Formation

Managing the Dangers of Chronic Anxiety

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(Editor’s note: this is the second in a two-part series on anxiety; you can read the first post, “How Anxiety so Easily Entangles Us”, here.)

As I train leaders in understanding the area of anxiety, I am often asked, “Is all anxiety bad? Is there such a thing as good anxiety?”

Anxiety is like cholesterol; there are good and bad types. And like bad cholesterol, the bad form of anxiety can do massive internal damage. Good anxiety is known as ‘acute anxiety.’ Bad anxiety is ‘chronic anxiety.’ And faith leaders would benefit from understanding the difference, for the health of their souls.

Understanding the two types of anxiety

I was jogging my dog on a trail recently and I went to cross a small stream when she stopped in her tracks and wouldn’t move. I looked back to where she had stopped and she was staring down a snake. I had jogged right over it and while I am no herpetologist, my heart rate told me it was a rattlesnake. But once I caught my breath, I saw that it was in fact a harmless bull snake.

This is acute anxiety: the threat is real but temporary, and you are able to calm yourself afterward. You may have experienced acute anxiety when the car in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes, or when someone knocks at the front door and you’re home alone, or when your child is in danger, or any number of situations where the threat is real and temporal.

Chronic anxiety is a whole other animal. Instead of a real threat, it is always generated by a perceived threat and instead of being temporal, it is ever-present. We get chronically anxious when we think we need something that we do not actually need: such as being understood or liked, or having the last word, or needing to know what to do, or always doing it right every time.

Here is the problem: our body and mind cannot discern between acute and chronic anxiety. They react the same to both. And here is the kicker: burnout and breakdowns have more to do with chronic anxiety than with workload. We are all carrying too much chronic anxiety and it is slowly killing us. But two simple questions can help you overcome chronic anxiety:

Where in my body do I first notice anxiety?

The classic responses are: a spinning mind, a racing heart, or a tightening gut. But you could be experiencing symptoms elsewhere. Recently people have told me, “I feel it in my neck” or “my shoulders get very tight.” You might be saying, I feel it in all those places! That is because anxiety can have a death grip on you before you even begin to notice it. Many people don’t know they are anxious until they are extra-anxious. But it typically begins somewhere in your body, and if you can learn to detect it, you can begin to intervene.

What do I think I need that I do not actually need?

This is the perceived threat part of chronic anxiety. If left unchecked, these needs take us down a dark road of chronic anxiety and wreak havoc on our souls. The good news is that followers of Jesus have a secret weapon against chronic anxiety: our identity in Christ. If we can notice where and when it starts, name why we’re anxious, and choose to die to it, we can actually rest free in Christ even in the midst of being anxious. This is how even chronic anxiety can become an asset—it becomes an early detection device that you’re feeling a perceived threat.

The good news is that followers of Jesus have a secret weapon against chronic anxiety... Click To Tweet

Another key source of anxiety is circumstance; there are at least numerous sources of anxiety that are universal to all of us. Here is a representative list of common circumstances that provoke anxiety:

 

  • Violating your values
  • Triangulation
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Doubt in God
  • Receiving a mixed message
  • Isolation
  • Exclusion
  • Being caught between two people
  • Being caught between a rock and a hard place
  • Experiencing judgment
  • Stepping on a leadership landmine
  • Blindspot exposure
  • Experiencing an imbalance of power and responsibility
  • Making a mistake in public
    _

This is not an exhaustive list, but if you find yourself in one of these situations, you will be anxious because these situations generate anxiety. Thinking there is something wrong with you is like wondering why you can suddenly fly in a tornado. It is not you, it is the tornado. The situation is generating your flight. Recognizing that you are in one of these situations is half the battle; knowing what to do afterward is the other half. Here are a couple of brief examples:

An Imbalance of Power and Responsibility

This is most common in the workplace, all too common in churches, tragically, and sometimes found in marriages. You are responsible for a job, but not equipped with the power to fulfill it, so you are constantly at odds with someone or a board who expects you to deliver when you simply cannot. The worst case scenario is when you become the scapegoat of their toxic system. The best case scenario is if you can communicate this imbalance to someone in charge who can more evenly balance the dynamic out. Either way, you will remain anxious until equilibrium is reached, or until you leave.

Judgment

We are all judgmental people; even people who believe they are accepting of others typically judge judgmental or narrow-minded people. But I wonder if we see our judgment as an asset when it is really a huge liability. Here is a simple exercise: write a list of all the types of people you judge. Don’t write names, just descriptors of character traits. Try to get as detailed as possible, no matter how trivial your judgment might be. My list is long and it includes people who do not value promptness, arrogant people, people who don’t wear seat belts, and know-it-alls.

Here are two sobering realities: you cannot be present to someone while you are judging them. Judgment is intentional act of distancing so we can depend on our self instead of on God. Also, we often judge people just like us. Some of the character traits we most harshly judge mirror our own selves. By listing character traits we judge, we can begin to be free from the grip of judgment and strive to be more fully present to those we would previously judge. As a faith leader of a diverse church, this exercise comes in handy as God has called me to love and serve a much wider group of people than I would naturally choose. It turns out God isn’t nearly as judgmental of them as I am.

Part of our work in managing chronic anxiety is to learn its sources and then how overcome its grip. Click To Tweet

Part of our work in managing chronic anxiety is to learn its sources and then how to overcome its grip. To experience freedom from the ways that anxiety can make us feel like an overwhelming, tangled mess requires carefully diagnosing the sources, knowing our own triggers, and learning how to invite God to invade our anxiety with God’s peace. This is no small journey and can be at times a battle, but one well worth the effort to more fully follow the path to freedom and well being.

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