23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139:23-24 NIV
Feelings of anxiety are common to us all. Whenever we feel afraid that our capacity to cope may be overwhelmed by our present or future situation…BAM…anxiety! When the feeling is associated with something in the present, it is usually termed as “fear”. When dealing with the anticipation of a future threat, the word “anxiety” is utilized. Colloquially, however, the terms “fear” and “anxiety” are used interchangeably. For some, the ability to create perspective helps to reduce this feeling of distress and create calm. For others, the feeling can be so powerful that they are unable to prevent rumination and obsession. For an even smaller group, an anxiety disorder may be clinically diagnosed and is characterized by being excessive or persisting beyond developmentally appropriate periods. This persistence is typically greater than 6 months. Anxiety disorders do not tend to be stress induced (as transient anxiety might be) and are typically not proportional to the perceived threat. Many anxiety disorders originate in childhood and tend to persist if not treated. In the US population they occur in a 2:1 female to male ratio. In adults, these include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, various Phobias, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia and Substance-Induced Anxiety Disorder.
Although I have not personally dealt with an anxiety disorder, I have had to engage with feelings of anxiety. These feelings usually arose whenever I would focus my mind on the prevention of some anticipated loss. As I inventoried myself, I recognized that this anticipation of loss was associated with a message that I had internalized as a child. My social context (growing up in the Caribbean) resulted in message that said “there are somebody’s and there are nobody’s. I am a nobody and I want to be a somebody.” I therefore expended great effort in this task and whenever events portended potential loss of the ground that I had gained, I would experience anxiety. My anxiety would then result in the control of my environment. Given that this is an impossible pursuit (controlling the environment), my anxiety would increase and result in unhealthy coping.
Can you associate with such a cycle? A future vision is threatened by change, environmental uncertainty, or the absence of cooperation from others and anxious feelings arise? Do you find yourself in a place where potential future circumstances threaten to validate an internal voice that betrays feelings of inferiority, vulnerability, exposure, and incapability? Does your mind constantly wander into the scary future, never staying in the present for too long? You are in exalted company. The psalmist (in the passage above) normalizes the existence of anxious thoughts in us all. He recognizes their power to create an “offensive way” or an approach that disregards God’s sovereignty and gives primacy to human control. He contrasts this self-awareness, however, to “the way everlasting” or the developed ability to appreciate an anxious thought while trusting God’s control and providence.
Appreciating my own anxious thoughts has taken much work and practice in mindfulness and self-acceptance. Mindfulness is the practice of observing and describing the present. Self-acceptance adopts a posture of curiosity when anxious thoughts arise, as if observing them from a distance without judgement and feeling a need to respond. This latter stance also investigates internally held narratives that trigger urgency when anxious thoughts present themselves (like the one I describe of myself above).
Jesus Lifts will be conducting a 4-week guided tour of various Mindfulness practices. The four sessions will last 15 minutes each from 12.00 to 12.15 pm CST on August 8, 15, 22 and 29. Join us using this Zoom link.