The Texas Rangers just walked the bases. It wasn’t that exciting of a baseball game. I was doing my Algebra II homework with the TV playing in the background.
I’ve never been good at math, but this particular assignment was tough. While trying to assign some numerical value to letters (a concept as a writer I will never understand: letters are for words. Numbers are for nerds. Just kidding. If it weren’t for the numbers people in my life, I’d be in jail.), my heart started palpitating.
I placed my hand on my chest and could feel each beat through the muscles under my collarbone. What was happening? Was I going to have a heart attack? I was only 14. This can’t be happening.
I didn’t realize it, but my breathing became fast and shallow. I got lightheaded. My muscles tensed. Not wanting to alarm my parents, I quickly went out the front door unnoticed. I climbed on the top of my mother’s car where there was nothing to trap me; I could simply look out into a big, west Texas sky full of stars.
But my heart kept pounding and my head kept spinning and I wondered what they’d say the next day at school about the freshman who died on top of her mom’s car last night.
My dad came out a few minutes later and asked what was wrong. I sat up on the car’s top and gave him my symptoms, interrupted by punctuation marks of tears and sobs. He put his hand on my dangling knee and told me he felt this “irrational fear” before and it would soon go away.
For a little while, anyway.
But for the last twenty years, it’s stayed. It hasn’t been just a season, though sometimes I find relief in weeks or months. Anxiety is the weakness that can either boast Christ’s strength or it can break relationships. It’s either managed or I let it run wild. I’m almost certain it’s here to stay, and with spiritual help, counseling, support from friends and Tim, and even medication, I’m usually okay. I’m functional and happy and it lays dormant in the chemicals and synapses in my mind, hushed by medication that knows when it starts getting too loud.
I went to speak about sex one time at a college. I’m fairly certain my parents are uncomfortable every time I say that, but hey, it’s one of the things I get to do with my time. Normally after that talk, I get a few girls and maybe a guy or two say how they now feel like they can talk about something they’ve wrestled with sexually.
At this one school, I learned from the Dean that most trips to the counseling center have to do with anxiety. Interesting. In my talk, I mentioned anxiety in a sentence or two, not really going off track. Afterward in the chapel lobby, multiple students came up to me – not because of their questions about sex or pornography – but because they felt so free when I talked about my anxiety.
Really? I thought. I didn’t think there was such a stigma about it anymore. I guess I’m wrong. Noted.
Two weeks later, I logged into my blog and there were two comments from someone I’ve never met, or even heard of online. A google search revealed little. I’ll save you the lengthy comment, but one thing stood out:
You are a false teacher.
Your anxiety is a sin.
My anxiety is a sin?
I get it. I’ve heard the lectures on worry as a sin, and trust me, it’s something I lean into my God for every day. And I believe that not trusting God consistently or even rejecting the desire to trust Him, yes, is sin.
But, Mr. Commenter…and those who think like him, let me clearly say to you my anxiety is not a sin.
And here’s the thing. If I speak to 800 college students and ten of them tell me they’re wrestling with true, clinical anxiety, I’m sure there are a hundred that didn’t say a word who are also living in that shaky, unescapable landscape. Statistics tell me that there are a lot of you who struggle, too.
Anxiety presents in a lot of ways: panic, physical symptoms like a rapid heart rate and shallow breathing or lightheadedness, upset stomachs, tense muscles, and insomnia. It can also have emotional and relational symptoms too: anger, isolation, and irritability.
Wondering why you get headaches all the time? It may be anxiety. Notice you’re lashing out with some built up anger at someone you love? It may be anxiety.
You may have heard the reason you have anxiety is because you’re living in some secret sin, or maybe you’ve even been told the anxiousness in and of itself is sin. The first may be true, and if it is, you know it.
But if you’re certain you’re right with God and others, your anxiety is not sin.
I’m not a doctor or a counselor, in any official sense anyway. However, I’d like to share a few things that have helped me manage my anxiety.
1. Routines: Morning and evening routines help start my day off right and help put me in the right place to sleep soundly.
2. Bible study and prayer: A constant one-sentence prayer I pray in moments of panic is “He keeps in perfect peace whose mind stays on Him.”
3. Talking about it: I have my husband and a group of friends I know I can reach out to in my “craziness” and I know they don’t see me as crazy. They pray for me and offer truth and help me refocus my thoughts.
4. Counseling: It’s expensive, but I’d rather have it than cable, a smart phone, or food at times.
5. Healthy Stuff: Eating right and exercising work wonders for anxiety. They really do.
6. Medication: Yes, I believe we are over-medicated but I also believe if you need it, you need it. It took me probably six or seven tries to get the right medication and even now, I have to adjust the dose depending on the season of life and stress I’m in. Some people need SSRIs or SNRIs and some need benzodiazepines (which is what works best for me). There are always risks, but work with a doctor and find the best balance for you.
Anxiety sucks. There’s really no other way to say it. In the church world, let’s speak freely about it and help others in their journeys by owning up to our own. And if someone says your anxiety is sin, shake your head and walk away confidently, knowing God made you in His image and that you can let your greatest weaknesses show His strength.