Podcast episode 029: Living with anxiety
In one sense, serious anxiety—the kind that could be called “clinical anxiety” or an “anxiety disorder”—is like other common medical problems: it afflicts quite a lot of us, it has various identifiable forms and physical symptoms, and it can be treated.
But of course, suffering from an anxiety disorder is also different from having diabetes or heart disease, because it is a dysfunction not just of a bodily process, but of how we think and feel. This makes the experience of clinical anxiety doubly hard to cope with. Its physical symptoms and everyday consequences are hard enough, but there is also the confusing and disorienting experience of “me” being anxious or terrified, when another part of “me” is trying to explain to myself that there’s really no reason to be so anxious.
Moore College lecturer Paul Grimmond knows about this firsthand, and in this episode, he not only explains what “clinical anxiety” is and what it feels like, but shares his insights into how we should think about and respond to anxiety as Christians.
Links referred to:
- Our July event: “Is God green?” with Moore College lecturer Lionel Windsor.
- The Life in Ministry Conference (6 August).
- Contact us with your questions for our Q&A episodes.
Runtime: 44:52 min. Subscribe via
Tony Payne: Take a look around in church on Sunday. One in every seven people you look at are probably suffering from some form of significant anxiety—and by that, I mean clinical anxiety, or an anxiety disorder, like panic attacks or post-traumatic stress, or general—or social—anxiety—perhaps phobic anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder or agoraphobia or other forms. Anxiety is a common affliction in the population and in our churches. In fact, one in four people have experienced this level of clinical anxiety at least once in their lives, according to the statistics.
Now, in one sense, this is a statistic like any other medical statistic. In the same congregation, if you look around, chances are one in six people are going to suffer from cardiovascular disease. But anxiety is different from other disease and ailments, because it’s not only manifest in a physical symptoms, like shaking or hyperventilation, but it’s connected to our thinking. It’s connected to our emotions and attitudes and beliefs.
Anxiety is something we need to think through and respond to as Christians—as a real challenge for many people in their Christian lives. And that’s what we’re going to seek to do in this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal at the Centre for Christian Living is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues—to bring the theology and teaching of Scripture to bear on the various questions and difficulties and challenges we face as we live the Christian life. And as I’ve already mentioned, today’s issue is anxiety. And our guest, who we’ll meet in just a few moments, is Paul Grimmond.
But first I want to tell you about our next public event, which is coming up on July 29th, which is not all that far away. Our topic: “Is God green?” Environmentalism was a radical agenda when I was growing up, way back in the dim, dark ages of the last millennium in the 1970s. It was a fringe and radical idea. But environmentalism and green politics are now very much part of the mainstream. In fact, our kids learn to be environmentalists from Kindergarten onwards.
How should we think about environmentalism as Christians—about whether we should save the planet? What is our role in caring for and stewarding the environment? How involved should we be in environmental causes? As Christians, we do need to consider these questions, and the question we should always ask as we do so is, “What does the Bible say about this—about God’s care for his world and about our responsibility for our world and the extent of that responsibility?” Moore College lecturer Lionel Windsor has recently written a book called Is God Green?, and in this CCL event, he’ll introduce us to what the Bible says about the environment—about where the world is headed and what we should do about it in the here and now. So I do hope you’ll join us. That’s on July 29th. And for all the details and to buy tickets, you can go to https://ccl.moore.edu.au.
But let’s get to our guest for today’s episode.
Paul Grimmond: My name’s Paul Grimmond. I have the privilege of being a husband and a father, and I work as the Dean of Students at Moore College.
TP: Paul, for many people, both Christians and non-Christians today, anxiety has become a real problem—a very prevalent problem. But when we talk about anxiety being a problem, what do we mean by “anxiety”?
PG: I think that anxiety is basically—it’s a bodily process and a mind process that occurs for all of us just in everyday life. So I think it’s part of God’s created world. We live in a world that is sometimes broken and dangerous, and it’s right to feel unsettled about that in some way, shape or form. It can be a warning that there’s danger around the corner. It can be an encouragement to act and get something done. I think it actually has all sorts of positive—it—things that are associated with it that are part of just our normal human experience. So we all know, you know, there’s—I’m studying and there’s an exam coming up: it creates a sense of anxiety. It gets me to actually go and do something and some study so that I’ll learn some stuff for that exam. Or in a, kind of, danger situation, you know, I’m beside the road with my small children, one of them runs towards the road, there’s a moment of a panic, and my body does a whole bunch of things that enable me to act quickly and rapidly in response to something—to solve a problem or to save someone from a dangerous situation.
TP: Adrenaline starts to come in, you start to breathe a bit faster, your muscles are ready for action—
PG: That’s right.
TP: —your temperature elevates—all sorts of things happen—
PG: All that stuff happens.
PG: Absolutely. Yep.
TP: So why is that a problem, then? Or how does it become a problem for people?
PG: What seems to be the case is that for some people, their bodies are wired in such a way that the particular pathways chemically and neurally that cause those kinds of things to happen in our bodies around things that are healthy or helpful for us, and which come for a moment and spur us into action and then disappear again, sometimes those pathways—either chemically or neurally or a combination of those things—kind of get triggered way too easily, and when they act, they kind of spiral out of control and leave you in that state in relation to all sorts of things that, in your best times, you feel like, actually, I don’t even know why that’s a problem, or that shouldn’t be a problem, but it is, because my system just takes off. And it often takes off in a way that is m—is much greater than the problem that’s been presented to it.
Now, there’s a—if you go to the BeyondBlue website, there are literally dozens of ways in which it expresses itself—from a kind of generalised, you-can-be-anxious-about-anything or anything, to specific phobias, things like OCD—that kind of behaviour—all of those things are different manifestations of essentially similar pathways in your body, but they get triggered by different things and act in different ways.
TP: So your body goes into an anxiety response—sometimes a quite significant or severe anxiety response—but not necessarily in line with what stimulus is actually there—
PG: That’s right. Yeah.
TP: —so it becomes dysfunctional and difficult—
TP: —and you find yourself … What does it feel like? Have—have you had a panic attack or an anxiety attack yourself? For those people who are listening who haven’t had one, and I have never had an anxiety attack that’s severe like that, what’s it feel like?
PG: The worst ones, for me—so I—I’ve had panic attacks at a few points in my life—kind of a string of them as a teenager and then again in my—probably my late 20s. Mine was associated—I used to get sharp pains in the side of my head, which weren’t—but as soon as they happened, I felt really unwell. And what my doctors have since explained to me, my body, then, basically kicked into an anxiety response. So I suddenly felt very short of breath, I felt dizzy, I felt nauseous. At its worst, I also hyperventilated, which caused me to actually have pains in the muscle across my chest and down my arm, which mimic a heart attack. So the worst one that I—I ever had, I was lying on the floor of a friend’s house and I genuinely thought that I was having a heart attack and that I was about to die. They rang the ambulance. The ambulance guys come. They kind of talk you down. They do all the measurements. No, there’s nothing actually wrong with you. But I—I genuinely thought that I was about to die, and it was just like I couldn’t think properly, everything had gone off, my body felt wretched, I thought I was about to throw up. It was just—that was just awful experience.
TP: It reminds me of a scene in The Sopranos when Tony Soprano is describing to Dr Melfi his first panic—real panic attack.
Tony Soprano: At first, it felt like ginger ale in my skull.
Meadow: Mum! Daddy just fell! Mum!
Carmelo: Tony! Oh my God! Tony!
TP: And so these feelings that arise—this sense of panic or extreme anxiety in the physical bodily responses that go along with it—how common are those kind of experience with people? We—we call that, I suppose, “clinical anxiety”? Is that the best description we could say?
PG: I—I think that’s as reasonable an explan—a word we can use as any other.
TP: We’ll use that in our conversation—
TP: —to make it—may—have a convenient way to describe it. How common is clinical anxiety in the population generally? Do you have a sense?
PG: I mean, BeyondBlue would suggest that probably one in four people are going to have a period of anxiety at some point in their life, and at any time in the general population, it’s probably something like one in seven or thereabouts.
TP: That’s a lot of people.
PG: It is a lot of people. My pastoral ministry experience suggests to me that life in church is exactly the same as BeyondBlue’s experiencing it out there. There are a lot of people in our churches who experience anxiety or who have experienced anxiety at a clinical level.
TP: Now we need to go on and talk about that—about how we think about and understand an anxiety disorder like that Christianly and biblically.
PG: For sure.
TP: But first, let me just ask you about the mind-body aspect of it, because one of the—one of the features of what you’ve just described is that there may be some trigger or rational reason to be anxious, but that the bodily response—the definition of a clinical form of anxiety is that your bodily response is—is over the top or unpredictable or out of your control—
TP: —you can’t say, “Oh, I don’t need to be anxious now. I’ll stop!” You can’t, right!
PG: [Laughter] If only such a thing were possible! Yep.
TP: How do you understand that kind of thing? It’s connected, obviously, to some degree, with—with your mental functioning and your neural functioning—neurological functioning. But it’s also not. How do you understand that? Have you understood it?
PG: I—I think that the first thing that I’d want to say is that the whole anxiety thing is an antonomous system within your body. It’s designed to be automatic. You know, it doesn’t help you to see the bear and then have a fight, then a conversation with yourself about whether the bear’s dangerous or not—[Laughter]—and work out how to respond. Sometimes you’ve just gotta to respond, and your body’s wired to pick up certain signals and then send off a cascade of chemicals and neurological responses that do particular things in your body. So there is this whole thing that happens that you’re not actually in control of.
But it—it’s—it’s semi-autonomous in that, you know, I can detect that I’m breathing very quickly. And I can make a conscious effort to slow my breathing down, for example, which has an effect on my response to the feeling of anxiety and that kind of stuff. It doesn’t make it go away completely, but it does have some effect in terms of damping down or slightly changing my response.
But the other weird thing is that we know that chemically, what the chemicals are doing in my body—part of it is actually affecting the way that I think. I get driven into a kind of rapid response—decision-making mode where I work out what the problem is and respond to it very quickly—and so, for myself, I know that when I’m struggling in an anxious state, I actually do find it difficult to order my thoughts. Or to think deeply and clearly about things—or even about what’s caused the anxiety.
And so I often get what I would see in hindsight as slightly irrational, or I chase particular ideas or thoughts in ways that maybe I wouldn’t at another time. So even the way that I’m thinking is controlled by that response, even though I know that the way that I think can also control the response. And I just—I think for most people, that’s one of the crazy things about inhabiting that space: you feel in control, you know you’re not in control; you’re kind of responsible, you’re not responsible at the same time. And, yeah.
TP: It’s almost a description of the human condition, though, isn’t it—what you’ve just said? That we are responsible for who we are, we are culpable for who we are to—to some degree—greater or lesser—and yet we’re also enslaved—we’re also subject to controls and forces that we actually aren’t free to escape. We call this sin. And so it prompts me to ask, how do you feel about—and how do you think about—the relationship of sin to anxiety?
PG: Yeah, this has been a really complex one for me, because I think, even just thinking biblically and theologically about sin, I want to say it affects me at a number of different levels. So there’s just the simple being part of the created order that, it seems to me, Genesis 3 tells me has been kind of broken as—as human beings reject God and ignore his commands, well, God says, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” We suddenly live in a world that is messy and messed up, and that affects my physical being and body as much as it does the created order in which I live.
So I know that there is—there is kind of a not my personal sin responsibility, but just the effect of sin and God’s cursing of sin in the world means that I live in a broken world and my body’s part of the brokenness. And so there are things about the way my body responds to thing that aren’t ideal and I’m not completely in control of that.
At the same time, in the middle of my anxiety, I am not free of that human propensity to sometimes do and say things that are unhealthy or unhelpful, that are not God-honouring, that actually stand against what God would want from me in the Scriptures. And so, I know that sometimes, when I’m feeling anxious and when I’m not, I am sinful and I do sin, and that’s involved in and engages with this whole space. But it’s in a complex and not one-to-one kind of a way. So I’m not just feeling anxious because I am sinful, and if I could get over the sin, I would suddenly be not anxious.
TP: What you’re saying connects quite closely to certainly my own experience within my immediate and broader family of mental illness and anxiety generally. It’s certainly something that we’ve experienced as a family—that it’s not as if sinful behaviour doesn’t happen in the midst of—of dysfunctional mental disorders of some kind—whether it’s depression or whether it’s anxiety—all sorts of selfishness; all kinds of unhelpful or inappropriate responses—speech to other people—
TP: —actions towards others, and so on. And it’s not as if the person who’s perpetrating those things has ceased to be a person and cease to be culpable for their behaviour.
PG: That’s right.
TP: But they’re culpable in a different way and a different level. It’s—it’s almost as if the dysfunction that’s part of our broken humanness, at this point—our—our illness, our disorder—it’s almost like it—it allows to bubble to the surface some of the worst aspects of who we are—
TP: —things that we would normally keep under control—
TP: —but which come bubbling out, just express themselves.
PG: Yep. But. And I think I would say, Tony, too, that in some ways, parts of my anxiety were driven by sinful aspects of myself. So engaging with my own response to anxiety over time, there have been skills about just dealing with the immediate panic—controlling my breathing; realizing that in that moment it’s not the moment to solve all the world’s problems or work out exactly why I’m anxious, but actually maybe just stop having to think at the moment is going to be helpful. But over the long-term, I’ve become aware that particular things that I do become very anxious about—like, for me, personal—interpersonal conflict—some of that’s driven by people-pleasing tendencies and other things that are not parts of my character that I think actually honour Jesus or are helpful in terms of serving him and being someone who’s been changed by his grace in the gospel.
And so it’s been really interesting for me, working out that there are deep areas of sin in my life that I’ve had to kind of engage in and pray about and learn why it drives me, and practice new responses to things and do things that I find terrifying and scary and all that kind of stuff—that’s helped me to get better at managing my anxiety over time. But at the same time, there are just moments when everything’s out of control and learning that actually, this isn’t me and I’m not in control completely here, and so I don’t need to take responsibility for all of it. It’s a weird place, ’cause you’re never quite sure if you’re right or not.
TP: If you’re taking the amount of responsibility you should.
PG: Yeah, yeah, absolutely!
TP: And so it sounds to me like you’re taking responsibility for your long—in a sense, in a long-term way, and not only for managing this yourself, but for probing and repenting of fairly deep attitudes and thoughts you have that are not Christlike—
TP: —and that at a deep structural level in your personality, push you in a particular direction and make your propensity to be anxious more significant.
TP: And so to repent of the fact that, actually, I don’t need to please other people or be terrified of their reaction; I—I need to love other people and say to them what’s helpful for them and think less about what they’re thinking of me, for example—that that’s—
TP: —that’s a deep repentance that, well I could do with as well! But [Laughter]—but which you’re saying you—as you—you think about your own personality and your own attitudes, it’s kind almost like a Christian cognitive behavioural therapy at that point, almost, isn’t it?
PG: I—I think it is. Like, I think—like I have found going through quite deep anxiety and burnout in—in my ministry and stuff has caused me, by the grace of God in conversation with helpful people and a counsellor and other things, to engage some of those parts of my behaviour and realise that the—God addresses them and he speaks words to me that I need to hear and I need to, you know, say sorry for my mistakes and have a go. Part of the trick, for me, has been that realising that actually helping my anxiety to get better means sometimes going into situations that cause me to feel anxious, for example. And so, learning.
One particular thing has been in relationship—in my marriage relationship with Cathy—moments where we’ve worked out she wants to know what I’m thinking. I don’t want to say what I’m thinking, ’cause I’m afraid of hurting her and that will make me feel stressed and anxious, so I’d rather just avoid speaking to her. But actually that’s not helpful for our relationship. And so I need to overcome the fact that this will make me feel anxious and that’s terrifying to actually say something. And so I’m kind of confronting the anxiety and causing myself to experience the anxiety, knowing that it will be awful to go through, but hopefully seeing that there’s some fruit in God’s kindness from that process that makes it a bit more worth going through, and maybe just a little bit less anxiety-inducing the next time around.
And if I look at the—my history of doing that, it’s been a very lumpy process—like there’s kind of an upward trajectory by the grace of God over time. But at any one moment [Laughter], whether I feel like I’m doing better or worse than last time around, it’s often hard to answer that question.
TP: Because, generally speaking, the therapeutic approach to anxiety is not to avoid the cause of the anxiety, but quite the opposite, right?
PG: Yeah, no. It’s a really—it’s a tricky space. If you run too quickly into a space that drives your anxiety and the switch goes off, you just go running over the edge and you’ve got nowhere to go. But if you spend your whole life just avoiding what makes you anxious, what lots of the—the clinicians will tell you is that you end up becoming anxious about more and more things, and you become anxious about the thing that’s a step before what might make you anxious, and etcetera etcetera. So just retreating from it doesn’t actually help you to get better.
TP: Because you then become fearful of becoming fearful.
PG: Fearful. That’s right.
TP: I’m very anxious about the fact that some anxiety-promoting—
TP: —situation might occur, and it’s—it’s a bit of a downward spiral at that point.
TP: Theologically and biblically, we’ve talked about sin to some extent. What else does the Bible say and how theologically have you thought about this question—about—’cause the Bible does say things about being anxious. For example, sometimes it says, “Do not be anxious”, which can make an anxious person feel guilty—
TP: —that I’m being anxious.
PG: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
TP: How have you thought through some of the Bible stuff about anxiety?
PG: Yep. I do want to say the big picture thing’s really important. So understanding that sin operates at many different levels—some of which I am responsible for and not has been really helpful. I think seeing that anxiety’s not always evil or wrong has been really helpful. I mean, basically, every person who’s anxious knows Philippians 4:6: [Laughter] and so “Therefore do not be anxious about anything” is kind of in big red warning lights, kind of, you know, God doesn’t want you to be anxious, and therefore I am anxious, and now I’m guilty because I’m anxious and—just makes it all worse. And so, becoming aware that Paul can speak about his ang—anxiety for the churches, for example, in a positive light; he can speak about the body in 1 Corinthians 12-14 as one part being anxious for the other members; and all of those places, it’s actually a—it’s a virtue—to actually have a concern for other people. So just at a very basic level, being able to see that the Bible speaks both positively and negatively about anxiety, and therefore anxiety is not always sinful, gives me a bit of breathing space.
I think I’ve thought quite a lot about the Bible’s kind of interplay between mind and body as well. I think the Bible gives me a very realistic picture of being an embodied creature. And so, I know that my mind’s affected by what I do with my body, and my body’s affected by what I do with my mind, which gives me a bit more freedom to go when I start getting anxious, instead of starting with, “Gee, I’m now sinning. That’s another thing to be worried about,” I can now go—when my body goes really anxious, I can go, “Ah, that’s a reminder. I’m part of a broken world.” And for me, it’s often a sign that I’ve been burning the candle at both ends and I probably need to sleep a bit more—need to be more thoughtful about my exercise—like, realising that those physiological, physical, being human things actually affect my mental state and vice versa. And so I’m more complex than just this floating brain that feels anxious and is therefore sinning and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. All those things have been helpful.
TP: A brain with—that has a body at its disposal—
PG: Yes, that’s right.
TP: —and that I just—all I have to do is think certain things and then my body will do them.
PG: Well, yeah.
TP: [Laughter]If only life were that simple, though!
PG: But I—
TP: There’s so many areas in which that’s not the case!
PG: There’s so many places that it’s not the case. But it becomes particularly acute. I mean, one of the things I’ve realised, when I get sick in any other way, I know that I’m sick and it’s me, but it’s not me at the same time. You know. Like when I’m feeling unwell and I’m throwing up, I get that it’s not [Laughter]—it’s not me. Like, my body’s kind of … I understand that it’s part of me, but it doesn’t feel like it’s me.
When the particular things that are going on your body that are broken affect your self-perception and your thinking, it’s so much harder to detach those from your sense of identity and who you are. Which makes it just a much more complex illness to engage with and actually get better.
You asking theologically too, Tony: I think the gospel actually provides some really rich categories for understanding who we are. I’ve personally found the image of adoption to be really helpful—just in terms of remembering that adoption is actually—it’s an entering into the family that’s not a performance-based reality. Like, being part of a family is not a performance-based thing. And once you’ve been included in a family, you don’t get kicked out ’cause you did the wrong thing.
TP: Oh, man—many of our family members would have been gone long ago, if that was the case!
PG: Yeah, that’s right! [Laughter] And so. But that’s actually really precious, right.
PG: So in my relationship with God, I stand in what one dear friend once described to me as a—as a constant state of grace. And she described how that was really helpful for her in dealing with her anxiety over a long period of time—remembering that even in the anxiety, God is also with her at that moment and she’s not in desperate danger about losing her relationship with God because of the—the objective nature of Jesus’ death and the reality of, kind of, what God has done for us on the cross. And the truth of adoption means that I stand in a space where God is actually with me and gently walks beside me, and cares for me and loves me in that moment, rather than me being in a place of, you know, I’m right of the edge and I’m about to kind of lose the faith or whatever else. Those kinds of truths I think are very precious.
TP: Oh, that is Philippians 4:6, isn’t it.
TP: In the midst of our anxieties, God and his peace is greater.
TP: And it also addresses those deeper underlying questions you were saying before—a real understanding of the gospel—a humble confidence in who God is and Christ is, and what he’s done for us. And therefore, who we now are in him—
TP: —secure and loved and blameless and—with our place at his side—with all that settled, as it were—with all that done by him—it addresses those deeper underlying structures of things that you were mentioning before in our personalities.
PG: Oh, I think absolutely. Even the confidence and clarity to be able to say, you know, “I am sinful, and sometimes I do try and please people, and I don’t need to hide that or pretend that my reputation should be better or make it better or whatever it is.” I can kind of go, “You know, that is part of me. And in God’s kindness, he’s won me and accepted me, and whatever.” But being able to acknowledge it allows me to begin to address it and think of ways that I can engage with it in a healthier way in light of God’s truth in the gospel.
TP: Well, we’ll be back with Paul Grimmond and the subject of anxiety in just a moment. But a couple of things I briefly wanted to draw to your attention: the first is a conference about anxiety that Paul will be involved in later on this year in August: it’s especially aimed at those who are in full-time Christian ministry and who are struggling with issues of anxiety or burnout and stress, which, of course, is extremely common among gospel workers. The information for the conference I have in front of me here says that “it’s specifically design to ensure that you as a—as a Christian gospel worker and your team walk away with some strategies to build resilience for the sake of the gospel and for God’s honour.” This conference is called the “Life in Ministry Conference”. It’s on the 6 August at Moore College and you can find out about it at https://www.moore.edu.au/event/life-in-ministry-conference/. That’s a bit complicated. We’ll put the link in our show notes, but if you Google “Life in Ministry Conference Moore College”, you should be able to find it. It’s on the 6th of August.
I should also say that if you’ve been in enjoying listening to Paul on today’s podcast, you might also like to chase up the two books that he’s written about the Christian life. The first is called Right Side Up: it’s especially aimed at new or new-ish Christians, and it describes in a wonderful way what an adventure it is to have your world not just turned upside down, but actually righted and turned right side up in Christ, and to start living the whole new life that the Christian life is. If you are a new-ish Christian or you know someone who is, let me recommend Right Side Up by Paul Grimmond. I think it’s one of the best books that you can give to a new Christian as they start to lead the Christian life.
And the other book that Paul wrote that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves, I think, is called Suffering Well. It’s a wonderful exploration of what the Bible says about suffering, and it’s got some real surprises in it that are challenging and really encouraging. That’s Right Side Up and Suffering Well. And you can find them at any good Christian bookstore or go to the publisher who’s Matthias Media at http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au and you can find all the details there.
But let’s get back to Paul and to the question of anxiety.
TP : So if someone’s listening to this podcast today and is suffering the kind of experiences you’re talking about where anxiety is out of control and they’re responding to things in ways that they can’t control, what would you say to them? What—what are some of the things that—yes, presumably they’re a Christian person who’s listening to this, but anyone who’s listening to this. What are sort of steps to take? How do you respond if that’s you?
PG: There are number of different things I would want to say. I would want to say medical help can be really useful. So we live in a world where God’s common grace is active. The medical profession knows some stuff about our bodies. There are moments when things like medication and other things are useful in terms of damping down our anxiety response in a way that allows us to become a bit clearer rationally and to be able to engage a bit more thoughtfully with what’s going on for us. And I personally have found seeing a doctor and seeing a counsellor and other processes like that a healthy and helpful part of engaging with my condition.
I think too there’s—there is a great value in understanding the significance and reality of Christian community in this space. One of the things that I realise is that when I get more anxious, I don’t necessarily think as clearly about the world, and having some external voices—of friends and brothers and sisters who will speak into that space and remind me of what is true. And one of the things I’ve learned is that there are moments when I have to, even though my whole mind and body is revolting against what they’re [Laughter]—you know, I’ve always got the excuse about why that doesn’t apply to me or whatever. It’s a moment of learning to trust that probably they are a bit more objective and are speaking a bit and—so there’s a moment to put aside my own current thinking and listen to what dear friends in the faith have to say to me, which helps to bring some perspective to a situation that allows me to, again, just function a little more calmly when things feel really crazy or out of control. So I think the community of—of God’s people is very—it’s a very precious resource in that space.
TP: I think God’s given us each other for this reason. I—I think we—at a previous podcast, only a couple or two ago, I was talking with Chase Kuhn about Christian community and about its values and its importance and its functions. And we reflected on this little passage in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together that talked about the need we have for one another and for the Word to come to us in the mouth of our brother—
PG: Yeah. Yep.
TP: —because our hearts—our own hearts can be so uncertain and you’re describing a situation that’s exactly like that—our own hearts are uncertain, we’re full of doubts because we’re so human and because we lose our grip on things, and because our body might be out of control—
TP: —and that’s precisely when we need the Word from outside, which is what the gospel is, right? It’s the Word from outside—
TP: —that comes to us—
TP: —in God’s grace and reassures us of the—of how things really are by the grace of God
PG: Yeah, absolutely.
TP: —and the promise of God comes to us in that.
PG: And the other thing too is having someone else who will pray for you or with you and be able to express to God things that you can’t work out how to express or in your confusion, but have someone actually come and help you to pray. Sometimes in the agitation and the guilt and the distress of anxiety, it feels like your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling or there’s no one there or whatever else. I think the process of sharing in praying for each other and having someone else pray with you—all of those are precious gifts from God that are really important part of the process.
TP: In what you just said about how to approach anxiety if you are yourself feeling anxious, just to clarify something: some people want to know about the value of medication or not medication. I think you alluded to it. But how do you think Christians should feel about medication, because many Christians feel uncertain and uneasy—well, many people feel uneasy and uncertain about popping things into their mouths.
PG: Absolutely. It’s tricky. Medication is an art and not a science in this space, and, you know, I’ve had friends who’ve been through kind of three or four different medications until they found one that works, and you try something for a time and then it doesn’t work so well, it makes you feel really unwell, but then coming off it is a miserable process, and often the anxiety gets worse and then you try something else … It really is an experimental space, which is awful if you have to live through it. One of the things that people often do is they experiment, it doesn’t work, they go, “My GP doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I’ll go and find someone else”—who then starts from square [Laughter]—square one again. Actually often persevering with the medical professionals in that space and going through those steps is important.
I think we’re fearful, too, because we feel like, in some ways, we’re taking something that affects our personality, which is very different from lots of other medications that we take. And so, it is sometimes you will try something and you’ll go, “Actually, this really doesn’t work for me, ’cause I feel so dead that I can’t feel anything”, or whatever it is. That’s okay. That’s part of the process. Talk to someone through that.
But I do think it is also helpful to realise that because it is physiological as well a mental, medication for many people actually just creates a space which damps down the physiological response in a way that starts to give you a little bit more clarity in the thinking space so that you can engage with some of the thoughts and processes and habits that are—that you need to engage with in order to see some improvement. So I—I don’t think—and I—actually I don’t think that I’ve met many people in the medical world who would say to you that the medicine’s all the answer. It’s one little piece of a puzzle as you try to understand yourself and put things together and gain a slightly clearer perspective that helps you to engage in a better way.
TP: And that can be short-term or long-term, so I’ve had people—
TP: —in my—in my world who’ve had medication short-term, because it created that kind of—it created like a leg-up–it just helped them to get over the initial problems—to create a little bit of space that then allowed them to, over not a terribly long period of time—12 months, 18 months—
TP: —come out the other side, because anxiety disorder is one of those kind of mental disorders that generally has quite a good prognosis.
PG: It actually has a very good prognosis. Even people that I’ve seen—some of the worst cases that I’ve seen, and for them, it’s taken like years and years to get—
TP: So it can be longer term—
PG: —improved—it can be longer term. But in—I can think—every case that I can think of, over time, there has been slow, steady improvement. And I just want to say that’s such a precious thing to hear, ’cause when you’re in the midst of it, it feels like there is no end, and to realise that people have been where you’ve been before and have actually come to a point where they’re a bit more able to cope, do you know what I mean?
And it’s interesting: I still experience anxiety; I’m not completely free of it. It’s not quite as intense as it used to be, in God’s kindness. And often it doesn’t last as long. And I think that’s partly skills that I’ve learned—partly, you know, whole lot of stuff. It’s not perfect. But even now, knowing that I’ve been there before also I get less anxious about the fact that I’m feeling the anxiety, ’cause I trust that it will come to somewhere better as we head into the future. And overwhelmingly the prognosis is good.
TP: It’s almost like a description of this world, isn’t it:
TP and PG in unison: “The prognosis is good!”
PG: It is! And under God, by the grace of Jesus, that’s right.
TP: That’s exactly right. That’s the trajectory of our lives—
TP: —that we experience all kinds of suffering and difficulty and hardship and feel, as Paul says, that we bear—bear around death in our bodies every day; you’re aware of the fact that you live in a dying world, and in the midst of that anxiety attack and that—or—or depression or any other men—mental disorder, I’ve—I’ve had friends who’ve said that Paul’s verse—“Who will rid me of this body of death?” (Rom 7:24)—
TP: —feels like a very real verse, it’s at points—
TP: —when our—our very selves almost seem to betray us—
TP: —and we just can’t get past their effects.
TP: And yet the prognosis is good.
PG: And, you know, part of God’s generosity in that—one of the things that I notice for many of my friends who struggle with anxiety, there is a deep sensitivity often and awareness of the pain and difficulty of others. And so there’s a gentleness and generosity of spirit often that they show in relationship with others that’s a very precious gift from God as well. So there’s something that God works in the character of people who are struggling with this that makes them a benefit to the rest of the body as well in time.
TP: If you’re not especially suffering from anxiety yourself, but there’s a chance that one in four people you interact with will, at some point, and one in seven people in your church in all likelihood are currently suffering from a clinical level of anxiety, what can we do as individuals to help our friends—our brothers—our sisters who are suffering in this way?
PG: There are so many things that you could say here. I’ll just say a couple. The first is people with anxiety are not anxiety; they are people. And so, while they do need to talk about what’s going on for them from time to time, for sometimes, it’s just a relief to talk to someone and pass the time of day or talk about what happened in the football on the weekend or just do life together. And so, I actually think a lot of what the body brings is just the normality of life—a doing stuff, sharing existence together. Often—particularly with social anxieties—people find it very hard to be involved in crowds, and so coming to church, for example, is a very very difficult thing for them to do. And part of the problem is that our theology of church and its precious whatever sometimes makes us suspicious of the person who starts to stop coming to church, for example. I want to encourage us to gently ask questions and to invite opportunities for people to kind of go, “I’m struggling,” and actually love and care for them in that space, rather than just kind of rebuking them for not doing the—so there are just simple things of being aware of how complex and difficult it is, and giving people permission to work out how to keep expressing their faith in real ways when they can’t anticipate or participate in the normal stuff of Christian existence. Think that’s really important and helpful.
TP: It might be time in those circumstances for the church to go to them, rather than them to go to church, as it were—
PG: Yeah, I—I think, absolutely!
TP: —in—in numbers of one or two or three—
PG: Yeah, that’s right!
TP: —that are—that they can cope with and—
TP: —that are appropriate for what they’re going through.
PG: Yeah. I think also it’s helpful to know where you’re at in relationship with somebody. You know. If you’re someone’s best friend, yeah, talk about it. If you don’t know them very well, you don’t have to have a deep and intense conversation with them about their anxiety [Laughter] and whatever else. Just be a person and be a friend, and share with them or, you know, talk about what you’ve learned—what you’re learning or, you know, do all that kind of stuff.
TP: And not necessarily share Philippians 4:6 with them straight away.
PG: Well, sure. Definitely leave it to the second or third verse, right! [Laughter] But I think that that’s actually really important. For some people who have never experienced it, you can feel frustrated or grumpy or angry with people—particularly if they’re in your family or very close to you that they can’t get over it. Learning to be patient and understand that there’s a lot of it that’s not in their control, and work at your own response of impatience or anger or frustration in that space, and not expect what is unrealistic is, I think, a very important thing to do.
At the same time, don’t protect them from everything and solve all their problems for them. They need to keep doing life and living life in order to get better. So you can kind of get it wrong in both directions, if I can put it like that.
TP: In your own anxiety, Paul, then, coming back to you and your experience, what hope do you have for yourself and your experience of anxiety?
PG: Yeah. My ultimate hope is actually the heavenly reality. In God’s kindness, the panic attacks as a teenager were part of the process of me coming to know Jesus, in fact. And the very real rich promises in the Scriptures of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like, and the passing away of the old order of things and the tears and the pain and my own sinfulness—there’s something very precious about knowing that there is a world coming where I will not experience this ever again.
But I have found in my own walk in relationship with Jesus and watching other people go through it, that I do think that the work of the Spirit and the Word and the deep truths of God do slowly form us and shape us and give us a space where we’re able to engage with our anxiety in a slightly more healthy way. And so I feel like even in this life, there is genuine hope for improvement and growth. And I—I’ve experienced a deep richness: I feel like I have been grown—particularly by the depth of the suffering—some of the suffering that I’ve been through has actually helped me to feel now more secure in God. And I think being able to graciously serve and love other people. So while I—if you’d asked me early on, suffering these things, there were moments when I felt like, “When will this ever going to end?” I want to say to you particularly if you’re in the middle of it, by the grace of God, you will come out the other side. And he is good and he will be with you.
TP: Well, that’s about it for this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. Thanks for joining us! And I look forward to seeing you at our CCL event on “Is God green?” on July 29th. You can come in person or, of course, you can always livestream and gather a group of friends—perhaps a small group, your Bible Study group—to enjoy that livestream together. All the details about our July 29th event on “Is God green?” are available on the CCL website: that’s https://ccl.moore.edu.au, and while you’re there, you can check out the growing library of video and text and audio from all our past events on a massive range of subjects.
Also, if you have any questions stemming from today’s podcast or from any of our public events and podcasts, don’t hesitate to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing from you and we’re going to be running regular Q&A podcasts where we gather up the questions that are sent in and answer them. And the next one of those Q&A podcasts will be coming up soon, so get your questions in and we’ll answer them.
Thanks so much for being with us today. ’Bye for now.