Katie is a mother of two beautiful children, happily married, and with an enjoyable career. Her life seemed perfect. However, if you were to ask Katie, she would tell you she’s anxious. She doesn’t know when exactly the anxiety started. She remembers being an anxious child.
Sometimes her anxiety gets the best of her, and she begins to worry aloud in front of her husband Kevin. He tries to listen sympathetically but often feels overwhelmed by the barrage of anxiety coming from Katie.
Katie has tried a lot of different things for her anxiety, including medication, mindfulness training, prayer, and reading her Bible. She has even tried counseling. The Five Steps, the Seven Things, and the Eight Rules are methods Katie learned to use to manage her anxiety.
It helped for a little while – everything helps for a little bit – yet with time, anxiety eventually returned. Katie was often told that her anxiety is a lack of faith. After all, if she really believed in God, she wouldn’t ever worry about anything.
Is my anxiety a lack of faith?
If I had a dime for every time I heard that question I would be rich. Let’s explore this together and find out what anxiety actually is and if it is a lack of faith.
What anxiety is.
Some people might say it’s that feeling in your stomach. Others might say it’s that feeling of dread that I just wake up with every morning. Someone might say I don’t know what it is, I just know I’m anxious.
Through breaking down the components of anxiety I hope that you will no longer suffer from overwhelming feelings, or intrusive thoughts that you can’t control. Instead, you will see anxiety as the paper dragon that it is. It might look big and scary, but it’s just an illusion.
Two types of anxiety.
Did you know that there are two types of anxiety? One is fixed and referred to as a phobia. This anxiety is focused on an object like a spider or snake and doesn’t jump around to other objects easily. The second type is free-floating anxiety. This anxiety moves between many objects and situations. One day you’re worried about your boss, and then your health, and then your kids, and then your finances. You get the idea.
Free-floating anxiety is what brings people into a therapist’s office. This feeling of anxiety attaches to different things at different times and becomes exhausting for people. It seems to shift its shape as time moves forward. A person with social anxiety might go to therapy to find help for their social anxiety. After a few sessions, they don’t have social anxiety anymore, but now they’re afraid that they’re going to lose their job, or maybe they’re obsessing about their health.
Wearing themselves out running from doctor to doctor trying to find an acceptable diagnosis for clusters of shifting symptoms. This is the type of anxiety I wish to address.
How free-floating anxiety shapes your thoughts.
Generalized thinking is when we have so many thoughts coming at us so quickly it’s hard to determine which ones are important. The result of generalized thinking is that I feel overwhelmed by the thoughts.
This is what is often referred to as the hamster wheel. The image is your brain as a little hamster running as fast as it can and going nowhere. The wheel is the ruminating thoughts, one thought that goes around and around and around in your head and you just can’t stop thinking about it. It’s often one or two little details that you can’t stop thinking about.
This is when you project into the future and imagine the worst possible outcome. Rather than considering all the other possible outcomes, you just focus on the worst. No wonder we can’t sleep.
Anxious thoughts are anchored in the future. Tomorrow is when bad things are going to happen. This future focus does not consider anything good that is happening in your life today or in your life yesterday. It only focuses on the future and predicts negative outcomes.
Anxiety acts as a Doomsday prophet. It may not know exactly what’s going to happen tomorrow, it just predicts that it’s going to be bad. It reminds me of the story of Chicken Little. When a blue eggshell landed on his head, the little chicken thought that the sky was falling. When anxiety gets going it always thinks that tomorrow the world is going to end. (Like a newscaster, yes?)
Why do I have anxiety?
Katie asked this question when discussing her anxiety. People often wonder why they suffer from anxiety when other people don’t. She had heard that anxiety is a lack of faith in God. “Faith is like a muscle you need to exercise.” “Faith is a skill you need to practice.” After learning a few techniques to manage anxiety, which only worked for a while, Kate turned to the most catastrophic conclusion and decided that her worry was a result of little faith in God.
Is anxiety a lack of faith?
The only way to decide if anxiety is a lack of faith in God is to look at what faith is. We will then see if there is any causality between faith and anxiety.
The definition of faith is complete trust in someone or something.
As Christians, our complete trust is in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins on himself and paid the penalty of death for us. He then rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
Christ’s righteousness is now placed on us: “looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
In Hebrews 12:2, Jesus is described as the author of our faith. He designed our faith; He has created our faith. He perfected our faith. Let that word resonate with you for a moment. Our faith in Christ is perfect because He made it so. It sounds like faith is something that is outside of us. it was created for us and instilled into us by Jesus Christ.
Faith is not a skill to be learned, a muscle to be exercised, or something that we develop over time. We experience our faith over time, but we don’t develop it. Faith is a gift, completely given by Christ himself through His work on the cross. There’s nothing we can do to add to the faith that has been given us. Faith is a gift that is joyfully given to us, so anxiety is not necessarily a lack of faith.
I must have an anxious gene.
This is the next thing that Katie determined because she had an anxious mother and an anxious grandfather. Does this mean that her anxiety is a genetic disposition? If that is true, then show me the gene.
Science has been looking for the anxiety gene for quite a while and hasn’t been able to find one. Which can only mean one of two things. Either the anxiety gene does not exist, or everybody has the gene making it not stand out.
Anxiety as a learned response is a reasonable conclusion.
Parents who catastrophize and see a negative future model this response for their children. The children learn how to cope with situations in life through catastrophizing and seeing negative futures. This is how anxiety is passed down from generation to generation.
Where does anxiety come from?
To answer that question let’s look to Scripture. Reading the Bible from the beginning, it doesn’t take long to find the word “afraid.” In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve have just eaten the fruit, they realize something shifted, they made little fig leaves for themselves, and hid among the trees. God walks through the garden and calls them out.
He said, “Adam, where are you?” Adam’s response is interesting. Adam answered, “I was afraid.” This is the first time we see afraid in the Scriptures. We experience a lot of emotions: happiness, love, anger, jealousy, and our emotions, though not identical to anything in God, are pale reflections of something true about God. Among other things, emotions are evidence they were created in the image of God.
However, God has no fear. He fears no one. Fear is evidence that we are fallen. (As I mentioned above, maybe they can’t find the anxiety gene because we all have it.) As with the rest of our nature, it has been passed down to us from generation to generation as part of our spiritual DNA.
So now that we know what anxiety is, what can we do about it? Let’s revisit Hebrews 12
Therefore, since we also have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let’s rid ourselves of every obstacle and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking only at Jesus, the originator and perfecter of the faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2
Have you accidentally ever walked through a spider web? If you are like most people, your first response is to immediately brush off the unseen webs. Some people even hop around while brushing off the web and anxiously look for the spider that still might be attached to it. This is the image that comes to my mind when I read this verse. We unknowingly walk right into anxiety, and now all we want to do is brush it off as fast as we can.
The author of Hebrews encourages us to brush off that uncomfortable feeling by placing our focus on something else. Looking to Jesus with the eyes of our hearts and narrowing our focus means paying more attention to some things than others.
We can’t think of everything at once, and we can’t feel everything at once. Thought and feelings have to take turns. When we fix the attention of our hearts on Jesus, we are narrowing our focus on Him. This leaves little room for other intrusive feelings of anxiety and the accompanying thoughts.
What can you do when you are feeling anxious?
When you are feeling anxious there are things you can do.
Realize that anxiety is just an emotion.
There is no imminent danger. It is just an emotion floating around that is going to try to find thoughts to affix itself to. Understanding how anxiety shapes your thoughts allows you to identify the underlying anxiety and shift your focus.
You also may want to make a little chart.
This will give you a visual representation of what you are choosing to focus on. Place a line down the middle of a page. On one side put down the thing that is troubling you.
Underneath the thing that is troubling you place all the outcomes that you are projecting onto the situation. In the second column write down all the things that you can be thankful for here and now. Things like clothes, food, health, supportive friends and family.
Looking at all the things that give you gratitude, you can now think out of the box.
Looking at your anxious situation, come up with every other outcome of which you can think. You will come to realize that situations are full of opportunities to learn and grow.
Kate discovered this charting method when she was in counseling. It helped her realize that her free-floating anxiety was just that, free-floating anxiety looking for something to attach itself to. Focusing her heart on Jesus felt good.
When you feel anxious, try making your own chart. Focus your heart’s desires on Jesus. and see how this affects your free-floating anxiety. Habits don’t change overnight. It takes time for us to start thinking differently.
Some people say it takes months and 10,000 repetitions before you begin to create new neural pathways which will result in new healthier habits. Give yourself time to practice focusing your thoughts. In time you will begin to notice a healthier happier you.
“Stress”, Courtesy of TheDigialArtist, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Looking Out Over the Fields”, Courtesy of Republica, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Stressed”, Courtesy of Fotorech, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Freaking Out”, Courtesy of Liza Summer, Pexels.com, CC0 License