This post has been excerpted from Robin Barnes’ blog “Spiritual Grit” (spiritual grit.com). It is a brief telling of the story of my experience with extreme anxiety while in the midst of ministry.
While in seminary in the early 1970s, I was the part-time pastor of a small church. A dear, godly, woman in my congregation was struggling with a sense of anxiety. Things were not right for “Connie,” but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what was wrong. Thinking this was a sin or spiritual problem, she was desperately applying herself to biblical disciplines, but with little success.
I did my best to help her in spite of my limited understanding of her needs. Having had little experience with emotional problems, my only framework for counsel was my seminary training. And so I talked with her about prayer and trusting God.
But nothing I said had the slightest impact on her struggles. In spite of excellent seminary training, I lacked the ability to help people like Connie. And, since I had never personally had to deal with those problems myself, I didn’t even really understand what they were going through.
A few years later I was surprised to receive a jubilant letter from Connie. Her doctor had diagnosed her as hypoglycemic (low blood sugar). After medical and dietary solutions were implemented, her symptoms quickly disappeared. Regretting my failure to give her the most basic guidance, I was nevertheless delighted with this outcome. But I learned a powerful lesson through that ministry “failure,” a lesson that would stand me in good stead in my own time of personal crisis.
All that was to change years later. Fast forward to June 2015 when, for the first time in my life, I was blindsided by a smothering cloud of anxiety. It came on the heels of a very busy few months that ended with a stressful missions trip to Asia. When I got home, I found myself psychologically paralyzed. I was unable to function on the most basic level. Though it only lasted two days, such crippling anxiety was very distressing. I was relieved when the symptoms quickly went away and life returned to normal.
But in early March 2017 the debilitating fist of anxiety got its grip on me on a second occasion, this time with a vengeance. This was an engulfing 24-7 tidal wave of crushing angst so distressing that life seemed unbearable. Nothing escaped my “worry radar” as I found myself in a state of constant anxiety about every conceivable thing. After the symptoms lingered for a week, I sought medical help.
I was fortunate to have a sensitive, caring, and knowledgeable doctor. She listened patiently, ordered a battery of tests (which showed no evidence of medical abnormalities), and prescribed a low dose of a mild medication. After a few weeks, I stabilized. Now, six months later, the symptoms have not returned, and I am grateful.
From Observation to Empathy:
When it comes to anxiety, most people can be divided into at least two major groups. First, there are those who have never been seriously impacted by emotional imbalances. I spent the first seven decades of my life in this first group.
The second group would be made up of those who have anxiety on the level of “a disorder.” This is worry on steroids. After sharing my struggles in an April 2017 newsletter, I learned that there are far more in this second group than I could have ever imagined. Though I only joined their ranks for a couple of months, I have learned that there are no guarantees.
I’ve also learned that, whether anxiety grips us like a vise or we are giving care to others who are struggling, it is essential that we take the challenge seriously. Advice like “pray more, read your Bible, confess your sin,” and “go to church,” are helpful when the struggle is spiritual in nature, perhaps the result of sin. But when the problem is physical or emotional, the sufferer must shift into a different gear. Since those who deal with anxiety are usually already crying out to God and dealing with sin problems, simplistic remedies are inadequate.
But this does not mean that there are no options. In my case, getting my physician involved was a no-brainer. In addition to medical causes, there can also be dietary issues, hormonal imbalances, results of stress , sleep deficiency, genetic factors, and even spiritual warfare to impact our emotional well-being. In my case, my physician was very helpful, so I did not pursue counseling or therapy. However, if the problem had persisted for very long, that would have been a logical next step.
The combining of physical, emotional, hormonal, dietary, and stress factors with spiritual warfare can make one dizzy with confusion. To this day, I cannot confidently state the exact cause of my brief skirmish with anxiety, though I know that stress was a factor. Nor am I certain what action I took that ultimately led to my return to normalcy, though I do believe medication, prayer, and a lightening of my schedule all played a role.
I’m not trained as a counselor or as a medical professional. But my experience has led me to four practical suggestions for those who are in the throes of such difficulties:
◆ Visit your doctor and have a complete physical checkup.
◆ Temporarily scale back your ministry to allow time for rest, recreation, reading, and renewal. This may prove to be of immense help.
◆ Don’t hesitate to take a medication prescribed by your doctor or psychiatrist. Whether for the short-term (like me) or the long-term (like many), this can often help to stabilize you so you can function normally.
◆ Learn to anticipate, recognize, avoid, and defuse stressful situations that may trigger your symptoms.
Jesus the Greatest Empathizer:
For those engaged in intense ministry, engagement on the front lines of battle is an invitation to stress and attacks. As a result of my hitting the wall in April, I have discovered that many full-time Christian workers as well as other believers are experiencing a virtual avalanche of disorders and phobias. This is a great strategy of the enemy to neutralize the effectiveness of those serving the Lord.
Recently I was having breakfast with missionaries whom my wife and I support. I was surprised to discover that the wife, a normally joy-filled and vivacious person, had recently come through a devastating season of anxiety that was virtually identical to my own recent experience. Her case was so severe that she had been admitted to the psych ward of her local hospital. The person we might think least susceptible does not have an exemption from this affliction.
Whereas previously I would have commiserated with her but would have been unable to identify with her struggle, I realized I had a newfound understanding and admiration for people like her who battle any kind of mental or emotional imbalance. Before I had opinions (what one Bill Bullard called “the lowest form of knowledge”); now I have empathy (“the highest form of knowledge, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world”).
Of course, the greatest “empathizer” is Jesus, who suffered in a body like ours. We take great comfort in the knowledge that he sits at the Father’s right hand, making intercession for us because he truly “has lived in our world.” Certainly his “troubled soul” (Jn. 12:27) and his agony in the garden (Luke 22:39-46) provide needed comfort that, when we are grappling with emotional disequilibrium, he most assuredly understands.
One final suggestion is I would make is this: During your affliction and after you are delivered, be willing to talk about your experience with trusted people. If God was gracious enough to intervene in your life to protect his reputation (Psalm 109:21), he deserves to have your story shared so that he can get the glory he deserves.