Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Anxiety and the Battle for the Mind

This morning, we welcome Diane Bucknell, who blogs at Theology For Girls, to Out of the Ordinary.  Anxiety and depression are issues that affect many women, and the issues can be difficult if one is a Christian.  I asked Diane to share her insights with us.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you,
 because he trusts in you. Jeremiah 26:3

As I was preparing this I typed “anxiety” into the book search bar at Amazon and pulled up 13,865 results, so we’re obviously talking about a very common problem!

First, I’m one who firmly believes that some forms of anxiety have a biological origin, therefore we’ll be considering two different subjects; namely  ordinary anxiety or worry as spoken of in Scripture, and anxiety that has a biological cause.   These two anxiety states can easily feed on each other, and trying to separate them can be a bit like a surgeon separating conjoined twins. So, let’s take a brief look at each one.

Ordinary Anxiety or Worry

This is defined as worry, fear, fretting, and allowing our thoughts to run wild with the cares of the world. It’s the kind of anxiety that keeps us lying awake at night ruminating on all the “what ifs?” of our situation. This is the anxiety our lovely Lord Jesus exhorts us not to do because He orders all of the events in our lives and cares for us as a loving Father. When we worry and fret we fail to trust in Him and we think somehow if we worry enough about the situation we can come up with a solution. The Lord knows how prone we are to prideful unbelief so He gently encourages us:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? Matthew 6:25-27

Diagnosing this kind of anxiety is not rocket science and it doesn't take a doctor, psychiatrist, or prolonged Biblical counseling sessions to deal with it because the cause is obvious.  We worry about money, our health, family, relationships, and this or that.  In other words, we can easily put our finger right on the problem. This kind of worry can become so excessive that it can even lead to panic attacks.

A plethora of books are available on the subject, but we have in our possession something so much better to combat our worries and fears! We have the living and active Word of God which is the only Counseling Book containing supernatural ability to change our thinking habits as we apply it through the power of the Holy Spirit!

"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart "~ Hebrews 4:12

One of the problems with psychology that can also happen in Biblical counseling is that people often run to the professionals before they flee to Christ and His Word, hoping the counselor might be able to gaze into their soul, figure them out, and then perform the corrective surgery. Now, please don’t misunderstand me because I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek Biblical counsel, because God has richly blessed the church with people who are gifted to help others in this way. But we must realize that we already have a “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6) who says “I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Ps 32:8.). Our heart is so utterly deceived by our own sin that no one can truly understand it but the Lord. At the end of the day, (or session) it will only be Christ who can fix our broken minds and hearts and deliver us from our angst.

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind" ~ Jeremiah 17:9

Biologically Based Anxiety

This kind of anxiety can hit us like a ton of bricks coming virtually out of nowhere, even in our sleep! It can strike when things are going well for us spiritually and we’re prayed up, confessed up, Scriptured up,and trying our best to walk with Christ. In spite of this we can become sidelined with relentless panic attacks, anxiety that won’t let up over time and sometimes dark depression. Like David we cry out to the Lord “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my anxious thoughts!” (Ps.139:23 ) and still we come up empty handed and miserable. Friends, if this were the kind of anxiety that resulted from sinful unbelief and worry; we would know it because our God does not play hide-and-go-seek games with us concerning our sin when we desire holiness!

It is believed that most people will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime but this is something way beyond the norm. This type of anxiety interferes with a person’s life and well being and can even become disabling. If you find yourself in this place you need not condemn yourself, or ALLOW others make you feel that you’re a spiritual failure, rather you should consider making an appointment with our doctor.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association, although controversial among Christians, establishes specific criteria for coding and determining whether a mental disorder is due to a general medical condition or a psychiatric one:
'There is evidence from the history, physical examination, or laboratory findingsthat the disturbance is the direct physiological consequence of a general medical condition’ (1) When a mental disorder is due to a general medical condition, one does not diagnose the primary psychiatric disorder with the same symptom, but rather codes the symptom secondary to the general medical condition. Thus,with anxiety one would not code 300.02, generalized anxiety disorder, but rather 293.89, anxiety disorder due to a general medical condition.(2)
Anxieties triggered by medical conditions are well documented by the National Institutes of Health and all major teaching institutions. Some of the most common causes of anxiety (and depression) are endocrine disorders, autoimmune diseases such as hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s), hyperthyroidism (Graves Disease), heart and lung conditions, gastrointestinal problems and other illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Fibromyalgia. Additionally, chronic long term stress, such as being the caregiver for a sick loved one can also upset our chemistry. And then there are those pesky hormonal fluctuations that can trigger panic attacks and depression in women going through peri-and menopause.

If you and your doctor decide medication would be best for you, please understand that it is no more sinful or shameful to take medication for anxiety than it is to take it for diabetes or high blood pressure!

And in the case of hormone or thyroid imbalances, it’s often just a matter of getting those things leveled out with hormone replacement medication. Most of us are already aware that drugs can be doled out too freely, but we’re not talking about that issue here. More often than not medication will only be needed temporarily unless there is a chronic illness.

The believer who desires to live abundantly in Christ will find the struggle with biologically based anxiety to be a very real and serious affliction which can be compounded by the fact that our minds are always engaged with our bodies. In other words, we can easily slip into a perpetual pattern of sinful worry and obsession during medically induced anxiety and panic episodes. This can become a vicious cycle that we must strive to break free from, but nothing is too difficult to sort out for the Lord who made us!

We can benefit greatly from simple things like breathing and relaxation techniques, mentally holding up a big red “Stop Sign” when we feel ourselves slipping into panic mode, and taking a warm bath with a cup of hot tea. Above all we need to pray and use our Bibles to talk to ourselves. Self-talk is very therapeutic! Here’s an example of how the Psalmist did this:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God." Psalm 43:5

Regardless of the source of our anxiety it would serve us well to write down comforting Scriptures and meditate on them daily. Post them by your bed or on your fridge. Remind yourself of all the wonderful promises of God. He knows our frame because He created us and we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” – even with our imperfections.

Casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. I Peter 5:7

(1) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition, Washington DC, American Psychiatric Press, 1994, 7
(2)  "Anxiety and Endocrine Disease" by Dr. Richard C Hall: University of Florida, Gainesville

Suggested Resources:

The Peace that Passes Understanding, by Ed Welch
Christians Get Depressed Tooby Dr. David Murray
The Anxiety Cure, by Dr. Archibald Hart
TableTalk Magazine, Anxiety, January 2010
Medical Conditions That Cause Anxiety



  1. Thanks for posting today, Diane.

    I heartily agree with your suggestion of meditating on the scriptures. During a particularly trying time, I had verses and quotes from Spurgeon on the bathroom mirror and on the windowsill over the kitchen sink. I needed to fill my mind with the truth of who God is to combat the downward spiral of sinful worry.

    1. Thanks Persis - Soli Deo Gloria

  2. So, so good. Clear, biblical, helpful common sense.

  3. Diane, thank you for sharing on this all important topic. So many Christians overlook or avoid it for a myriad of reasons. The bottom line is that as long as we live in a fallen world, anxiety will be with us. I really appreciate you going out of the way to say that taking medication is "no more sinful or shameful ... than it is to take it for diabetes or high blood pressure!" Well said and ever so true. Way too many Christians endure unnecessary guilt and condemnation for such practical decisions. Thank you for your hard work and sharing your good common sense!

  4. My wife's bout with clinical anxiety began in 1998, shortly after her mother's death. "Like a ton of bricks" definitely goes to describe it. A few observations:

    1. It is truly a crushing condition--for both of us.
    2. We tried everything: therapists and psychiatrists, massage and chiropractors, no end of doctors. Nothing really worked.
    3. The problem with medications in treating anxiety is that they are yet one more thing to be anxious about. The worry about side effects offset any potential benefit.
    4. The church as a whole really know how to respond. We got lots of helpful advice (please don't ask if we've prayed about it--what do YOU think?). However, there were some who responded beautifully.
    5. In the end, we simply needed to go THROUGH it. We prayed for the cup to be taken from us, but instead God gave us the strength to drink it.

    I'm happy to report that my wife recovered, though the journey was pretty intense for a couple of years.

    I can certainly now confess that, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12:11)