Tuesday, 11 June 2013

don't worry, about a thing...

There are a lot of Bible verses that tell us 'do not worry' or, in some versions it is written as, 'do not be anxious'. Matthew 6: 25-27; Matthew 6: 34; Philippians 4: 6-7, and many more. These verses are all, basically, saying 'don't worry because God will look after everything, no matter what happens.' And as Christians we are frequently reminded of these many 'do not worry' verses. The thought that often springs to my mind when people spout 'do not worry...' at me is, 'easier said than done'. Anxiety is a very natural, human response; it's part of the whole 'fight or flight' thing. And having suffered from quite severe anxiety, for many years, I know a fair bit about it.

In therapy, a few months ago, one of the therapists did a session about anxiety. It was all stuff that I knew but it was different listening to someone else talking about it and explaining it in terms of it being a physiological thing, not a mental thing. Anxiety is a very physical reaction; increased heart rate, quickening breath, sweating, dizziness, shaking are all physical symptoms. Are all symptoms of anxiety. These physical symptoms are a result of a quick release of adrenaline into the body. This release of adrenaline and the onset of these symptoms are what help us to decide if a situation is too risky or dangerous, and, whether we should fight the scary, dangerous thing or just run away from it. Without adrenaline we would be able to do either of those things (we wouldn't have the strength needed to fight, or the speed needed to run away). It's a self-preservation thing.

A problem with anxiety, however, is that this physical reaction may be in response to something that really isn't actually that dangerous, or, is even just an imagined danger. The mind can find or create any number of reasons to be anxious, thus setting off the physical anxiety response. Another problem with anxiety is our response to the feeling of anxiety itself. We may decide that the feeling of anxiety is too much to bear and so we remove what we perceive to be the cause of that feeling, and the symptoms go away; we start to feel better. The problem that then arises is that, because the mind has decided, rightly or wrongly, that something specific is the cause of that feeling, the next time we come across that thing we respond in the same way; by getting anxious. And, because last time you got anxious about that thing you ran away and then felt better, you believe that the best thing to do this time, is to run away again. The more this happens, the quicker the body reacts to the burst of adrenaline and the harder it is not to run away. This quickly develops into a cycle of distorted thinking, that becomes very difficult to break.

Now, going back slightly, I mentioned that the mind will find or create any number of reasons to be anxious; they don't necessarily have to be that scary or dangerous, nor do they even have to make sense. Humans are complex beings; we can experience a wealth of emotions all at once. And the human mind is incredibly detailed and intricate in its workings and can play tricks on us and deceive us. When we are experiencing an extremely difficult mix of complex emotions and circumstances, the brain is flooded with information and hormones or chemicals. When this happens the mind will sometimes decide that it's been overloaded and that it's just too much and so will instruct the body to release adrenaline in order to be able to cope. As we know, adrenaline is what causes the physical anxiety symptoms, so when it is released, all of those physical symptoms that I listed earlier (and possibly some more) start to occur. Now when someone is able to realistically assess their situation, they will be able to determine what the actual cause of their symptoms is, and will hopefully be able to manage it appropriately. But if you're experiencing a lot of difficult emotions, when the adrenaline kicks in and the physical symptoms start, you're unlikely to be able to realistically assess or determine the cause of those symptoms and your brain will just pick an easy answer; something that can easily be resolved.

So say, for example, you're in a crowd when you start to feel the symptoms of anxiety. Your brain is likely to tell you that the cause of the anxiety, and the physical symptoms, is the crowd, and so you remove yourself from the crowd. As soon as you're away from the crowd, the adrenaline begins to wear off and you start to feel better. This just supports your belief that it was the crowd that caused your anxiety and so you associate that feeling and those symptoms with being in a crowd. This then starts a cycle where, every time you're in a crowd, you feel anxious and so you start avoiding crowds in order to avoid the anxious feeling. This may not always happen, but the more it does, the more ingrained the cycle becomes and the more your mind convinces you that crowds are bad because they cause anxiety. The thing is, this doesn't deal with the actual cause of the anxiety and the cycle is likely to get worse and worse until something is done to change it. The same thing can be seen in people who react to things with high levels of aggression. Adrenaline is also responsible for anger and aggression and so some people may react to things by becoming angry or violent when actually what they're feeling is not anger at all.

Therapy says that the best way of changing this anxiety response and breaking the cycle, is to, when you feel anxious, work through the feelings and do whatever it is your mind has convinced you is the cause of your anxiety, instead of running away. So, if you feel anxious in crowds, go and be in a crowd. Now, this does actually work. The physical symptoms caused by the burst of adrenaline will not last forever; adrenaline is only released in quick spurts and so does not remain constant. The body could not physically maintain a high level of adrenaline for any extended period of time. This means that, eventually, the adrenaline would wear off and the physical anxiety symptoms would stop on their own. Now, if you run away every time you feel those physical anxiety symptoms, when the adrenaline wears off and the symptoms stop, you end up attributing the feeling better to the fact that you ran away, but actually, if you had stayed and not run away, the adrenaline would still have worn off and you would, eventually, have started to feel better anyway, despite still being in the situation which you thought was the cause of your anxiety. So, in order to combat anxiety, you need to not run away, but stay in the crowd, and then the adrenaline and the symptoms would go away and you'd start to feel better. And, as with the way the cycle started, where, the more often you feel anxious and run away, the worse the anxiety gets; when breaking the cycle of anxiety, the more you manage to face what you thought was the cause of your anxiety, the less the anxiety is and the easier it is to face it again. And again. And again.

Saying, 'do not worry' or 'do not be anxious' is one step beyond the thinking that leads to breaking the cycle of anxiety. When the cycle of anxiety starts, you're not thinking, you're just reacting, in the way that animals do; fight or flight. But as humans, our minds have the ability to distort that natural imperative, and our thinking, and turn it into something potentially harmful. When we break the cycle of anxiety, we are beginning to think and to use our brains again. We're thinking more clearly; we recognise the distorted thinking that led to the cycle being created and we sometimes even learn the actual cause of the anxiety. And we learn how to manage and deal with the anxiety and the thoughts and causes behind it. When we are instructed 'do not worry', God is inviting us to go that bit further in our thinking and using our brains, and that step further brings us closer to Him. God wants us to not just not run away from our worries and our anxieties, but to stop worrying about them. As anxiety is a natural reaction, this seems like an impossibility. How can we stop our natural, physical reactions? But God created us. He knows that anxiety is natural. He is not asking the impossible. Because God created us, He knows this. He created us above animals so that we are not held captive by our natural, physical reactions. We are intelligent beings; we are capable of complex thought processes. We've already proven that by using our brains to help us recognise cycles of anxiety and to break them. When God says 'do not be anxious', He isn't saying 'don't have the physical reaction'. He's asking us to use our brains a bit more; to give our anxieties to Him; to let Him carry them. Because He's not going to have distorted thinking or distorted reactions. He's God; He can handle it. And if we give our anxieties to Him, we're not going to get into those distorted cycles of anxiety either, because God's got it. He knows everything and He has plans for us, so we need to trust Him, by letting Him take care of our anxieties.

My journey in therapy has been so intertwined with my spiritual journey. I had always been told or reminded of the 'do not worry' verses but I couldn't seem to help my anxiety. In therapy I've learnt to break those cycles of anxiety and to use my brain and to think more - my therapists are constantly telling me to do this. But it was only this morning, when someone was talking about not being able to help worrying about something, that I finally realised what all those 'do not worry' verses are about; what they really mean. I always felt like I was just less of a Christian because I couldn't 'not worry'. Now I realise that I'm just human. And let's face it, if we weren't all so human, what would be the purpose of Grace?

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