We can admit that all of us are a bit anxious at times. We are on edge about what's next. For a lot of us, the unknown can be overwhelming. But, anxiety is much more than that.
December 2018 was my first time having an anxiety attack. At the time, I didn't know what it was, but looking back on that moment as I was crouched behind my apartment door trying to breathe, that is exactly what was happening. That year I had made some big decisions: It was my first time living in an apartment and my first time actually going through with study abroad. In a month, I would be leaving out of the country for the first time.
That night, I was packing up all of my things to leave my apartment. I had spent the past few days getting things into my storage unit. It was exhausting and frustrating because I was doing all of this alone. And I was used to doing things alone. Doing homework alone, going to the gym alone, eating alone. The Bible tells us that we are not meant to do life alone. I even had people in my life who were willing to help me, but I didn't rely on them. So the burden was left for me to carry by myself. I was not doing a good job.
Now here's the thing: this anxiety attack didn't just come out of thin air. It had been an undercurrent in my life for a while. But, as I often do, I ignore things. I ignored my anxiety because it was normal for me. It was a feeling that came and went in my life like the changing seasons. But just like in fall, when the leaves magically seem to turn from green to yellows, oranges, and reds, my anxiety sneaked up on me.
Paul tells us that transformation happens through the renewing of our minds. It doesn't mean that I can tell myself, "hey, stop being anxious," but for me, someone running on 100% all the time, I never take the time to rest. In this particular time in my life, I am truly learning what rest means for me. I'm not sure what that looks like yet because it takes a lot of unlearning. I used to think that rest was irrelevant. I was (and still am) one of those people who probably would have said something along the lines of "I'll rest when I'm dead." Really cryptic right? But it's the truth. I'm always on go mode. Even when I'm on E, I'm still trying to push out 100%. This only makes my anxiety worse.
My second anxiety attack came when the night before I was supposed to leave from England back to the United States. May of 2019. Almost half a year since my former anxiety attack. It was a bittersweet moment. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience. I have friends from different countries that I still keep in contact with. I got to learn about other people from other cultures. I got to visit the places I had been praying about since I was 15. It was life-changing. But my anxiety didn't go away because I went from one country to another. In some ways, it got worse. That night, in particular, I could not sleep. No matter what I did, it seemed impossible. I had this fear in my head that I was going to die if I fell asleep. Now it sounds crazy to you, but to me, that fear was present, and it was real. I barely slept that night. And I needed the sleep because my friend and I would be leaving for the airport, and if I didn't get any sleep, I would be screwed.
I remember watching sermons to help me sleep. My goal was to distract the other loud voices in my head, telling me that I would not make it back home. I tried to tell other people about it, but nobody really understood. It was not like I could really call anyone either because of the time difference.
One of the reasons why that anxiety attack was so bad was because I had isolated myself. To this day, I still regret not hanging out with my friends from different places in the world and opening up more. Most of the time, I was doing homework. If I wasn't in my room alone, I was at the market getting groceries, or I was at the library. But all of these tasks I did alone. I even had dinner alone. I remember one time seeing my Mexican friends, and they had been wondering where I was. "We never see you anymore!" one said to me while we were in line, choosing from the limited dinner options of chicken burgers (chicken sandwiches), chips (french fries), or chicken nuggets. The better food options were available at lunchtime.
I felt a pang of guilt in my chest when he said that. Why wasn't I around? Why wasn't I hanging out with them? I gave him my normal lie for why I keep people at a distance, "I know. I've just been swamped." By my lack of eye contact, I think we both knew I was fully telling the truth. But he kept moving his tray down the line. I paid for my food and left the food hall, back to my room.
Anxiety brings friends. For me, those friends are doubt and fear. In my mind, I imagine them being linked together like a chain. All of these things work together in my mind to keep me from doing much of anything these days. They cause me to overthink simple tasks. They keep me from stewarding what God has placed in my small hands. In the case of my Mexican friend, anxiety kept me from showing people the real side of me. The side that loves all people. The side that wants to open up and tell people about my interests. I was scared to talk to them because of the language barrier. That hadn't stopped me from being friends with them at first. If anything, we became friends despite the language barrier. But as my fear of letting people in got louder, my anxiety got worse. I would avoid them at all costs. I would go to my room finding friends in Youtube videos rather than the amazing people God had placed right in front of me.
As a perfectionist, anxiety has always been there. I tell myself that everything has to be perfect or it's not good enough. That I have to be perfect or I am not good enough. This matriculates to everything around me. If it's not perfect, it's not good enough. I let those voices take the reign, and when things don't turn out how they were "supposed to," I crash. Dec 3, 2020, another anxiety attack came. It was the night before finals week. The moment I had finally calmed down to sleep, my arm was bothering me. I told myself, "hey. go to sleep. You are okay," But my anxiety was screaming louder. Anxiety will tell you that you are in danger. It will tell you that you should find a way to leave your current situation. So what did I do? I went to the internet. They told me that it could be a stroke or a heart attack. I freaked out. Since it had been 1 hour and the tingling sensation was still there, I went to the hospital. I sat in the hospital for a total for 4 hours. When the doctor finally came back to see me he told me that it was just anxiety. He shrugged it off and so did I. It was just anxiety, so I would be fine.
Since I'm writing this to you now, it is clear that I did not die in May 2019. That anxiety attack, along with many others post-study abroad, has not taken me out. But that fear hasn't gone away. With the pandemic, I have been consuming to distract myself from the voices in my head. I'll listen to sermons, podcasts, I've even begun to eat to deal with my emotions. But none of those things help. I even tried going on walks to numb the thoughts. Nothing was working. The pain in my chest was still there from the moment I woke up until the time I went to sleep.
God has been teaching me that silence is necessary. Do I want to hear those voices in my head? Of course not. I fear them. They tell me things I don't want to hear. They confuse me. They keep me trapped. They tell me I'm a horrible person. They tell me that I'm a screw-up. They tell me, "when can you do anything right?" But at some point, I begin to hear God's voice amongst all the others. I begin to hear the whisper that speaks to my heart amidst my anxiety and tells me the truth. I'll be led to scripture that speaks directly to me at that moment. But that only happens through the silence. I can't receive that through someone else's advice for how I should live my life. That only happens when I take the time to stop, pause, and remember what God has said and what he's saying to me now.
I could lie to you and say that the voices in my head have magically disappeared. They haven't. Even when writing this, I can hear them; I can feel my chest pains starting to come back. I can feel my heart beating against my chest.
What I am learning about anxiety is that this fight or flight feeling I have is real. Don't ever let anyone tell you that your anxiety doesn't exist. For someone to devalue your emotions doesn't feel good. Honestly, it only makes your anxiety worse. Then you begin to feel shame for your feelings and being unable to stop feeling that way. However, anxiety stems from real, underlying emotions. I used to be so good at telling myself, "You're fine, Faith. Just keep going." And there is some truth to that. My anxiety is real, but it doesn't have to overwhelm me. It doesn't have to debilitate me. I can do what scripture says and keep my eyes and thoughts focused on the things above. That is hard. Trust me, I know. But we have to start asking ourselves these questions: What are the things that I know are true about God? What do I know is true about me?
The only way that I can keep going is if I allow myself to lay my burdens at the feet of Jesus. It's hard for me to do. Pride gets in my way. Shame gets in my way. But 1 Peter 5:5-7 says this: "All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
'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." When I take the time to stop using my own solutions, I'm humbling myself. I tell God, "hey. I obviously have tried these things, and it hasn't been working. Today I open my hands as a sign of release to you." Alot of times it's not that pretty and there are some choice words that I use instead. Sometimes I'm crying because I don't know what to even say. I'm glad that God can even decipher my tears.
Does a shift happen immediately? No. It's a moment by moment exercise of casting our cares to him. When we feel overwhelmed, we must stop. Why are we feeling this way? Assess that thing. Find the root (or roots; sometimes it's more than one thing) of the emotion and then give that to God. Even when you feel like he can't handle it, he can. He is more than capable. I am learning now that I am not. Guess what? That's okay.
I don't know what your "thing" is that you do to help cope with your anxiety. Whatever it may be, you might feel like there is no stopping it. You might feel like it's the only thing you can do. I want you to know that God isn't shaming you. God loves you, and God is waiting for you. He is. He is patient with us. Jesus could have given up on Peter when he denied Jesus three times. But he didn't. Peter has this beautiful full-circle moment with Jesus in John 21. As Peter has gone back to his trade of fishing, Jesus calls to them from the shore. Peter is thrilled when he finally recognizes who it is. After eating the fish and the bread (another beautiful full-circle moment from the miracle with the 5 loaves and 2 fish), Jesus takes Peter away. He asks him three times, "do you love me?" Instead of saying no this time, he says yes. While the shift from no to yes is another topic on its own, I want to focus on Jesus's patience. Because he knew what Peter would do before he did it, because he knew who Peter was before they even met (Jesus changes his name from Simon - Peter (rock)), he knew that Peter's moment was temporary. Your anxiety is temporary.
Just like God was not intimidated by Peter's mistakes, he is not intimidated by our anxiety. He is right there with you in the middle of your anxiety attack. He is helping you to breathe when you feel like you are out of breath. He is right there. With you. With me. With us. So Breathe in God's love. Breathe out your problems. Breathe in God's patience and breathe out your frustration.
My challenge for us both is to remind ourselves of who God knows we are. We might deal with anxiety, but we are not our anxiety. Just like Jesus called Peter to be his rock, God has called you to be something. It might not be something you can see now, but if He said it, it's true. You are more than what you feel right now. I am more than what I feel right now. We, you and I, together with God, are more than what we feel right now.