This is the twelfth post in the “Battle for Your Mind” series. Click here to view the previous post.
THE BATTLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
DEFEATING ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
It is becoming increasingly common to run across people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. What is behind this and is there anything we can do to help?
If you experience these struggles, I strongly encourage you to locate a Christian counselor who specializes in anxiety and depression. I do not claim to be able to diagnose any kind of medical or psychological issues. What I plan to share with you is the fundamental source of anxiety and depression.
To get a grasp of anxiety, the first thing we need to do is define what it is. The Merriam-Webster dictionary[i] gives two definitions that will be helpful to this study:
a : painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usually over an impending or anticipated ill
b : fearful concern or interest
An abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.
In a previous section, we discussed how Philippians 4:6-7 relates to the battle against fear in our lives. In this section, we need to take a closer look at this passage. As the New King James Version gives a clearer rendering of its meaning, I will quote it here:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NKJV)
As I pointed out earlier, “be anxious” (“be careful” in the KJV) is translated from the Greek word merimnao, which means to be anxious or troubled about something.
Before we delve into our discussion of anxiety, let’s zero in on the “peace” that “surpasses all understanding” part of the verse. If you struggle with anxiety, this may seem like a foreign concept to you.
Peace? Is there such a thing? It seems to be outside of the normal experience of the greater part of humanity. No wonder it surpasses our understanding. However, it can be attained. There is hope!
Now let’s go back to the beginning of the verse again. We are told not to be anxious. Hmm…is that even possible?
You may be tempted to stop reading this right now. After all, if you suffer from anxiety, you know it’s not something you can just “turn off.” And now you’re told that the Bible commands you not to be anxious, so it must be a sin. Might as well forget the whole thing!
Please…don’t tune me out just yet. Let’s back up and take a common-sense look at this thing we call “anxiety.”[ii] Rather than seeing it as a big hairy monster that is ready to spring on you and destroy you at any moment, try to see it as a gift from God.
Anxiety: A gift from God
I know that sounds crazy. How can anxiety be a gift? The answer is simple. It is a God-given protection device. Some refer to it as the “fight-flight” response.
Have you ever been extremely scared by something? You probably reacted so quickly it surprised even you.
Here is a quick overview of how your body works to keep you safe:
When your brain senses that it is in trouble, your sympathetic nervous system commands your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and noredrenaline.[iii] This causes your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and sweating to increase. The result is that you have uncharacteristic strength that allows you to either stand your ground and fight or to quickly flee to safety.
Let’s imagine that you are lying in bed one night, all alone at home. Suddenly you hear footsteps in the hallway. Immediately the “fight-flight” (anxiety) response kicks in. Your heart begins to beat more rapidly, your breathing increases, and you start to sweat. Would you think what is happening to you to be abnormal? Of course not. There is a real threat and your body is preparing you to deal with it. You would consider yourself to be perfectly normal.
Now let’s say that you are lying in bed, and without hearing anything, the same thing happens. Your heart rate speeds up, you begin to breathe harder, and you start sweating. You feel scared to death even though you know there is no danger. Now what do you think about yourself? Either you are having a heart attack or you are going crazy.
Many times people are rushed to the ER because of this very situation. They are just sitting at their desk or doing some other regular activity when all of a sudden their heart rate rises, they start to breathe hard and they begin to sweat. The doctor checks them out and their heart is ok. What is causing the trouble?
It is often a panic attack. A panic attack is anxiety out of control.
Now, let me just say that if this ever happens to you, the correct action is to pay a trip to the ER. When I was in EMT school years ago, the instructor told us that one clear sign that a person is having a heart attack is denial. You are better off safe than sorry. Visit the emergency room and get your heart checked out. If it is ok, then consider anxiety.
When there is danger, you fear the danger. That is perfectly normal. However, when you sense impending doom but there is no threat, you fear the symptoms.[iv] Am I dying? Am I losing my mind?
There is a lot of research about exactly what causes panic attacks. They are real, but what causes them? Why have the fight-flight response when there is no immediate danger?
Many medical professionals are searching for physical causes for panic attacks. Some turn first to medicine to control anxiety, and some turn to cognitive behavior therapy (training of the mind).
If you believe the Bible, it would do well to look there first to see what can be done. While it is possible that anxiety symptoms such as panic attacks can stem from physical issues, the Bible indicates that one’s thinking (the mind) may also be to blame.
We live in a stressful society. I guess that’s not new news for you. All day long our brains sense stress, which triggers the fight-flight response. However, because we are not faced with imminent danger, we do not have to fight or flee. Our body does not use this energy that is built up. The adrenaline that builds up eventually leads to panic attacks.[v]
Sometimes people who suffer with panic attacks are diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). If this is your case, you may have a specific primary fear. On the other hand, you may have anxiety over just about about everything, but can’t necessarily identify specific fears.[vi]
While a certain level of anxiety is good, when it is out of control it will negatively impact your life. You will find yourself constantly worrying, fearing that the worst has happened, and your sleep will be interrupted. Because there is no outlet for the energy that is built up in your body, panic attacks come, your health degrades, and depression sets in.
Depression: A result of uncontrolled anxiety
Depression is often treated as a disease by the medical community. Is it, however, really a disease? To find out, I decided to research “causes of depression.” Here is what I found.
Webmd.com lists these as causes of depression: abuse, medication, substance abuse, genetics, conflict, death or loss, major events (even good ones), other personal problems, or serious illnesses.[vii]
This seems to indicate that depression, rather than being a disease itself, is the consequence of some other problem that has produced anxiety.
Most importantly, biblical revelation declares that anxiety causes depression.
Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad. (Proverbs 12:25 NKJV)
If you prefer the KJV, let me give it to you with the Strong’s definitions for key words:
Heaviness [anxiety] in the heart of man maketh it stoop [depress or bow]: but a good word maketh it glad. (Proverbs 12:25)
The word “heaviness” (KJV) or “anxiety” (NKJV) is used by Jeremiah, giving us a good picture of its meaning. The prophet provides a word picture to describe how the enemies of Israel are feeling as God is about to judge them.
Concerning Damascus. Hamath is confounded, and Arpad: for they have heard evil tidings: they are fainthearted; there is sorrow on the sea; it cannot be quiet. (Jeremiah 49:23 KJV)
To say “sorrow on the sea” is akin to saying “something is brewing.” There is unrest and fear. Things aren’t peaceful. I can’t think of a much better way to describe anxiety than a restless sea. If you have ever been seasick you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The phrase “maketh it stoop” (KJV) or “causes depression” (NKJV) means “depress” or “to bow.” This word is used numerous times in the OT in reference to bowing in worship. The context here is bowing not out of reverence but because of a heavy load.
You get the idea. Restless anxiety burdens a person, causing him to be slumped over under a heavy load. Sound like depression to you?
Many people today suffer with both anxiety and depression. The two go together hand-in-hand. That makes a lot of sense considering what we have just learned.
So, how do we fix it?
If depression is caused by anxiety, let’s work on the anxiety and let the depression take care of itself!
I know that sounds simple. After all, you usually cannot remove the problem that is causing the anxiety. It might be stress on the job, financial problems, a health issue, or possible even a crisis of faith. You cannot simply “will it away.”
Fortunately, there is a path to healing. There is no magic wand or secret potion, but there is hope!
Stay tuned . . . we will look at that hope in the next section.
Note: This is a very important section, and there is so much more I would have liked to add. When I am able to put this in book form, this section will be expanded with the addition of a great deal of helpful information.
Click here for the next section: The Battle for Your Emotions: Healing Your Damaged Emotions.
[ii] I am deeply indebted to Dr. Roger Lehman, a professional counselor and professor at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, as well as the writings of Dr. Archibald Hart. Their imparted knowledge is the basis for helping me understand the biblical concept of anxiety and they receive much of the credit for many of the ideas presented in this section.