We live in an anxious world. This rings true on a global scale as well as in our individual lives. Across the world there are uprisings of religious fanatics whose aim is to bring suffering, persecution, and death to those who do not believe as they do. They are driven by hate and will use any means to accomplish their end. This ominous cloud is gathering in many countries and creating anxiety concerning our way of life and our future.
Getting even closer to home is our soaring national debt with no fix in sight and political gridlock in Washington which has brought our confidence in government to an all-time low. Many worry about whether the people we elected to manage such matters have any answers or if they are more concerned about keeping their own jobs than in fixing the problems with our national debt, the border crisis, and soaring crime rates in many of our large cities. If this is not enough to make you anxious, there is the personal stuff of marriage, raising kids, health issues, aging parents, making ends meet financially, and fitting more and more things into an already overcrowded schedule.
All of us experience anxiety in one way or another. It is part of the human condition from birth to the grave. The baby often cries anxiously as a way of getting the caregiver to deal with his hunger or physical discomfort. The anxious parent tosses in his bed awaiting the return of his teenager from their date. Moms and dads watch a news program concerning a military action and their minds struggle to put away the pressing thought that their loved one might have been wounded or killed in the battle. Day after day they live with the anxiety that the one they have seen grow up before them may return maimed or may not return at all.
It may surprise you that I suggest there is something good about anxiety. I believe anxiety can serve us and do great harm to us. While we cannot and should not hope to be rid of all anxiety, we can take steps to use the good part of it and arm ourselves so as not to be controlled by it.
What is the good part of anxiety? Anxiety is good when it alerts us to some danger or impending harm to us or someone or something we care about. It is good when it cautions us to be careful, to use discretion about a decision. For example, the wise parent becomes anxious when his child does something which can easily lead to physical harm or death. Anxiety alerts the parent to act, to rescue the child from his foolish decision or from someone who could harm him. Anxiety can push us to take action to remedy a problematic situation. It can alert a student to prepare well for an exam, a soldier to be vigilant at his task, or a worker to give his best to his job. In these ways and many others anxiety can spur us to avoid carelessness or laziness which may lead to failure or even death. Seen this way, anxiety can have a good, beneficial effect. It serves as a warning signal, an alarm to awaken us to potential harm. You might even say it is a sign of wisdom to respond well to the good side of anxiety.
So, when does anxiety cross the line from good to bad? When does this gift become harmful? It is one thing to respond to an anxiety-producing situation in order to resolve the issue but quite another to have anxiety control much of your thoughts and actions. As with anger or other issues, the question comes down to control. Anxiety has crossed the line between helpful and harmful when it is out of control.
What does bad anxiety do to you and others? If you have experienced times when anxiety has controlled you or if you have lived with someone controlled by it you will readily recognize the following symptoms of bad anxiety. It tends to distort or exaggerate the reality of the situation. People controlled by anxiety often overreact to life events. The smallest incident can trigger a major emotional reaction. People not controlled by anxiety would probably see the incident as a minor annoyance or inconvenience and move on.
The person controlled by anxiety doesn’t seem to have the capacity to put the incident into perspective. Already very nervous about something, they tend to connect the small event to the pile of things they are worried about and overreact to it. They may do what I call “going from A to Z.” They are faced with a relatively small problem or challenge but make it much bigger and more threatening than it really is. For example, a person may dread their annual physical with their physician. There seems to be no sign of a physical issue but they become almost frozen by fear because of the possibility the doctor may find some problem. They fear what might be and distort or exaggerate the situation without any rational basis for their concern.
Folks who experience this level of anxiety are miserable. Such people live in fear of what could happen and tend to instill fear in the lives of those who live with them. They go beyond sensible precautions that are healthy and reasonable and are often consumed by worry which results in overprotection and limitation of normal activity. They are controlled by anxiety.
Bad anxiety depletes your emotional and physical energy. Anxiety takes its toll emotionally and physically. Being vigilant all the time is emotionally taxing and wears you down and flattens you out emotionally. When that happens you notice your physical energy is also sapped. That’s because emotions are energy in our physical body and when they are expended we feel tired and depleted. When you are worried about something it works on you physically. You likely will not sleep well and, thus, a cycle may begin in which your physical and emotional energies are not renewed.
A person controlled by anxiety can become vulnerable to more serious health issues such as depression, high blood pressure, and various other ailments. Professionals who deal with the medical and emotional needs of people are becoming increasingly aware of the interconnection between the emotional and physical health of their patients. We have not been created with separate, unconnected parts. What affects one aspect of our life has an impact on other parts of us.
It impairs your ability to focus or concentrate. Anxiety takes away our ability to pay attention to the task at hand. It interrupts or overrides our concentration. For example, the anxious person finds it very difficult to read for extended periods of time without anxious thoughts breaking through. Anxiety creates a sense of being at loose ends, not able to settle down to the job before us. Anxiety makes ordinary tasks more challenging and can help create dangerous situations such as leaving a burner or oven on, failing to disengage the gas pump before driving away, and not paying attention while driving or operating machinery. Anxiety also makes it more difficult to listen to family members and, therefore, can undermine our relationships.
Out-of-control anxiety infects you with doubt and negativity. Besides all the issues just mentioned, anxiety can turn you into a person who has a sour attitude about life in general. Anxiety robs you of your joy and happiness and can make it difficult to be around you. Most people don’t find it pleasant to be around a person who is always negative or doubtful. Anxious persons can suck the hope out of the room.
I believe many of the ills of our society can be traced to the inadequate or flawed ways we attempt to deal with anxiety. We want to feel calm or excited, want to feel in control at all times. We want quick fixes and shudder at the thought of being emotionally uncomfortable or just riding out the anxiety until it subsides. We don’t want to experience any discomfort. However, reality and healthy living dictate there are going to be times when feeling bad or threatened is okay.
The result of trying to escape real life and its attendant anxiety can bring serious consequences. Several addictions may be traced to the attempt to escape the difficult realities of life. Among them are alcoholism, illegal and prescription drug addiction, and food addiction. You can probably add many workaholics to the list of those who are trying to assuage the demands of anxiety. Also, depression usually has an anxiety component to it and may sometimes be considered a means of escaping reality.
There are a number of ways to address debilitating anxiety. Here, I have chosen to briefly touch on the medical and, physical aspects of treatment and give a more detailed discussion of the spiritual side from a preventative perspective in part two. Although I have chosen to separate these aspects for clarity I recognize that, in many instances, they are combined with good results.
Medical treatment involves prescribing a drug to counteract the ill effects of anxiety and re-establish a chemical balance in the brain. Medical treatment may also include treatment of physical issues that may be attendant with the anxiety. Prescription drug treatment can be helpful in restoring a sense of balance to the person but, by itself, does not cure the problem. Unless the source of the anxiety is discovered and dealt with therapeutically through counseling or some other means, the real issue is left unresolved.
Anxiety takes a toll on us physically. Exercise, such as walking, stimulates chemicals in the brain which can help control anxiety. Exercise, when done as part of one’s lifestyle, is a good way to work off nervous energy and maintain emotional balance. When combined with medical and/or spiritual help physical exercise can prove to be very beneficial in combating anxiety. There are many enjoyable activities such as gardening, swimming, or biking that can have a positive effect on your physical and emotional health. The issue is to make physical activity a part of your lifestyle, if possible, and refuse to become sedentary. This investment will pay good dividends physically and emotionally.
I personally believe a great deal of the personal pain and problems caused by anxiety could be avoided altogether if the correct spiritual prescription were followed when we first realize anxiety is becoming a problem. I say this not to condemn or judge anyone who deals with chronic anxiety but to emphasize the need to recognize and deal with anxiety before it gets to the controlling stage. We need to” nip it in the bud.” I believe that those with debilitating anxiety can benefit from the spiritual suggestions I discuss in the next blog but may need some serious medical intervention as well.