By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
I worry a lot. My friends and family call me a "worry wart.” I have to agree with them. My worrying makes me miserable.
Yesterday, our pastor preached about the time that the disciples almost drowned in a terrific storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asked them, "Where’s your faith?" Then today, I was in a church staff meeting, and we were discussing worry and anxiety. We all agreed that worry is a sin, and that if we just had more faith and belief in Jesus, we wouldn't have this problem.
I've tried all sorts of tricks and coping mechanisms to get victory; however, I'm not having much success.
I've read on "Ask Roger," where you've mentioned your struggles with worry. Do you still worry a lot? Can you help me overcome my anxieties so that I'm not so miserable?
Anxiety and worry are two of my besetting sins.
I'll give you an example of how much I struggle with worry.
Driving down the street, if I hit a bump, 100 yards later I’ll think that maybe I ran over somebody. My rational mind tells me that of course, it’s not true. But my worrying mind says that I'd better go back and check to be sure.
Can you believe it? I'll go around the block and drive back to the bump just to be sure I haven't hit somebody. Talk about miserable! Today, I understand that I struggle with OCD, or “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”
I try to gain victory by casting all my cares on Jesus. I think about Matthew 6 and how the birds of the air have no cares because God cares for them. So, I should be free from worry like the birds, right?
Unfortunately, that approach doesn't seem to work very well. I've worked hard to learn contentment as Paul described it in Philippians 4:13. I've tried to meditate on passages like, "Whatsoever is right, pure, lovely, clean, holy, righteous … think on these things" (Philippians 4:6).
I gain some relief but not much. I need more help.
Medical Intervention Matters
About 20 years ago, I began to get some victory when I went to my doctor and mentioned in passing my problem. He said, "Roger, I'm so sorry that you suffer like this. When did it all begin?"
"About my junior year in high school."
"Let's try to help that," he said, as he gave me a little white pill.
"What is this?" I asked.
"It's an anti-anxiety, anti-depression medicine. Try it for a month or so and let's see how you do."
My, how things have changed!
Since then, I figure that at least 70% of my worry and anxiety have dissipated. Now, I am able to use the passages above in a helpful and significant way. I found that I was beginning to control my worry and anxiety instead of them over-controlling me. The anti-anxiety medicine has helped adjust my brain chemistry to lessen the impact of my besetting sins.
It breaks my heart that so many Christians are averse to using anti-anxiety or anti-depression medicines when they are so miserable. Christians who have high blood pressure and/or heart rhythm problems seem to have no qualms about taking medicines to help care for their hearts. Christians with thyroid problems seem to have no qualms about taking thyroid medicine to straighten out their endocrine system.
Therefore, in the same way, I believe there is nothing wrong with taking medicine to help mediate the negative effects of brain chemistry issues.
I remember a man who came to me for counseling regarding his depression. He mentioned that he'd been going monthly to counselors for over fifteen years. I listened to his tale and thought of all the money that he had spent. I thought of the suffering he endured for so many years.
So, I said, "Go talk to your doctor about an anti-depressant, and let's see how you do.” Two months later he sat back in my office relating the dramatic change in his outlook on life. What 15 years of counseling could not accomplish, a simple anti-depressant did.
Don’t misunderstand. There is certainly a place for counseling/psychotherapy to help deal with worry and anxiety. Just remember that there is a place for anti-anxiety/anti-depression medicines as well.
Please don't misunderstand; I still struggle with worry and anxiety. At times, it gets the best of me. But, at least I feel that I am on a more level playing field.
Anxiety and the Brain
It may help if I describe in simple terms the brain processes concerning worry and anxiety. Three, what I call, "brain modules," are involved in the process.
The first module is the "alert-module". It monitors the negative things going on around us to warn us of any dangers lurking nearby.
The second module is the "fix-it module". When something needs our attention, the alert-module communicates with the fix-it module, and the fix-it module starts to fix the problem.
The third module is the "all-clear module." This module tells us that the danger is alleviated, and we need be anxious no more. All is well. We can stop worrying.
Any, or all, or any combination of the three at work can cause us to be filled with worry and anxiety.
Imagine that you have an overreacting "alert-module" that is relentlessly telling you things are going wrong when in fact everything is fine. You will tend to struggle more with anxiety than those whose "alert-modules" are more "normal.”
Imagine that your "fix-it module" is malfunctioning. It receives the alert that something is wrong, but it doesn't fix anything or even try to. You're still filled with anxiety.
Imagine that the first two modules are functioning normally, but your "all-clear module" is not doing its job. You will still struggle with worry even though the danger issues are eradicated.
Of course, there are many combinations and levels of intensity accompanying all three modules. For example, the "alert-module" may not be sensitive enough, which brings in a whole new set of issues for us to consider.
God's design is for the "alert-module" to work at the right level, for the "fix-it module" to prompt us to take the necessary steps to alleviate the worrisome problem, and for the " all-clear module" to remove any need for worry or anxiety.
By the way, our brain chemistry is capable of initiating an anxiety attack when there is no reason for any threat or worry.
Tools to Win the Battle against Anxiety
Now, let me share with you some of the ways that I find victory over worry and anxiety. I’ve learned these and put them into practice over many years, and I’ve studied each one extensively in both scientific literature and Scripture. I hope they’re very helpful for you.
1. Stay in close contact with your medical doctor to keep your brain chemistry as balanced as possible.
If you sense that your worry-anxiety system is causing you problems, then I suggest that the first thing you do is ask your doctor for diagnosis and some help.
2. Sing a lot.
The Bible has numerous references to the positive impact of changing sour attitudes by consciously updating our countenance to look happy, and act happy, even if we don’t feel that way at all (Song of Solomon 2:14; Proverbs 15:13).
By the way, singing is one of the very few activities that engages both the right and left sides of the brain. Perhaps it is this interaction that disrupts and resets our “brain modules.”
3. Cultivate an awareness of God’s presence and care.
Refuse to imagine the worst that can happen.
My daughter taught me this one; although I could have learned from Paul, I didn't. Whenever I catch my imagination running wild, I firmly say to my mind, "Stop it!" Both Jesus and Paul talked about the significance of thinking positive thoughts. So, I consciously change my thinking.
My mother was a living victim of worry and anxiety. When Julie and I brought the children for a visit, the first thing she did was have a fire drill so we all knew which window to exit depending on where we were in the house. This was not a one-time thing. We had our drill every time we visited.
She had two locks on the outside doors, but when my dad died, she added four more for a total of six locks to keep the house secure. She was always afraid that lightning was going to strike the house and burn it down.
Her advice to me was always to imagine the very worst thing that could happen, then she would say, “but nothing will ever be that bad.” That was supposed to make me feel better! All she did was drill into my mind to repeat the worst things that could possibly happen. Why in the world would she teach me to imagine the worst things?
I now suffer from looking first at the very worst thing that might occur. This is no help in quieting down my worry and anxiety. I want to keep the worst things that might happen as far away from my mind as possible.
4. Work hard to avoid "borrowing," which means to bring concerns for the future or the past into the present.
Imagine placing all your concerns in a casket. Stop opening the lid to look inside. Instead, try to “cremate” your problem by placing the ashes in a mental casket and burying the ashes deep underground.
If ever I am tempted again to worry about that problem, I look at the cremated ashes scattered over the bottom of the casket. I don’t want to go there again.
7. Finally, meditate on Psalm 131 as your “go-to” principle for best handling your worry and anxiety issues.
As you read the Psalm it quickly reveals that David has full control over whether or not he lets worry and anxiety infect his life and behaviors. He has the choice of living in worry and anxiety or of calming and quieting his soul. The same choice is ours.
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.”
Susan, thanks for bringing up this subject. You are not alone in your struggles. I hope that my thoughts are helpful to you and many others.
May God give you a peaceful and grace-filled life.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/tadamichi
Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian.
Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].