Anxiety is such a nuisance, isn’t it? Seriously - I don’t think anyone enjoys the presence of anxiety in their life. Think about how it feels - that sense of dread, the churning in your stomach, the feeling of restlessness, shaking, the thud of your heart beating faster and faster…
Anxiety is difficult, unpleasant, and particularly hard to ignore. It perhaps isn’t surprising that it is one of the most problematic emotions human beings experience. And it seems to be on the rise. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a significant problem with anxiety at some stage in their life - even more, if you look at samples from teenagers or young people. Around 13% of adults will develop a phobia at some point in their life. Meanwhile, 1/3 of women and 1 in 10 men suffer from that close cousin of anxiety: panic attacks.
Anxiety is a problem because it makes us ill - but more than that - it is a problem because it holds us back and limits us. How many of us have changed a decision or action because of anxiety? Avoided something because it makes us anxious? Not doing something we’d truly like to have had a go at because even thinking about it made us feel that sick dread of anxiety?
So - surely the question where anxiety is concerned is - how can we get rid of it? How can we become Fearless? Because surely we would be better not to have it at all?
Unfortunately, this isn’t true. People do need anxiety - without it, we cannot function and would be at considerable risk - think of the job anxiety has in your brain: to warn you of potential risk. Anxiety has a purpose - it is your brain’s way of grabbing your attention and focusing it on something that might be important. Anxiety is triggered when there is uncertainty in your future and the possibility that something bad might happen. There is always a worst-case scenario your brain is warning you MIGHT happen. It is triggered when combinations of things in your world look like they might be risky - and anxiety harnesses a complex physiological system to make sure you are set up to react if you need to. An impressive array of changes occur - from hormonal changes such as the release of adrenaline, to major organ systems as your heart beats faster and your breathing rate increases, metabolic changes such as the rise in sugar in the blood and cognitive changes as your brain becomes more sensitive to anything that might indicate risk, with your hearing suddenly acute and your attention focused.
These changes have three basic functions:
They grab your attention - we don’t generally enjoy anxiety and that is important. Its job is to stop you in your tracks and get you to attend to whatever the risk might be. Try to ignore it and it may well get stronger. It does the job well.
They set you up to react. Fight or flight - you’ve probably heard of this name for the physiological system anxiety harnesses. Within minutes you are poised to react - should you need to.
They get you thinking. Finally, your brain catches up as the cognitive, analytic part of your cortex whirrs into motion - and you can make the all-important analysis. What is really going on? What has triggered this change? Do you need to do anything or is it a false alarm?
You see anxiety functions very much like a smoke alarm. Its job isn’t to tell you there definitely IS a problem - just that there COULD be. It gets the higher-level part of your brain - the thinking bit - to check it out and decide what you need to do. So, it COULD be a fire - but all too often just like when your smoke alarm goes off it is something else - someone has burnt the toast or has the grill on. You don’t need to act or react - you just need to do the emotional equivalent of the smoke alarm dance - you know the one, where you fan at it frantically with whatever is to hand to stop it beeping!
The problem with anxiety though is that all too often we don’t instinctively react in a helpful way. When we become afraid or anxious often our instinct is just to run. WE avoid whatever it is that makes us anxious because we think that will help - and it does in the short term because once the risk is gone the anxiety dies. But somewhere in your brain, you learn that the only reason the bad outcome didn’t happen is that you avoided the risky thing. And the next time you encounter it anxiety is triggered again - and your brain remembers last time the bad outcome didn’t happen because you ran - so you do the same again. Every time you do this you subconsciously strengthen a belief in your mind that the only reason disaster is averted is because you avoid whatever it is. So - over time the anxiety doesn’t go when you encounter this trigger - it actually grows. Because everything is scary when you are running away from it. Gradually you come to believe that if you ever DIDN’T avoid it, disaster is almost guaranteed.
And of course, it isn’t. Most things we worry and become anxious about never happen. In fact, for some of us, the vast majority do not because just like smoker alarms can be a bit hypersensitive, many of us have the same issue with our anxiety. It goes off more than it needs to, and false alarms are common. But you never discover that if you run every time.
So how do we conquer anxiety? IF we can’t be fearless, can we learn to fear less? And what DOES the Bible have to say about it?
Actually, this is important - very often I hear people say that the Bible contains enough commands to ‘do not fear’ for there to be one for every day of the year (whether this is true or not depends on which translation you read but its pretty hard to find that many). This can leave us feeling that anxiety is wrong, or even sinful. But anxiety is a normal human emotion - a crucial human emotion. Even Jesus - who was without sin - experienced it. So if our reaction to anxiety is just to feel guilty all we gain is yet another difficult emotion to deal with. It does nothing to help our anxiety.
In fact, what the Bible says is very interesting. Here are two words used to talk about anxiety in the New Testament which I think hold some powerful and valuable teaching for how to manage anxiety - along with one story from the life of the disciples which is a great example of the way anxiety can hit us.
The first comes from Matthew 14:22-31. Jesus and the disciples have had a busy day and nearing the end of the day something interesting happens. Jesus seems to need some alone time, so he makes the disciples get into a boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the lake. When I say ‘makes’ I mean it too - the Greek word used here tells us he literally compels them to go. They are clearly reluctant. Here’s a good example of anxiety operating. The disciples knew the lake and they knew sailing. They would have known that in the evenings and overnight high winds could blow up, and they had a healthy respect for - or even fear of - the lake. In fact, the Greek word for water has the same root as their word for chaos.
This is worth a pause on - the disciples knew there was a risk that Jesus was sending them into chaos and it triggered anxiety. That is the problem with anxiety. Chaos certainly triggers it - tough times do - but so do many good things. In fact, anything you care about will trigger anxiety if it is also uncertain in any way. All the best things in life are fraught with anxiety because they matter so much: work, friendships, relationships, parenthood … And there’s a hint here that when we are following Jesus we may even experience more anxiety as he sends us into the unknown, to push the limits and encounter things we may not expect. Far from being a sin, maybe anxiety is the mark of following God’s call.
So what happens next is predictable - the wind blows up. Verse 24 puts it strongly - it says (in the original greek) that the boat was battered by the waves and wind, which was against them. Now I am no sailor but I do bike a lot, and cycling into the wind (somehow it is always blowing the other way?!) is physically exhausting but also emotionally draining. The account tells us that they were a long way from shore - and they must have felt done in. No wonder their anxiety peaked. It so often does when we are tired, and rescue or relief feels far away.
But note - things were not as bad as they felt. It must have felt hopeless, but it was not. Anxiety is not truth. It does not mean that the worst WILL happen - it just warns you there’s a chance it MIGHT happen. Their situation was scary - but God had them covered.
But notice when Jesus finally turned up. v25 says that it was ‘shortly before dawn’ - but some translations explain this rather better - actually what this means is that it was at the point of the night right in the middle - the darkest time. Isn’t that so often when Jesus shows up? Just when you think all hope is lost, when the night feels longest and heaviest and impenetrable. But Jesus comes.
And here is the interesting thing this story teaches us about anxiety. Because look at what Jesus says to them. Importantly, first of all, he does NOT just say ‘don’t be afraid’. First of all, he says ‘Take courage’ - literally this greek phrase means to draw from within yourself to find courage. He means - take a deep breath, YOU CAN DO THIS - be strong, remember who you are, you can beat this!! Then he tells them why they can be so sure of this - ‘It is me!’ Jesus reassures them HE IS THERE in their fear! Because that is the odd thing about fear - when it hits, it is hard to hear or see God even when He is present. The disciples are so freaked they think Jesus is a ghost (admittedly he is walking on the water which is unexpected, so we will let them off, but even so). Jesus tells them they can find courage within themselves because THEY ARE NOT ALONE.
And THEN he says ‘Don’t be afraid’ - or does he? Because the word he uses here is the Greek word PHOBOS - its the root for our word Phobia. And Phobos does have a meaning linked to fear but interestingly its meaning is more complex, and what it really means is to flee or withdraw because of fear or anxiety. So actually what Jesus is saying is ‘take courage - I am here - YOU DON’T NEED TO RUN’ Jesus is encouraging them to do something radical in response to their fear - to stop and face it instead of going on instinct and running away.
And what happens next, of course, is one of the most well-known stories of Peter’s life. He must have dined out on this afterwards. Because taking Jesus at his word Peter stands and does something amazing - he steps out himself onto the water. Facing his fear has released something in Peter - potential he never knew he had, things he would never have thought he could do. That’s what happens when we stand up to fear - because I we break free of the limitations it places on us. And in this supernatural moment, Peter walks out on the water towards Jesus.
And it all goes so well at first - Peter stands tall in the midst of chaos, in spite of his fear. Because his eyes are on Jesus. But his brain must have been screaming with fear by then, because what he was doing was crazy! Walking on water even on a calm day is an interesting move - but this was in stormy conditions! So his attention is drawn by his fear of the risks, and of course, he begins to sink under its weight. And in his panic, he cries out to Jesus to save him.
And once again Jesus doesn’t say ‘Don’t be afraid.’ He is not distant or judgmental or disapproving. He reaches out into Peter’s fear to reassure him and steady him. And he asks him - not why he fears but why he doubts - he encourages him that he can trust him. Jesus has this covered. And he brings him back to safety.
So what can we learn from this story? Maybe we, like Peter, can learn to face up to our fears, take courage and knowing God is with us step INTO anxiety instead of running FROM it?
But there’s another good tip in the new testament which this story also demonstrates - and it is from Philippians 4:7. This verse is a well-known one oft-quoted in sermons about anxiety: the NLT translation goes like this: Do not worry about anything, instead pray about everything… Then you will experience God’s peace which exceeds anything we can understand.”
This verse uses another great word for anxiety - or in this case what is usually translated as worry. It is the words MERIMNAO - which literally means to be drawn in different directions, to go to pieces because you are pulled apart by your anxiety and worry. Anxiety pulls us to pieces because it draws our attention in so many directions. Worry ties us up in knots because we never resolve our worries, and instead, they go round and round in our minds, drawing them away from the things in life that could bring joy or peace. And Philippians 4:7 gives good advice - it says don’t be pulled apart like this - instead share your worries and anxieties with God. Give them over to him. Just as Peter reaches out to Jesus, focuses his eyes on him, recognises Jesus is there with him and finds new courage from within himself to face his fears, we can do the same when we give our anxieties to God. And as we learn to do that (note it is a skill to learn, not as so many often pray, something that happens as if by magic), something amazing happens - as the verse says, we find a peace not from within our rational mind - which is a good thing because your rational mind under the influence of anxiety doesn’t work so well. So many of our worst fears are hard to challenge precisely because they are irrational! Instead, this peace comes from outside of our own understanding - from God.
So - the key to winning back ground from anxiety is not about trying to eradicate it from our life. It is about how we respond to it - how we react. To use the excellent words of Brene Brown “We’re all afraid. We just have to get to the point where we understand it doesn’t mean that we can’t also be brave.”
Read more about the practical steps to defeat anxiety in Kate’s book ‘First steps out of anxiety’. You can read the first chapter here.