Making Friends with Anxiety

“Worry is a mouse, a small scampering thing with sharp tiny feet that scuttles over our soul.” 
Joyce Landorf wrote that in 1973, in a devotional book that nurtured me when I was a mum at home with four kids. I recently shared the quote with a group of friends who, as we were praying for another, had found that most of us were dealing with some form of anxiety. Landorf’s metaphor has stuck in my mind and at times I have lent the book to others. She made a comparison with the “lion” of fear, which rages within, while the mouse of anxiety is a lesser beast but just as destructive of our inner peace. Anxiety, she said, not only produces jumpiness, distress and defensiveness, it muddles our thinking, limits creativity and robs us of hope. Quite true. But when I revisited the chapter this week I found the rest of her advice scientifically and theologically inadequate.  So I did some wider reading.

Anxiety affects us all, and it is not usually physically or mentally damaging. In most situations it is a normal reaction to a perceived threat; it can even be vital to our survival. Both fear and anxiety trigger the release of the hormone adrenaline. This causes physical and mental changes that prepare us for taking on a challenge or escaping a danger (the Fight /Flight response). Our ancestors needed this for an immediate ‘ready for action’ response, but today’s stresses are more nuanced: job loss, relationship breakdown, traffic jams, even worrying emails. These events may not be matters of ‘life and death’ but we react the same. The surge of adrenaline causes physical and mental changes. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing quickens, our stomachs tighten. Cognitive changes mean our thinking becomes temporarily more focused, (think of a surgeon) and emotional responses may be exaggerated into elation or fury (imagine seeing someone kick a puppy). These responses are normal and usually helpful; stress improves performance. But only up to a point. If the stress reaction is not switched off, it can be recycled in inappropriate anxiety, where we overestimate the danger and underestimate our ability to cope. That limits our capacity for problem solving and can lead to debilitating fears and phobias.

This post is not about those clinical diagnoses, for which professional support can be of enormous help, and I encourage any reader for whom anxiety is so crippling they no longer enjoy life to talk to their family doctor who will recommend a specialist, such as a cognitive behavioural therapist. (Go here if you need help right now.) Here I am considering the way everyday stresses can sometimes lead to ongoing worries and anxieties that are out of proportion to the context. Some of us have a genetic tendency to do this; 20% children (and dogs and cats!) are timid or inhibited from birth, and wary of new foods, new places, new people (see article by Kagan). As adults they exhibit 'amygdalar excitability' and are predisposed to guilt and self-reproach. If you often find yourself worrying, thinking about how things may go wrong, recycling thoughts about past mistakes and future disasters, avoiding situations that cause discomfort, or feeling overwhelmed, then anxiety is likely to be a bigger part of your life than it is for others.

Psychologists say that naming a fear is the first step to taming it. Clinical psychologist Michael Yapko has studied anxiety for thirty years and suggests there are three main fears behind the experience:
1. Fear of making a mistake - perfectionist tendency
2. Fear of rejection– paranoid tendency 
3. Fear of relaxing– hypervigilance tendency

  • Reflecting on this list might help you name the main source of your anxiety - then you can notice when and why it turns up, and seek out ways to manage it. New Zealander David Riddell’s typology Trace,Face, Replace is the same idea. Owning feelings but not letting them drive us enables us to move ahead. Courage is not the absence of fears but the capacity to think and act despite them, because something else is more important.  Journalling is a helpful way to do this self-reflection; so is mindfulness, where we calmly acknowledge the feeling without judgment. For example, saying to yourself, “Hello anxiety, its not surprising you are here because one time a dog that looked just like that dog bit me.” That helps us see that there are other perspectives, an exercise called cognitive restructuring. Relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and physical activity can also dissipate the adrenaline surge. During fight-or-flight scenarios, the hormones triggered are metabolised as the body deals with the physically-demanding situation. When the danger is over, the body begins to return to its normal state. However, with panic or fear rooted in emotions rather than physical peril, physical activity or exercise can help metabolise remaining hormones and decrease lingering feelings of anxiety. We use the energy from the stress to help rather than harm us. Applying the beneficial effects - heightened awareness, mental acuity and the ability to tolerate pain - to our emotional environment, means we can deal more productively with fears, thoughts and potential dangers.

    "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind… ” Romans 12:2. Spiritual practices based on prayer and Scripture can help with allowing God to bring that renewal - cognitive reframing - that can help us deal with excessive anxiety.  Joyce Landorf’s mouse metaphor has allowed me to properly appraise the size of my fears – at times I have imagined casting a net over them, or shooing them back into their hole and stuffing it closed. I have found  truth coaches help me make friends with an unbearable feeling of anxiety. Affirmations or insights like “this feeling is just an echo from the past”. Or “My mind is back using its favourite recipe”. Another metaphor is to sweep the anxieties, like dust, into the corner fo your mind, and use Scripture truths to sweep them up. Phil 4: 8 - “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise”-  is a good fit. So is Harry Blamire’s phrase from his book The Christian Mind: “There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly or even evil, which cannot be thought of Christianly.”

    Another helpful approach is to share our feelings with someone less anxious. John Ortberg has a saying – “never worry alone”.  Just telling each other, in that meeting I described at the start, helped tame the anxiety; I realised that someone else in the room also mentally-processed challenging emails in the middle of the night. We agreed that instead of spiralling through worst case scenarios, it can be helpful to pick up a pen (or an iPad) and make notes of some action steps to take. However, we should be wary of accidentally handing our welfare over to someone else, by getting caught up in their personal “tornado of emotions” To get caught up in that swirl will leave us off-balance and confused. We need to be able to identify the swirl around someone’s particular situation or conversation and step back from it, putting a healthy boundary around our own emotions and thinking more calmly.

    For leaders: In his chapter on anxiety, Ortberg reminds us that interim ministers in church transitions, and pastoral leaders managing other changes are often advised to act as a ‘non-anxious presence’, a sort of parent who reassures the children that they are in safe hands. The non-anxious presence responds (exercises thoughtfulness), instead of reacting (not thinking about anything); that is, response, not reaction, informs and shapes our behaviour (Steinke). This purposeful responsiveness rather than emotional reactivity settles the system down. To be a non-anxious presence means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be in the driving seat. The non-anxious leader sees anxiety is there. but chooses not to let emotion take over from thinking. They can then bring more creative approaches in face of the members' tunnel vision.  Of course there are strict limitations to this paradigm – no leader can ever be totally non-anxious - and I notice that recently the term has changed to a ‘less-anxious’ presence. The only non-anxious presence we can truly rely on is the Holy Spirit who reminds us that no earthly situation can take us out of God’s care. “Where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” 2 Cor 3: 17.

    The Church has often taken as its symbol a ship in full sail on the sea, no doubt from the story of Jesus and the disciples in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. While the disciples are in full panic mode, Jesus is asleep in the stern.  “Do you not care that we are perishing?” the disciples scream. Jesus stands up and calms the sea. He can do that still. 

    To Think About: How can I be a less-anxious presence for myself and others?