Thursday, February 14, 2008

Anxiety and Faith

When my anxiety is at its worst, and I know it can be categorized as an attack, it feels like the world is ending. My fight or flight instinct kicks in and all I want to do is run away. Away from the situation, the circumstances, even life where I would prefer to live a hermit's life living off the land (but then I'd probably get anxious from being alone!). It's during times like these that my counselor has offered me a variety of different methods to help me get through the moment. Truthfully, the moment is all I can handle. Even if I have an anxiety attack that lasts for hours, thinking about getting through *hours* of it only makes me worse. My goal isn't to get through hours of it, but to get through a moment. In that moment, I can pick from a variety of things to do to help me get through that moment. Not all coping strategies will work all the time. Something that calmed me yesterday may not calm me today.

That can be frustrating on its own. I am a huge fan of classic cartoons. I love watching Bugs Bunny trick Elmer Fudd once more. The occassional anvil, delayed reaction gravity, and the artistic slapstick humor has brought me through many moments where I didn't think I could make it. However, there are some cartoons I won't be able to watch for a while. The reason seems so silly to me, but it's very real. Watching that cartoon time and time again while being anxious has actually caused me to feel anxious during that cartoon. My brain has associated the two. It won't last forever and even today, I watch a tape full of Looney Tunes that for a while stayed on the shelf because I just couldn't shake the anxiety I had associated with that tape.

There are other coping strategies that I know will always work, but they may not last for all of my attack. Since my goal is to get through the moment, however, they are worth using. I love to be cuddled and to cuddle. My husband knows that when my attacks are at their worst, giving me a hug, holding my hand, or even cuddling me while I watch cartoons can go a long way. If he isn't here, I have a couple of birds out of the nine in the flock that will cuddle right up to my face and practically fall asleep. Their calm calms me down. The birds and I have anxiety in common, through theirs is more instinctual because they are a prey animal and have to be ready to run at a moment's notice to get out of danger. I don't want them to feel the way I do, so I must calm myself to not alarm them.

There is one coping strategy I have not mentioned. This strategy is one I will use every time, but it also won't last for hours. It's also usually the one I get criticized the most for not using exclusively. It's supposed to last more than a moment. It's supposed to be the fix. It is THE cure, but it's not the cure this side of the grave unless God performs a miracle in the strictest sense of the word. I can't tell you how many times I have heard, "Yeah, I was all worried and then I prayed about it and felt better. You should do the same. It works." Another one I used to do to myself as well as hear from others was, "Doesn't the Bible speak about worrying being a sin? Avoid sin, flee temptation, and stop worrying!" Oh, if only it were so easy! However, instead of freeing myself from my anxiety, I have only made it worse by the realization that I am sinning and I can't stop! An entire new wave of anxiety can wash over me in that moment with fears of my salvation. Either I am afraid there is something wrong with me and my faith because when I pray, I still have the same anxiety I started with or I am worried that maybe my sin really might be the straw that broke the camel's back and I'll be cast into hell for my anxiety and sin.

Isn't this the exact opposite of what God is supposed to be all about? If I am a child of God, shouldn't these worries and cares be instantly gone the moment I pray? Since it is an active sin against God, shouldn't I just stop because it is sin? While I am on the subject, can I actually still count myself as a child of God if I just can't shake these feelings? What about the fact that reading Scripture doesn't instantly cure my anxiety? Does that actually make me an unbeliever?

I am sure everyone has had these thoughts. If it isn't about anxiety, its about a physical illness, a circumstance in life, or a circumstance in someone else's life. The truth is, God isn't an asprin. You can't take two Gospels and call Him in the morning. It doesn't work like that. In fact, be happy that it doesn't work like that! God is concerned about getting me through the moment, but He's just as much concerned about getting me through life. Even if at the time I feel like I'll never get out of my anxiety attack, I know it will pass. There will be another one in the future, but it will pass, too. God's hand is in it every step of the way.

The problem with the "have enough faith to be cured" belief is that it is all about me. "I prayed and felt better" and "I chose to stop it because it is sin" puts the focus on me, the sinful being. I am sure that the person thinks they are giving glory to God, but that's not what is happening. The person who said this is talking about their action to correct their situation. God is merely the passive vehicle to bring about the "cure". It's like taking an asprin. The medicine does the work, but the person has to take it. That's not the way it is. We are blind, dead, and enemies of God from birth. God gives us the gift of life through the washing and rebirth of baptism. God gives faith without any cooperation on our part. God has already given me the cure of the forgivness of sins, life, and salvation by the faith He has given me in Christ Jesus. When hope is failing and anxieties abound, it's this fact I trust: It's not about me, it's about Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross for me.

This means, that if I read the Bible, pray, and sing a hymn and I am still having trouble, it's okay for me to go cuddle with one of my birds. My salvation, even during an anxiety attack, is not dependent on me and how long, strong, or hard I work at it. It's dependent on what God has done for me. God does care for me in the moment, too, which is why there are cartoons, birds, and even blogs to help distract and calm me. God also cares for me for eternity. I am baptized into Christ!