My name is Mark Lutz, and I'm the growth and healing pastor and director of Life Reset ministries at the Vineyard. Anxiety is anticipatory fear of something imminent in the present or something out in our future.
Problem 1: (Anxiety video part 1)
Demanding the impossible of myself.
You might use subconscious self-talk like...
“You must. I can’t. You have to. It’s impossible. Do it anyway. It can’t be done. And yet you must do it!”
My insistence that I do the impossible creates a tension within me that cannot be alleviated as long as the demand persists. It only builds, in increasing measure, to intolerable levels, sometimes causing panic attacks and emotional break-downs.
- I must get all people to like me, to approve of me, to validate me and give me worth & identity.
- I must always succeed. I must never fail. (I might not try to do much, I won’t admit failure)
- I must know the future.
- I must be in control of my world, of the world.
- I cannot have or show need or weakness.
- I cannot survive any more pain so I must avoid pain at all costs. (hard to do in a broken world)
- I must expend limitless time and energy to avoid disappointing anyone; bosses, family, friends, church community. (I don’t have limitless, I have limited)
I said that anxiety is anticipatory fear. In this case, it is anticipatory fear of some unstated consequence. To discover the feared consequence we have to declare the missing second half: Or What?
- I must get all people to like me, to approve of me, to validate me and give me worth & identity or I will be a nobody with no worth.
- I must always succeed. I must never fail or I will be looked down on, disrespected.
- I must know the future to prevent catastrophe.
- I must be in control of my world, of the world to hold off chaos.
- I cannot have or show need, weakness or I will be exploited, taken advantage of.
- I cannot survive any more pain, I must avoid it at all costs or I will be destroyed.
- I must expend limitless time and energy to avoid disappointing anyone; bosses, family, church community or I will be passed over, rejected, fired.
I must expend limitless time and energy to avoid disappointing anyone; bosses, family, church community or I will be passed over, rejected, fired AND that will be awful, horrible, unbearable!
One clue to when we are awfulizing is if we hear this in our self-talk, “What if…”
- “What if” is followed by whatever consequence from not doing the impossible we are afraid of in that moment. “What if - people don’t like me?”
- “What if - I fail?”
- “What if - someone sees my weakness?”
- “What if - I disappoint my pastor?”
The usual, implied answer is, “That would be awful, horrible, unsurvivable.”
We often choose one of these unreasonable demands of ourselves because of previous life experiences where one of these things happened to us and we experienced great pain. If we were very young, then our memory is of a BIG pain that felt like it might destroy us. We fear experiencing so great a pain once more.
So we make a vow that we will never let that happen again. Nevermind that we can’t guarantee such things. We insist and demand the impossible of ourselves in order to fulfill our inner vows to ourselves. And that creates anxiety.
- Let God be in charge of the impossible. Tell myself the truth.
- God approves of me, gives me worth, sets my identity. His judgment is superior to man’s.
- I humble myself and admit my imperfection. I trust God to remedy my failures.
- I cannot know the future. I can know the one who does. I can decide that that’s sufficient.
- I am in control of almost nothing. I am guarded by the one who controls everything.
- When I have the courage to share my vulnerability, I have the chance of getting my needs met.
- I can survive pain and while that would be unpleasant, it won’t be AWFUL, in fact, I may be stronger, wiser, closer to God as a result of going through it.
- I can work within my limits of time and energy, within priorities that I set, consistent with God’s values. And I can trust God for my promotion, for my success.
We have a saying, “Insight alone does not produce change.” We can recognize a truth and still not live out of it. We have to work it into our mind and into our heart.
A good tool for that is meditation: dwelling on, mulling over, concentrating on a thought or idea.
Meditations for renewing the mind:
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.
Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Peter 5:5-7"God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
I had a specific issue locking in my anxiety. I had the belief that I’m too inconsequential for God to notice and keep track of me. I can’t expect his personal involvement in my life. So I had to find a scripture that speaks to that specific lie.
Psalm 139 You have searched me oh God and you know me….How awesome concerning me are your thoughts oh Lord. How vast...
You may need to find a specific verse of Scripture that speaks to the lie you’ve been believing. If you’re not sure where to begin looking for one, you might call a pastor. We pastors are supposed to be pretty good at doing that. In fact, pastors love to help people with things like that.
Problem 2: (Anxiety video part 2)
Worry is the act of mentally rehearsing Satan’s victory, believing Satan’s narrative. (Satan is the name for the devil, man's enemy in the Bible)
Satan frequently offers his services as a consultant. He’s generous with giving his take on any given situation. He is confident in his predictions. He always has a story to tell. It’s never a happy story. Anxiety takes root and grows when we start buying into Satan’s interpretations and predictions. Sometimes it’s like he’s lulling us into a trance.
Satan [your fear] says: You’re small and weak. I am big and dangerous. I will bring pain to your life and you can’t do anything about it.”
Me: “Yes, I’m small and weak compared to you. I can’t do anything about it.”
Satan [your fear]: “When people discover the real you, you will be rejected, abandoned. You are all alone.”
Me: “Yes, I am all alone.”
Satan [your fear]: “Destruction is just around the corner but you’ll never see it coming.”
Me: “Yes, I will be caught off guard by the destruction that is definitely coming.”
Satan [your fear]: “The catastrophe you fear most is the one that’s going to happen to you.”
Me: “Yes, It’s just a matter of time until ______ happens.”
Then we fill in the blanks with our greatest fear: I’ll lose my job, lose my house, lose my important relationships, be humiliated, be rejected, experience never-ending sorrow and pain.
More awful-izing: At the end of whatever story we’re mentally rehearsing we add “...and it will be awful, horrible, unsurvivable.”
Can you feel the anxiety waiting to take root in these stories?
Faith is mentally rehearsing God’s victory. Embracing God’s truth.
Satan’s trick is to try to get us to predict exactly what God will do in a given situation, knowing full well what God has said:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9
We guess what God will do. We guess wrong and conclude that God failed us and does not have our back. However, if we remember that Scripture also says:
"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory..." Ephesians 3: 20-21
We instead might tell ourselves something like:
"I expect God to do something as good as I can imagine or even better. But in any case, It’s very likely that God wants to do something here."
Let me tell you a story about my wife Elizabeth’s cancer treatment [watch video].
Meditations for renewing the mind:
God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5
“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” John 5:17
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 1 John 3:8
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:1-2
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
We are hard pressed on every side but not crushed. We are perplexed but not in despair. We are persecuted but not abandoned. We are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18
Problem 3: (Anxiety video part 3)
The mind - body connection
Whatever our mind accepts as real, our body will experience matching effects. It’s not, whatever is true our body will respond to, it’s whatever our mind accepts, true or not, will have consequence in our body.
Anxiety alters feedback loops.
Our bodies are designed to get us through stressful things. When our body, through the five senses, tells our brain that we are facing danger, our brain sends out neuro-chemicals to our pituitary and adrenal glands which release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that act upon our body to prepare us to address the danger, to rev us up for either fight or flight.
When the danger passes, our brain turns off the flow of stress hormones and the body returns to normal functioning. When we embrace and feed anxiety we bypass the five senses to give our brain the message that we are still under a constant threat. The brain continues to trigger stress hormones for an extended period of time. Our entire bodily system can go into a state of exhaustion from being on constant alert. This puts stress on the heart, the digestive system, the immune system.
While anxiety can set off some of the neurological/physiological systems like a runaway train, the body also has an emergency braking system. It’s known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The parasympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system and has influence over the organs in the torso. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. It basically undoes the work of the sympathetic system after a stressful situation.
The parasympathetic nervous system decreases respiration and heart rate and increases digestion resulting in a condition we would say is calm.
The parasympathetic nervous system can be engaged by certain behaviors to reduce anxiety. These behaviors are often referred to as relaxation techniques. Here are a few that are relatively easy to do.
- Deep breathing: Take a long deep breath in through your nose. Hold for a count of 2 seconds. Then slowly exhale out through your mouth. As you are exhaling, in your mind say the word “peace.” Say it slowly to match your exhaling. Repeat 5-6 times.
- Progressive relaxation: Tighten your facial muscles and hold for 5 seconds, then relax for 5 seconds. Think about the muscles as you are working them. Do this 3 times. Then do the same for your shoulder muscles. Tighten and hold for 5 seconds then relax for 5 seconds, thinking about the muscles as they’re working. Then move to your arms and hands. Tighten your arm muscles and cliche fists and release 3 times. Next move to your abdominal muscles. Then work your upper leg muscles. Move on down to your calves. End with curling your toes and relaxing them.
- Visualization: Close your eyes. Picture a favorite place in nature that you enjoy and find relaxing. It could be a beach, a field or woods, or up on a mountain. It helps if it’s a place where you’ve actually been. Draw to mind the smells in this place, the sounds. Once you’ve gotten your place well in mind, ask Jesus to come join you in your place. See him in the distance coming towards you. Watch as he gets closer. When he gets to you watch him sit down near to you. Listen to see if he has something to say to you or if he’s content to be quietly with you. Stay in that place as long as you’re able. When you begin doing visualization you might only be able to be in that space for a couple of moments. With practice, it may be possible to be in that place for longer and longer times. If Jesus does tell you something be sure to write it down. You might also write down what you think and how you feel in response to what he had to say.
You may find that one technique works better for you than another. Usually, you will get more proficient with practice. These three you could do just about anywhere. You may also find that you get a stronger response from one that requires you to go to another place, like an actual walk in nature or sitting somewhere listening to soothing music, petting a dog or a cat (or a bunny, goat, llama, or animal of your choosing).
Relaxation techniques typically are not a cure in themselves. But often they return to us the use of our mind to be able to do the work we previously talked about—meditating on God’s truth and mentally rehearsing God’s victory.
Conclusion: choosing bravery
I have found it helpful to remember that anxiety is anticipatory fear for this reason. When I think about anxiety and in my self-talk about anxiety, I don’t like it, I don’t want it, but it doesn’t seem like it’s an option. Anxiety just comes upon me like some overwhelming, irresistible force. I am a victim of anxiety.
But when I think about fear, I have different self-talk. I can say to myself things like, “I’m not going to live in fear. I’m not going to be ruled by fear. I’m going to be bold and courageous.”
When I tell myself those things I understand that to mean that I won’t always be able to avoid feeling afraid. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is feeling afraid and doing what’s needed anyway. Courage is committing to doing what’s life-giving even in the threat of death.
One of my favorite movies is Hacksaw Ridge based on the book Hacksaw Ridge, the True story of Desmond Doss.
Desmond was a man of God and a conscientious objector. He enlisted in the army in WWII and refused to carry a weapon. He entered the military for the express purpose of being a medic. The movie depicts the abuse he took from his fellow soldiers throughout boot camp and training and into the time his company entered into combat at Okinawa in April of 1945.
In one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific, Desmond Doss saved 75 men in a 12-hour period while enemy soldiers continued their attempts to kill every American they could find.
I am overcome with emotion when I see that kind of courage. Seeing bravery like that makes me want to be brave. There are lots of inspiring movies about courage overcoming fear: Braveheart, the Patriot, We Were Soldiers, Miracle on the Hudson.
I know of no great inspirational movies about overcoming an Anxiety Disorder. Until you recognize that anxiety is a type of fear. Then all of those inspiring stories can fuel our determination to make brave, life-giving decisions even in the face of anticipatory fear. All those stories urge us to be disciplined in the practices that nurture courage like telling ourselves the whole truth and remembering that God is our ally.
The solutions to the three problems of anxiety are not complex, but that doesn’t make them easy. Attempting them alone can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for some of us. What makes the solutions more attainable is striving for them in a community.
Bravery is contagious. If you really want to make progress breaking through anxiety, be part of a small group. If you can find an anxiety-support group, that’s ideal. If you can’t, be a part of a life-group or discipleship group where you can give updates and get support with your battle.
Clearly, anxiety is not part of the abundant life Jesus came to bring us. God has given us the light of his truth, the assistance of his Holy Spirit, and the encouragement of his church. In light of all of this, I say, let us dare to be bold and courageous.