When Worry Overwhelms Us
Worry is a much maligned and misunderstood human habit of self-preservation. Our sensitive Limbic systems are a greatly responsible for our success and survival. However, as with every God given aptitude in a fallen world, there is the danger that something good becomes something very bad indeed.
Statistically life has never been safer, yet our world and churches are filled with chronic worriers, so what has gone wrong? Why has worry and anxiety reached such epidemic proportions. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) suggests that the chronic worry or GAD has a 5% prevalence in the population It also says, “Recognition of anxiety disorders is particularly poor in primary care and only a small number of people experiencing anxiety disorders receive any treatment” (www.nice.org.uk). The figures for those who will suffer from a bout of anxiety or depression in their lifetime is approximately 25%.
Dr Rob Waller, Consultant Psychiatrist and my co-author of “The Worry Book” says, “Many any people believe worry problems will resolve spontaneously. However, they are unlikely to go away on their own because they are self-maintaining. Worry issues benefit from a structured and insightful treatment approach”. Two years ago at a major youth festival in the UK the host invited all those who struggled with worry or anxiety on a moderate or severe level, to stand. A third of the thousands present responded. If this is the future of the church we have got some serious work to do!
Worry is Complex
Worry is a far more complex and sophisticated mechanism than most people assume it to be. Unfortunately it often takes one to know one. There are some people who just don’t struggle with worry at all and find it hard to empathise. When I contacted other church leaders for their ideas on this issue the Bishop of Willesden responded, “Probably not the right person to ask – I don’t do worry!” But far from being flippant, Pete was being honest. Some people just don’t do worry.
By the same token, some very God-fearing and faithful Christians do. Revd Geoff Maughan; one of the most sensitive and inspiring leaders I have had the pleasure to know, commented, “After 40 years of being a Christian, I am sorry to say that I am still an inveterate worrier, and it is the result of a) a habit of mind formed in childhood; b) a need to protect myself from failure or embarrassment; c) the fears that are endemic to human beings in our natural state of not trusting God.” The challenge that we face is that if this is Geoff’s experience, what hope is there for the rest of us?
This genuine letter is an example of many that we receive at Mind and Soul, exposing the sort of experience and confusion that surrounds problem worry:
Dear Mind and Soul,
I wonder if I could ask you a question about something that has been bothering me regarding what some Christians have said to me. I've had a lot of Christians come up to me and say things like, ‘God doesn't want us to be anxious; he's created us for freedom’, or ‘The Bible says do not be anxious over anything’, or even better, ‘If we are not living in joy, it's because we aren't resting in the Father's arms and accepting his fatherhood over us.’
I've really struggled with some of these comments, which have either been preached or passed my way during my illness. I've known the loving arms of God as my Father for many years, and yet I've had this illness, and it's led me to feelings of guilt sometimes. I know that isn't right either, but I just feel uncomfortable with what some people are saying, and I don't believe it's all as simple as they're preaching. What's the correct response as a Christian to the comments I've received? I'd be glad of your advice or point of view.
Regards, Name Withheld
Living Life to the Full
Jesus wants us to live life to the full (John 10:10), and with his help we can. Unfortunately, because of a lack of understanding about stress and worry, many Christian responses, like those experienced above, actually increase problem worry rather than decrease it. Worry and anxiety have often been regarded as an indication of a lack of faith, or a sin, when in fact for some people, it is more like having diabetes; a chronic and meandering illness that needs careful control.
It is helpful to classify worry into two distinct types: ‘Solvable Worry’ and ‘Floating Worry’. Solvable worry is a natural and often necessary concern. It usually relates to something that is present, threatening and significant, like redundancy, illness or debt. Solvable worry responds well to problem solving techniques and is in itself not a dis-function.
The sort of worry that plagues our pews and steals our freedom is what we term ‘Floating Worry’. Problem worriers often move from one ‘floating’ topic to another several times a day or week. These worries have no real basis, they are not time limited and they are rarely shared. Like a niggling itch the worrier may try and find evidence to prove that he or she is right to be concerned but can never be sure either way.
Problem worriers may watch a soap opera where the storyline follows a person’s journey into a life threatening illness. They then worry that they might have the same illness. They then go on a search through the internet to find evidence that proves that they are right - noticing headaches, becoming aware of muscle pains etc. Other classic example of Floating Worry are worrying about weight, looks, abandonment, acceptability, offending people, and acting inappropriately. Again all normal people will have these thoughts from time to time but to the worrier they trigger whole range of upsetting responses and are generally overestimated.
Christians who wrestle with Floating Worry also suffer with themes that relate to their faith in God. A really common one is the fear of having committed “the unforgivable sin” (Matthew 12:31). Other fears include being outside of the will of God, making the ‘wrong’ decision and the fear of loosing your belief. The other major worry that many Christians suffer with relates to Jesus teaching on adultery (Matthew 5:28); that thinking is the same as doing.
The problem is that every person has a subconscious stream of thoughts that runs through the brain continuously and then into oblivion. In a similar way to a gutter, this subconscious stream contains a lot of rubbish, including weird and nonsensical ideas. Christians often develop worry problems when they believe that these ‘Floating worries’ are genuine thoughts that they are responsible for, choosing to have or really capable of doing.
Right Medicine- Wrong Disease
The difficulty that Christian worriers face is that they are often instructed to use the problem solving techniques that are effective with Solvable worry on Floating worries. This is akin to doing a treasure hunt without treasure, no matter how hard you search you are not going to find any! floating worries cannot be ‘thought through’ because they have no logical or rational basis. Often well meaning Christian counsellors and leaders give credence to floating worry themes, seeing them as being of great significance. Sadly no amount of reasoning or rebuking can overcome what is effectively a processing problem.
When problem worriers look back they often realise that they have worried about thousands of different scenarios that never came true. Yet as much as a friend might point out that the worry is irrational and silly the worrier can’t shake it off. Instead the fact that they realise that their fears are irrational only adds to their distress and the next a worry might be, “Now I am going mad”. Unless leaders realise that we need to assist people out of a ‘style’ of thinking rather than responding to their individual floating worries this problem is not going to be resolved.
Intention is Important
There is a vast difference between deliberately entertaining thoughts that are wrong and recognising floating worries that cause distress. These two things are not the same. If we try to reason our way out of floating worries, we become more anxious about them. We begin to believe that they say something serious about us and so we develop more stress, more floating worries and more fear. It is essential that the worrier gives them no attention at all, see then for what they are… just a misfire in the brain. 2 Corinthians 10:5 helps us deal with these. We are challenged not to reason things through but lead thoughts away, making them captive to Christ. So how can you live a less worried and stressful life?
Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 can really help us to overcome worry and it also affirms the best psychological practice. Jesus splits worry into the two types I have described to you, firstly: “Today has enough troubles of its own” (verse 34b). Be clear with yourself about what are the ‘solvable worries’ that you can deal with today. These can be sucessfully addressed using problem-solving techniques and prayerful consideration. Secondly, “Tomorrow will worry about itself (verse 34a)”. Identify the ‘Floating worries’ that are hypothetical ‘what-ifs’ about tomorrow. Commit not to try to solve them, but instead approach them as a ‘thinking style’ or ‘processing problem’.
There is much popular discussion about what is known as 3rd Wave CBT or ‘Mindfulness’ at this time. There is no doubt that this technique has incredible results when applied to gnawing floating worry. However, there are good reasons why Christians have concerns about ‘Mindfulness,’ which we have not time to go into here. We advocate an equally effective Christian technique called ‘Present Contemplation’ which builds upon Jesus teaching on ‘Watchfulness’ and Paul’s instruction on Colossians 4:2 where he says, “Devote yourselves to prayer being watchful and thankful”. The good news is, there is a powerful and effective Christian response to problem worry, we just need to be able to discern where and how to use it.
10 Top Tips
1) Thoughts are only thoughts… you have the power to choose how you respond to them - either with fear or with courage. How you respond will directly impact how you feel now and continue to feel in the future. When you respond be objective and label them as either ‘Solvable’ or ‘Floating’.
2) If you are suffering from incessant ‘Floating worry’, your stress chemistry is high, meaning that you will have more random worrying thoughts and preoccupations. If you lower your stress levels you will dramatically reduce your ‘Floating worries’.
3) Feeling compelled to work your ‘Floating worries’ out (ruminating) or trying to avoid frightening thoughts just makes them stronger. You need to teach your brain that they don’t deserve your consideration. Ask yourself how many of your anxious thoughts have come true in the past?
4) Anxiety, chronic worry, eating disorders and minor depression are all classified as behavioural disorders. This means that you haven’t caught them, you have learned them... therefore you can also unlearn them. Your actions can have a direct impact upon how you feel.
5) Deep abdominal breathing, ‘Present Contemplation’ and resting upon the peace of God have a powerful impact upon ‘Floating worry’. Getting enough sleep, exercising, reducing caffeine and eating healthily are all things you can do to reduce your stress chemistry.
6) Just because you have frightening, odd or weird thoughts it does not mean that you yourself are odd, weird, dangerous or frightening. Every normal person has a subconscious stream of these ‘floating worries’. They do not define who you are.
7) Accepting how you feel at the moment is important. Remember that it is a temporary state and, with a little application, you can start to feel differently. Feel the fear and do things anyway!
8) Think about a moment when you forgot your worries, perhaps when you first woke up this morning. The fact that you felt fine then is proof that you are fine. Your anxiety system is working correctly but not appropriately.
9) Your aim is to reduce your ‘Floating worries’, not stop anxiety all together. No one can live ‘worry free’,
10) Praying for Jesus’ healing is very helpful, but remember that you are asking him to help you to change your behaviour and not heal you from a disease. You must cooperate with Jesus by trying to change your response to worry if you are to get better, in the same way that you try to modify your behaviour as well as asking him to help you.