Applying the Knowledge
Knowledge is important. But “wisdom is the principal thing.” Knowledge can puff us up. Winning Bible trivia isn’t going to get us through the trials of life. Wisdom is taking knowledge and properly applying it to life.
The brain is constantly asking the question, “Am I safe?” God designed in us remarkable systems and circuits that will cause us to react to dangerous situations before we have a chance to consciously process what’s happening. Imagine walking down an alley. Suddenly, a large dog jumps out of nowhere, barking and snarling. Without thinking you recoil, your arms explode upwards to protect your face, your eyes shut for an instant, adrenaline rushes through your system. All of this, and more, in an instant.
The reactivity of the fear response is based on memories that the brain has stored in the hippocampus. And we all have different stories that have etched indelible marks on the narrative the brain wants to continue. For many, there are events the brain does not want to relive. As the brain asks “Am I safe?”, memories may cause an inappropriate response to otherwise normal life happenings.
A middle aged man reached out to me about his struggle with anxiety. He is a godly man. He faithfully stewards what God has provided for his family. Hearing his children say “I’m hungry” (or the like) triggers something in him. I’ve raised four children and have never experienced this type of trigger. But it would be wrong for me to come down on him based upon my own “non-reaction” to similar things. His story is different from mine. Not worse. Just different. His upbringing in an abusive, impoverished home has left its mark on him. He grew up pretty much in constant survival mode. For him, acknowledging this tendency (and understanding its underlying cause) will do much to help him manage his anxiety. And, eventually, get victory over it.
In Psalm 77, Asaph details his emotional struggles. In verse 10, he simply states, “This is my infirmity…” Isn’t it interesting that he would use a word that means “to be sick” to describe his distress? Healing from mental “infirmity” starts with an acknowledgment. For many, this will be 90% of the journey to effectively managing an anxiety issue. Being aware of our tendency to over-react to stressors helps us put these moments in perspective. It allows us to say, “Okay, I’m probably doing it again. Do I need to go there right now? Or is this just me being me?” Asking questions like these help us stay in the moment.
Anxiety is fear of the future. Depression is typically anguish over the past. Jesus said to take no thought for the morrow since we have enough to concern ourselves with today. Paul intentionally forgot those things which are behind. One key to managing anxiety is to intentionally stay in today. In the midst of more severe anxiety episodes, we may need to even filter down to staying in the moment. Slow, controlled breathing helps calm the panic response. Paying careful attention to those breaths helps move the mind from obsessing on the future to focusing on the moment. As the heart rate lowers (or fill in the blank with any of a number of physical symptoms of anxiety), prayer or scripture memory can help extend the moment.
It is important to daily rehearse the goodness of God. While we certainly don’t want to live in yesterday’s glory, it may be helpful for those with emotional struggles to regularly look back on better times. Back to Asaph in Psalm 77. Not only does he acknowledge his infirmity, but he gives us a glimpse into how he battled it.
“And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.”
He rehearsed seasons when there was no question that God was firmly in control (“years of the right hand of the most High”). Deep down, we know that God is always in control. But there are seasons of life when it is difficult to rest in that truth. Those feelings will pass as seasons change. We manage those times of perceived chaos by intentionally remembering how God HAS worked. This is a bridge to finding peace in the hope that God WILL work.
These simple truths/techniques are not a “cure-all”. There’s no cookie-cutter plan because we are all so different. But for those closer to the “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” side of the spectrum of anxiety issues, simply acknowledging tendencies can help keep our thoughts in check. Those dealing with more severe issues (panic disorders) may need special guidance.