Anxiety, With Much Trembling
February 5, 2023
Anxiety: With Much Trembling
Well friends, my sermon comes to you today with just a little bit of fear and trembling. Not because of anything you’ve done, but because I am a person who struggles with my anxiety, and that’s what this sermon is about. I tremble a lot less now than when I first starting preaching, but I can still identify with Paul, especially on the idea that my standing up here in front of crowds of people, saying words that are sometimes wise and persuasive, is nothing less than a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. But even when I’m not preaching, I’m usually at least a little bit anxious. The special recipe that is my life’s circumstances combined with my DNA has resulted in me having what I think of as an overactive worry alarm system, that is honestly really difficult to shut off.
Anxiety has been a lifelong struggle for me, I can’t really remember a time where it wasn’t a problem. Even as a kid I remember how hard I worked, striving to meet all the expectations set for me at home and at church. I was driven to be a perfect student and always well-behaved, and I also had a lot of social anxiety. It was hard for me to make friends and I had a huge fear of being rejected or made fun of. I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was always worried. It probably appeared to the people around me that I was just really responsible and intelligent, and I am those things, but that doesn’t change the fact that I felt a lot of internal and external pressure to be that way, and that didn’t feel good.
For me, struggling with anxiety is kind of like having someone standing right behind me all the time who blurts out every single alarming thought that comes into their mind about my personal insecurities and fears, and when I try to ignore them they just get louder and more desperate to be heard. Or, it feels kind of like having a “breaking news” banner that runs across the background of my consciousness, delivering warnings, reminders, and catastrophic headlines so that I don’t forget about them. On some occasions it takes over and interrupts my regularly scheduled programing altogether.
My anxiety has a voice, and it rambles in my mind at night sometimes, running through possible scenarios, and replaying my day, giving me notes for tomorrow to try to make me better and to hopefully protect me from whatever outcome I am worried about. It sounds exhausting, and that’s because it is. Anxiety causes a lot of fatigue for people. And that’s just what my anxiety is like, which may be very different from your anxiety because there are a lot of different ways that anxiety can manifest. However, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 31% of U.S. adults, or at least a third of us, will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in our lives, honestly that sounds kind of low to me, so I know that I’m not alone in this room in having these experiences.
This pressure I felt as a child, continued to build through college and then seminary. I pushed myself a lot in those years. I was trying to keep up with all these “shoulds” that I had, the things that I thought I should do. Expectations that were coming from somewhere I couldn’t quite pinpoint inside of me. Even though I was struggling, I didn’t know how to check in in with myself. I didn’t know how to consider my feelings in that way, I only knew how to push through them and keep going. And I was pretty good at it too, except for when it became abundantly clear that I couldn’t sustain this level of stress forever. Though it was a long time coming, I was finally diagnosed with anxiety in 2021 while I was having something of a mid-pandemic breakdown, maybe some of you went through something similar.
I was working as a chaplain at OSU and I came to my mentor one day and told her that I was so overwhelmed by being in the hospital that I felt like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I had been dreading coming in to work, and when I did it felt impossible for me to leave the office, and face these people, and do my job. And she very kindly told me, that it sounded like I needed help, and that I should talk to a doctor about what I was experiencing, so I did. And after talking to the doctor about how I was feeling, and how often I had felt that way throughout my whole life, she diagnosed me and asked me if I wanted to try medication.
Now, I was terrified of taking medication. I had heard that it would change who I was, my personality, and my thoughts. Even though my thoughts were currently bothering me, at least they were familiar, I knew what they were like and I had managed them so many times before. I didn’t know what would happen if I started messing with the chemicals in my brain, but that wasn’t all that was holding me back from medication. I was also held back by guilt and the shameful thought that what this was all really about was my own lack of faith. Because what I had heard from most of my religious resources as a child was that when you feel overwhelmed, worried, and depressed, it means you have to learn how to lean on God and to strengthen your walk with God, because if you have faith, God can help you with these struggles.
You see, no one was talking about mental health where I’m from, unless we were talking about someone with a really severe disability. I didn’t have the slightest idea that I could benefit from professional help because in my mind, I was “not that bad.” And I don’t blame the adults who were around me for that, because they didn’t know any better either. I remembered the voices of people asking me, “Well, how often are you praying? Have you tried starting the day with a devotion? Maybe you just haven’t really given this over to God yet. Spend more time in the Word.” But I had. I had tried everything that I had been told, and yet my anxiety just kept getting worse and worse, and I was ready to do anything that would make it stop.
So, I started taking meds for the first time, and I started seeing a therapist for the first time too. In part, that was because I finally had my own health insurance, and a job that enabled me to do that. I feel like I cannot overstate the kind of economic privilege that it takes for most of us to find help and get better. Then, when the meds and therapy started to help, I felt a wave of grief over the years that I didn’t know this was even possible. I didn’t know that what I struggled with was treatable. It made me wonder what my life could have been like if I had known and gotten help sooner. The worst part is, that even at that appointment, I didn’t really understand that my anxiety was not somehow my fault. I was deeply ashamed of it, and I blamed myself constantly for not being able to be the kind of person who doesn’t worry so much and who feels confident being themselves. I really thought that I just wasn’t trying hard enough to overcome it on my own. Which is not true, because I was trying very hard.
I didn’t know that all this anxiety was coming from something called my sympathetic nervous system. When you are in danger, this is the part of you that triggers the release of chemicals to help you protect yourself. So, if you’re being chased by a tiger, adrenaline and cortisol will give you the boost of energy and the focus you need to run or fight for your life. Occasional anxiety in stressful situations is normal and necessary for survival. An anxiety disorder is what happens when you get stuck there. Your body still perceives a threat to be present, and so those chemicals don’t get the chance to return to homeostasis or calm, which impacts you mentally and physically over time. But you can’t just shut it off either. Anxiety is VERY persuasive. It is embedded in your nervous system, so when it gets triggered, it overrides your ability to think your way out of it, and it can interfere even with simple parts of your daily life, your work, and your relationships. Anxiety means that something inside of you is trying to protect you, and it’s not just going to stop doing that if it is convinced that there is a tiger in the room.
I know now that it takes a lot of practice to recognize and interrupt anxiety while it is occurring. Like many people with anxiety I often know that what I’m worried about is irrational, but anxiety isn’t about being rational, it is a bodily experience. For me, that’s where medication comes in, because it can help to turn down those internal alarms a bit, and it makes my anxiety easier to manage. I don’t want to portray it as a perfect solution, but it has helped me a lot.
Medication saves lives. Even though finding meds that work for you can be a really tricky and long process. There should be no shame or stigma around taking them because it can be a really hard choice, and the journey it takes just to get to them is already hard enough without that.
Medication is just one tool, and if you struggle with anxiety you need a whole toolbox. You need tools for your physical well being, to help you get rest, water, and nutrition, which often get put on the backburner when you’re struggling. And you need tools for your mind. Strategies for going easier on yourself and learning how to talk to and listen to yourself differently. Ways of being that may take a lot of intention and practice, because they’re so radically different from what you’re used to.
Today, I want the anxious people in the room to hear your pastor say that anxiety is not your fault. Your faith is not lacking because of how you experience fear and worry. I’m sorry that you have to deal with what anxiety can do to your head, and your body. I hope you give yourself compassion. I hope you reach out to the ones who love you when you need them. I hope you know that you are worth the effort it takes to get the help you need, and that even on your worst days, you’re not alone.
We are under a lot of stress, and when we’re under stress, our bodies and brains have extra needs, and those needs won’t go away no matter how much guilt we throw at them. If we could shame ourselves into feeling better, we would’ve already done that a long time ago, but we can’t shame our way into healing, we need compassion to get there. And healing is where I connect with the passage we read from Isaiah. Because we too often sound like a nation that is eager to solve this mental health crisis, and yet, there are some things we must change, to make a way for healing to come.
Because for so many people, the stress doesn’t end with current events or even their own personal lives, it gets multiplied by poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia which all add layers of chronic stress into people’s lives and therefore also become mental and physical health issues themselves. And people can’t be mentally well when their living and working environments create chronic levels of stress for them, especially when medication and therapy and other kinds of support are so hard to access if you’re one of the 30 million Americans who does not have health insurance right now.
What God asks of us is to loose the chains of injustice, break the yokes, set the oppressed free, share food with the hungry, provide shelter for the wanderers, and clothe the naked. Then our light will break forth like the dawn, healing will appear, and we will become like a well-watered and thriving garden, having repaired and restored the things that were broken. God asks us to take care of each other, and to keep breaking down everything that holds people back, because compassion helps our whole garden to heal.
That is why we have to keep talking to each other about our mental health, long after this series is over, even if our voices tremble when we do so. That is how we figure out who is still in chains, and whose needs are being neglected, and where to find the water and grace our garden needs to thrive. I know, it can be really scary to do that. Just like it’s scary to make an appointment with your doctor, or to try a new prescription, or to open up to someone about how you’re really doing when they ask you. It’s scary for us to face questions like “what can we even do about that?” when the world needs so many things, but shining some light on these things that scare us makes us more prepared to work on them together.
Even if it seems unfeasible, unrealistic, or impossible… Paul reminds us that “What no eye has yet seen, what no ear has yet heard, and what no human mind has even yet conceived,” that is the very thing that God has prepared for us. I believe that God is taking us to places we have never been before, to a future where we repair those things that have been trapping us in cycles of chronic anxiety and suffering, that get passed from one generation to the next. And I know a lot of you are already hard at work interrupting those cycles in your own lives and your own families. I hope you know that that is sacred work you are doing, which inspires me to keep the faith that every single day, in some small way, we keep moving, bit by bit closer to that mysterious wisdom that God has wanted for us since long before time began. The wisdom of compassion that can lead us to peace in all things, from the deepest places inside of ourselves, to all the furthest corners of the world. Amen.
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