feeling in the present moment.
When we’re anxious, we don’t need a solution. We need connection with God, and with others. While I’m commanding my anxiety left, right, up one side, and down the other, Jesus isn’t. He leans in, listens, and invites me to join him there. He invites me to listen to my anxiety, together.
Recently, I realized that in all my rushing to get to the end of that Psalm 42 passage, I never actually allowed space for my soul to answer the question: “Why are you in despair, o my soul? Why have you become restless and disquieted within me?”
Could the way towards stillness actually be giving our anxiety the space to speak? Perhaps the anxiety that wells up inside doesn’t need to be locked away and looked over but lingered in and listened to.
Here’s a simple rhythm I’ve begun to engage in during anxious moments.
- Pause and notice. Acknowledge that you’re feeling anxious and recognize where you might be experiencing it in your body. Racing mind? Breathlessness? Clenched fists?
- Attune and shift. Physically slow down. Lean into stillness. Extend compassion towards the part of you that’s currently freaking out. It’s okay. And you are going to be okay.
- Ask and reflect. Ask yourself, “What might my anxiety be trying to tell me?” Write down any underlying emotion that surfaces. Seeing it on paper often helps to create space between you and the emotion in an embodied way.
- Breathe and be. Allow yourself to just be with God in the emotion. Inhale grace, exhale honesty. His presence is not just around you, but in you. How does remembering this truth create an inner sense of not alone-ness and safety that you can carry with you?
Pausing only takes a few minutes. But as I’ve practiced showing up to God and to myself in a quieter, less hurried, and more honest way, I’ve begun to notice something beautiful:
My anxiety doesn’t have to scream so much to get my attention.