The Burden of Anxiety

By Ryan O’Farrell, Psy.D.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are amongst the most common mental health problems in the Unites States, with about 1 in 5 adults experiencing an anxiety disorder during a 12-month period. But I think the problem with anxiety runs deeper than that. When we look at certain addictive activities and substances prevalent in the United States, it is striking to note how they relate to anxiety. As opioid use and dependence skyrockets in the US, I cannot help but notice that opioids calm and relax people. Marijuana, another drug that calms and relaxes people, is increasingly accepted within our culture and utilized recreationally. Speak with almost anyone in the church and they will tell you that pornography use is epidemic and once again, sex allows for a release of tension and relaxation.

Not only that, but for a country where we are generally told from a very young age we can do and achieve whatever we want and change the world, I am struck by how perpetually anxious people are regarding their future. "Will I get into the college I want? Will I graduate? Will I get a job and can I keep it? Am I doing the right job?" It seems that with each anxiety evoking milestone that passes ("I got into the college I wanted!") comes an equally powerful anxiety ridden thought right on its heels ("What if I don't do well? Will I be able to go on to get the graduate degree or job I want?"). And that list only focuses on one aspect of life, it does not even account for anxiety regarding meeting the right marriage partner, maintaining (or recovering) a happy marriage, raising children, paying the bills, and finding happiness and joy in life. 

From my perspective as a therapist, it seems like we lack the resources to deal with anxiety. This is despite the fact that access to therapeutic services and education material is constantly increasing. More and more YouTube bloggers talk about their own experiences with mental health issues, including anxiety, in the hope of helping their fellow strugglers. Colleges are frequently exploring whether this or that mental health campaign will help their students to better cope with anxiety. Therapists are constantly trying to incorporate the most up-to-date treatments for anxiety and make those widely available. Yet the apparent reality that anxiety is still rampant suggests to me we really do not know how to address anxiety.

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I think a part of the problem is that our attempts to deal with anxiety almost always occur apart from any consideration of the gospel. For example, in one very prominent treatment for anxiety, client and therapist examine how a client's thoughts and behaviors relate to the experience of anxiety. This is done under the assumption that anxiety is largely driven by unrealistic and distorted thoughts. Following this assumption, the idea in this treatment is that if you can help a person to think differently in anxiety provoking situations, you will reduce a person's anxiety.

While I do not want to dismiss the power of changing our thoughts and being "...renewed in the spirit of our minds" (Eph. 4:23, ESV) (though this gospel centered renewal of the mind is not what the treatment referred to is really shooting for), what such treatments overlook is how anxiety is related to what we long for and yearn for. In other words, we tend to feel anxious about those things we fear we cannot do without. But in order to see this, let me first provide a more in-depth description of anxiety.

At its core, anxiety is a forward looking emotion, meaning anxiety looks into an uncertain future and worries about how the future will materialize. So for example, a college student looks ahead to his upcoming finals and worries whether he will pass them all. Often this worry about getting through finals will be connected to the additional worry that if he fails his finals, he will fail out of college, which will be connected to the worry that if he fails college, he will live a miserable life where he barely scrapes by. Rarely does one think this explicitly, but when you probe below the initial anxiety regarding finals, this is not an uncommon (though there are others, including the fear of judgment and disappointment from family members over one’s performance in school). But notice how all of these fears and concerns are focused on the future and are related to a feared future where a person's hopes and dreams are not realized. This is what I mean when I say anxiety is a forward looking emotion related to what we long and hope for.

Anxiety inherently places a burden on the person, for the anxious person feels compelled to take care of his or her own anxiety. This is done in one of two ways. Either the person makes a desperate attempt to do whatever is necessary to try and secure the hoped for future or the person seeks to avoid the unrelenting anxiety through distraction and numbing out. Both strategies ultimately fail. For the one who tries to do whatever is necessary to secure a hoped for future, he or she finds that the future is inherently insecure. So for example, a man who recently fought with his wife and is anxious about the relationship may get stuck thinking of what he can say or do to repair the relationship, but is faced with the reality that no matter what he says, his wife may still not respond in the way he wants and so his anxiety continues. For the person who distracts and numbs out, the distraction works for a short period of time, but never leads the person to a fundamental freedom from anxiety. He or she feels alright until the next anxiety provoking situation rolls around the corner and the drive to distract and numb out arises again. And so the cycle of anxiety and distraction continues.

The burden from anxiety though is the result of trying to take on a role that we as creatures were never meant to take on: the role of caring for ourselves. Created by God in a world that is sustained by him, we as creatures were never meant to take on the role of securing our future. We do not worship a deistic god who created the world and stepped away, leaving us to fend for ourselves. We worship the living God who, at every moment, actively sustains his creation and is present with is people. When we seek to take the reins of control, either through seeking to secure the future or trying to numb our experience of it, we rebel against our identity as creatures dependent on God. And so when Jesus says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," (Matt. 11:28, ESV) part of what he is inviting us to do is to take off the burden of being our own creator, sustainer, and perfecter, so that we can enter into the rest that comes from dependence on Him. Jesus invites us to give him the burden of anxiety, the burden of being the masters of our own destiny, and no other treatment for anxiety takes this into account. But what it means to give our burden to Jesus needs to be spelled out much more. While this article has been about anxiety, its burden, and the ways we try to cope with that burden on our own, the next article will be about how our triune God invites us to give up the burden of being our own creator, sustainer, and preserver, so that we may live as free, dependent children of the living God.

 

Article previously published in the August 2017 edition of The Carolina Compass.