It comes at night. Almost always, it comes at night.
It begins with just a whisper of urgency, a small note of concern. It travels the currents in my brain, hitching a ride with firing neurons, grabbing the wheel of logical thinking and veering sharply off course.
Anxiety wrecks my nights.
These episodes began right before I turned thirty, about the same time my physical health began to unravel. The amount of stress we were living under at the time was the perfect springboard for my mental health to leap into dark waters. I worried about things that were normal, but most of the time I worried about things that made no sense. Eventually, I found myself sitting up in bed in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, unable to quell the racing of my heart. When I tried to land on a reason for my panic, my thoughts tied themselves in knots I couldn’t untangle. I couldn’t define the source of what felt like electrical impulses coursing through my veins, but my heart hammered with each alarming jolt. I can tell when anxiety wants to take center stage in my mind. It slips in the back quietly but rushes the stage full force. It makes the walls feel close in the room. I can’t get a good breath. And then starts the spinning of illogical thoughts; they come at me so fast I can’t categorize them. Not that it would help; anxiety robs my thoughts of logic.
Six years later, I am still dealing with anxiety attacks and trying to understand the triggers. In the last six months, I’ve discovered that anticipatory thoughts are my biggest trigger—preparing for a new experience or an event that relies on my presence or ability. My subconscious thoughts, specifically, are the enemy here. I can fall asleep easily before an event, trip, or new experience only to be jolted awake with a vague, unsettled feeling of fear. I will lose the rest of my night to anxiety and my attempts to stop it. I’m learning to combat it with grounding techniques, simple activities that help differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined. Simply holding on to the edge of a table and reminding myself that the unsettling “what if” isn’t actually happening. What is real is that I’m standing next to this table—this real, wooden, rickety dining room table. It is sixty years old and belonged to my great-grandparents before it took up residence in my parents’ dining room. When my parents moved to a new house eleven years ago, they gave it to me. It’s warped from that sweltering day my parents moved and a surprise summer storm popped up before they could get the furniture inside. I can feel the rough texture of the surface where the raindrops did their brief but long term damage. The realness of this table helps while I pray for the Lord to settle down my illogical thinking. Even if I can grab one of these runaway thoughts and follow it to its logical end, there is really nothing worth fretting over. I know this. I know it. I am working to understand how to unravel the illogical parts of it.
What’s more difficult, though, is plumbing my theology and grappling with why my beliefs are not enough to halt my anxiety in its steps. When I have rock solid certainty in what I believe about God and the safety of my soul, I still struggle with the tattering effects of anxiety.
Anxiety makes me feel weak. And I hate that.
In the middle of an attack and usually afterward, I berate myself: “I should be stronger than this.”
Last week I traveled across the country alone to a conference. It was a series of “firsts” for me, and I’d had a crippling episode of anxiety a couple of nights before my trip. On my third night away, I had just settled down to sleep when the power went out at the hotel. With only a little bit of battery power left on my phone, I quickly searched for a reason for the outage. It was a citywide blackout that kept us in the dark until morning. Knowing how hot it was outside, the darkness felt especially close, and the claustrophobic grip of anxiety rushed in. What if it gets really hot? What if the outage lasts until I’m supposed to leave? What if I can’t leave? What if something dangerous caused the outage? What if I can’t get home? I called my husband to help me shake it off, but I couldn’t stop the racing heart, the cluttered thoughts, the fear of being stuck. I paced, I prayed, I tried to go to sleep. But at 5 a.m., when the power kicked back on, I was wide awake. I had an important meeting in a few hours, and my confidence was in absolute shreds.
I texted some prayer warriors and tried to go about the business of dressing and preparing for my day. I rehearsed my pitch while applying mascara that dripped down my cheeks with tears of frustration.
“I should be stronger than this. I’m an adult. I’ve done much harder things in my life than this. I should be stronger than this!”
But I wasn’t. I’m not.
While I tried to mop up the disastrous attempt at makeup, my phone dinged with the following words of a dear friend: May mean something, or nothing. But in praying, I’m hearing, “I’m right there with her.”
I sat down on the hotel bed and grappled with the words. God was with me. In the middle of my breakdown, He was with me. He has made and kept lots of promises throughout history, but that promise of His perpetual presence is the one I need one hundred percent of the time. He is with me and not ashamed of my weakness. In fact, He can work something good from it.
Later that day, after hearing other conference attendees laugh off the power outage, I had lunch with a friend and confessed my panic attack. “I hate how weak it makes me,” I told her. Even so, I felt familiar words rolling off my tongue: “But I guess the Lord’s power is perfected in my weakness. I know it is.” Sluggishly, I remembered to believe it. Fighting shame that what other people could laugh about had put me through a mental wringer, I worked to believe what was true. The apostle Paul said it so well, and I could not be more grateful that this portion of Scripture was included in the Bible:
Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 (HCSB)
I may be weak, but God is strong, and anxiety reminds me that I am not God.Anxiety knocks my idol of self-sufficiency off its pedestal and reminds me that I am not God. Click To Tweet
Anxiety keeps me in a posture of desperation; it keeps me dependent on Him. Anxiety knocks my idol of self-sufficiency off its pedestal. My meeting may have gone well, but it was not because I was full of confidence and good ideas. I went to that meeting in tatters, with a grip on reality that was frayed at the edges, with confidence that was shaky at absolute best.
Anxiety meant that I had to lean hard on the Lord’s presence. Because He is unendingly strong, I can lean as hard as I need to. He can take all my weakness and prove Himself strong. I can come to Him with a knotted ball of tangled thoughts, and He can sit with me on the edge of the hotel bed. I can admit that I do not have all of this together, that my confidence can never be anchored in myself. It just can’t be.
Anxiety: I am not stronger than this.
But He is.
With each episode, I’ve come to realize my panic is not always an absence of faith. Anxiety is an opportunity for me to lean into faith in spite of my doubt. It is a vessel for seeing my weakness and knowing where true strength lies. Not in me, but in the God who is with me. He knows I’m weak. Anxiety may be the thorn I need to remind me that He is strong. It’s upside-down thinking, but while I use techniques to settle my physical weakness, I also ground myself in the truth of the gospel to settle my spiritual weakness.
There is nothing wrong with being weak before a strong, present God.
Check out this episode of Theocast for a helpful discussion about anxiety, mental health, and the Church.
*I am not a medical or mental health professional. Please seek a doctor’s help if you feel your anxiety is too difficult to manage. I am thankful for professionals who are smarter than I am that can offer help in this area. God has gifted many people to understand how our minds work. Please seek one of them out for help.
Photo cred: SHTTEFAN with Unsplash.