The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking About Anxiety

Language is important. We don’t have to go far to see that this is true…for example:

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Some of the ways we realize this truth can be gut-wrenchingly hilarious (like these messages) and others give us a terrible, sick-to-your-stomach feeling. The times when you think to yourself, “You really should have just kept your mouth shut.”

One of the things that makes me extremely uncomfortable is when we use language to talk about anxiety that might be hurtful to those that struggle with it. These experiences have driven me to write this blog post: The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking About Anxiety. Now, the point of this post is not to shame people that use language included in my list of “don’ts.” I am guilty of this myself, and I need to continue to work at it.

But rather, this post is supposed to provide us with an extra dose of awareness when it comes to the language we are using to talk about anxiety.

Let’s start with the Don’ts:

(1) Don’t equate “stress” and “anxiety.”

Stress and anxiety are not the same thing. Stress is a short-term experience, while anxiety is tied to mental illness, which is typically more of a long-term, chronic experience. Yes, some people label anxiety as “Chronic Stress.” But what I have found is that if we do not specifically reserve the language of “anxiety” to name and describe mental illness, it becomes a lot harder to understand and empathize with those that face this struggle. “Stress” can be minimized and overlooked, while “anxiety” is a more serious term that requires attention. We can respond to “stress” with a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, but we cannot respond to “anxiety” in the same way. “Anxiety” is a more loaded term that carries a lot of baggage–its ties to mental illness. Let’s reserve this word for our conversations about mental illness so that we can more deeply hear those around us who live with this experience.

(2) Don’t talk about anxiety like it can be cured overnight.

People that struggle with anxiety cannot just “try to feel better,” or “try to not worry so much.” Of course, this is different for each person–some may struggle with anxiety for a few months and others may struggle for years. But just like a broken bone, mental illness requires time, care and attention, and maybe even tools such as counseling, medication and therapy of various kinds. There is no quick-cure for anxiety and we need to stop talking as if it can suddenly disappear with a hot shower and a good night’s rest.

(3) Don’t read off Bible verses that say, “Do not worry about…” or blurt out Christian cliches.

This is a hard one for me to talk about because I very much understand that we should be seeking the Lord in all of our joys and sorrows. But what I’m trying to get at here is that I can struggle with anxiety and still be living an obedient life in Christ. Anxiety and a strong Christian faith are not mutually exclusive. Many times, the Bible verses and cliches we list off to those who are struggling with mental illness (or physical illness, loss, doubt, grief, etc.) end up portraying that if we are still struggling with anxiety, then we aren’t really following the Lord. That if we really were following the Lord with all our heart, our anxiety would disappear. I fundamentally disagree. Scripture does not tell us that following the Lord would be easy. Nor does the Lord ever promise to take away all the struggles of this life. What He does promise is that as we struggle, He will take us under the shadow of His wings and comfort us. Comforting does not mean that God always takes the pain and suffering away. He could do this, but oftentimes, our pain and suffering foster faithfulness in our own hearts that an easy life could not. I cannot tell you why there is suffering in this world. This is a question too lofty for me to answer, and I must be content in the mystery. But I can tell you that God does not waste suffering. He is Emmanuel, God with us.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know why I struggle with anxiety. But I can tell you that I have seen the Lord’s faithfulness in the most beautiful of ways throughout this struggle. Anxiety is not good. But the Lord is Good and has loved me relentlessly on the easy days and really hard days.

So far, I have briefly laid out the don’ts of talking about anxiety. It is time to move into the do’s.

(1) Do ask clarifying questions.

If a close friend or family member tells you that they are feeling anxious, what are the first associations you make with this word? Nervous. Fearful. Scared. Apprehensive. Hesitant. We make assumptions about what “anxious” could mean, but our assumptions may be wrong. When someone says they are anxious, there are often underlying feelings and emotions. Asking, “What are you feeling underneath the anxiety,” or, “What feelings are contributing to the anxiety,” can be helpful questions for you to ask. It can be helpful for you because you can better understand their experience, and it can be helpful for the person struggling because it enables them to name the feelings behind the anxiety. My counselor, Matthew, gave me a copy of this feeling wheel below as a great tool to aid in communicating and naming my feelings:

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Once I started using this wheel to describe my feelings behind the anxiety, it became much easier for those around me (aka my husband) to understand and care for me.

(2) Do name that you cannot understand the totality of someone’s inner experience.

This is very important. If you have never struggled with anxiety, the inner experiences of someone who does can be radically different from your own. This idea remains true for anyone you speak to that has experienced something that you have not (i.e. cancer diagnosis, the suicide of a friend, death of a child, etc.). These are all life-changing experiences, and sometimes to say, “I understand,” can be unhelpful in caring for the hurt person. What is better is to say, “I cannot completely understand your experience, but I love you and I’m here for you in any way that you want me to be.” There is great humility in this response, and it leaves the hurt person feeling cared for and loved.

(3) Do pray fervently for and with your brothers and sisters who are struggling.

It is unbelievably important to pray for and with those that are struggling with anxiety. The Good, Good Father hears our cries, laments and griefs. He does not turn a deaf ear to those that earnestly call to Him in pain. Remaining connected to the Lord is of the utmost importance when we go through the dark and heavy seasons. If you run out of words, turn to the Psalms of lament. Did you know that a majority of the psalms are laments? The writers of Scripture were not foreign to pain and suffering, and we were given their words as tools to use to cry out to God.

He hears you. He sustains you. He loves you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Struggle with Anxiety…and my dog does too

This is my family’s dog, Ghillie. She is a 13-year-old soft-coated Wheaten Terrier. Though she isn’t the smartest and most obedient, she is rambunctious, loving and BEYOND adorable. I mean, just look at her!

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But there’s one problem: Ghillie struggles with anxiety.

It started out as very normal, dog fears: thunderstorms and fireworks were not her favorite. But in the past year or so, she’s become increasingly anxious over a myriad of things, so much so that for the past two weeks she has kept my parents awake all night with whining, jumping on the bed and removing all the contents of her bladder and bowels in very ugly ways around the house. This isn’t a great picture and has caused quite a bit of frustration on our end.

Every night as it begins to get dark, she begins to pant and pace (this is when we know it’s starting again). About this time, my dad gives her anxiety medication, which is basically a tranquilizer we get from the vet. Sometimes this helps her calm down enough to sleep a little, but other times, it doesn’t do much.

We’ve found that she has essentially become scared of the dark.

There are typically two ways in which we respond: (1) Pity – “Oh, you poor puppy,” and (2) Frustration – “Stupid dog. Why can’t you just calm down?!”

These aren’t very helpful for Ghillie, but what else can we do?

Well, a couple of days ago Tim and I were on a walk during our lunch break. Nearing the end of our walk, he asked:

“Has it been a good thing or a painful thing to watch the dog struggle with anxiety?”

Hmm…this is a good question…

I have been struggling with anxiety for years, but was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder about three years ago. During the past three years, I have had seasons that are better and seasons that are much, much worse. Counseling, psychiatrist appointments, medication and intercessory prayer from others have been added to my self-care regimen, and I can with great gratitude say that currently, most days are good days. Now, there is a reality that seasons will come and seasons will go where I feel it’s a little bit darker, but I have people around me that will constantly be reminding me that even if it feels really dark…the Lord is always present, no matter how I feel.

My feelings are valid, but they are not always realistic.

So when Tim asked this question, I began to think it through. Watching Ghillie struggle with anxiety is both a good and painful thing. I can identify with what she may be feeling. I know she’s a dog and this may seem weird, but there are parts of her inner experience that are similar to my own.

On the other hand, the painful part is not so much that she struggles with anxiety, but rather, it is the way my family member’s and I choose to react to her, in pity or frustration. That’s hard to watch.

There are many times in which I have paced back and forth with my tail tucked between my legs, scared and fearful for no reason other than an imbalance of serotonin and norepinephrine.

I watch Ghillie in her anxious-dog moments and I think, “Wow. That’s what I look like. That’s what I do.”

I can be a completely inconsolable, unrealistic and anxious person.

But how often do we turn to people in our lives that struggle with anxiety and treat them like my family and I treat our anxiety-ridden dog?

How often do we turn and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry you’re anxious,” but never push past sympathy into empathy?

How often do we lash out in frustration saying, “Why can’t you just calm down?!”

I think this is equivalent to turning to a person with a broken arm and saying, “Why can’t you’re bone just not be broken?!”

Obviously, this sounds ridiculous, but I find that we oftentimes don’t realize that mental illness is not just something the sufferer can wish away. I can’t just try not to be anxious and then make it disappear. Rather, I have to implement practices and habits in my life that simply don’t try to extinguish the anxiety but help me to live better with it.

Like a torn ACL that may require surgery, rest, therapy, pain medication and time, so too a mental illness requires care, attention and perhaps medication and counseling.

I challenge you to question: How am I caring for those I am close to that struggle with mental illness? Am I acting in pity or frustration?

Or, am I coming alongside them as they live with their mental illness, encouraging them daily and constantly reminding them of the Lord’s love?

There’s is so much more to be said about this topic and it will be the focus of many blog posts to come. But, I hope my slightly comic and tragic story of Ghillie and these personal reflections can get us thinking.

 

 

 

 

Our Daily Bread

When the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, his
heavenly Father, having loved his own who were in the
world, he loved them to the end; at supper with them he took
bread, and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and
gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body,
which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given
thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you:
This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you
and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink
it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

–Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer B

Each Sunday, the presiding priest or bishop offers these words to the congregation before we partake in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

My husband and I attend and are members at an Anglican Church near Wheaton. This church body has supported and challenged me for the past three years (Tim for the past five years). We have come to so love and enjoy this group of people, their reverence for Scripture and tradition and their constant and never-ending desire to push all people towards the Lord. We feel like we are known here and that we belong here, of which we are extremely grateful.

While attending this church, my perspective on the Eucharist has changed dramatically. I grew up in a non-denominational megachurch in Wisconsin which served Communion a few times a year. For the more historically and theologically adept, this church was heavily Zwinglian when it came to the Lord’s Supper.

Needless to say, my first few experiences of receiving the Eucharist in an Anglican church was quite different. This was not just a symbol, nor was it transubstantiation that is typically seen within the Catholic Church, but there was a very embodied, spiritual significance to this practice that I had never experienced before.

Through the years and the continued practice of receiving Eucharist weekly at this church, I came to a better understanding of what it means for the Lord to be our Sustainer.

He is the Bread of Life, but what does this really mean for us?

Just under a year ago, a sweet RA that Tim and I worked with had an image come to her while I was telling my life story to the staff team. After finishing with my story, she pulled me aside, and gave me the most beautiful picture of the Lord’s sustaining power that I have ever received.

This is the image:

She saw me standing with a large basket weighing heavily on my arms. Inside it and overflowing from it were communion wafers. I was standing at the end of a moving conveyor belt that was pouring out wafers into my basket.

Initially, I had no idea what significance this vision held. I lifted it to the Lord in prayer multiple times over the following weeks. Then one Sunday in church, as I was waiting to be lead forward to receive the Eucharist, the Spirit started to make sense of the image.

The “moving conveyor belt” is this weekly practice of the Eucharist. Every Sunday, I return to the table. And every Sunday, the Lord lavishes on me the gift of His sacrifice and His love. Just as the wafers were overflowing from the basket in my arms, so I can overflow with the Lord’s love for others as I receive His sustaining power in the Eucharist.

As I walk to the front of the sanctuary, hold out my cupped hands, make eye contact with the giver of bread and receive the words, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you,” I am reminded of the Lord’s sustaining power in giving me my daily bread (literally and figuratively).

The Lord is your Sustainer. Are you seeking your daily bread from Him, and Him alone?

Disclaimer: I know that there may be some of you that are uncomfortable with the idea of visions, images, prophecies, and other (stereotypically charismatic) spiritual gifts. Though this is too large of a topic to cover in one, brief blog post, I am completely willing to enter into conversation about this! Please reach out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning and Continuing

“I think I want to start a blog,” I said for the umpteenth time to my ever-patient husband, Tim.

“That’s a good idea. You should do that.”

“Yes, but…”

I’ve kept myself from writing for various reasons: blogging is too cliche, time is minimal, vulnerability and transparency is scary (especially when it’s published on the world-wide web), etc.

Amidst these hesitancies, I finally got to a place where I told myself, “Come on, Kasey. Just do it,” and once I sat down I started reflecting on beginnings themselves. While beginning can be a hard step to take, I don’t think it’s as big of a hill to climb as we often think it is. Every year on December 31st we come up with a long list of New Years’ Resolutions. Oftentimes, if not most of the time, by February 1st those resolutions are forgotten, or we carry the guilt of not continuing on in our grandiose plans to change our lives.

Continuing is the hardest part–to keep climbing the hill no matter how steep and to run down the other side of the hill as children do, feeling the breeze and adrenaline of racing with gravity.

My hope is that as you read, you are spurred on–moved in a positive direction. We are all in the process of continuing, and my goal is that we can continue on and learn together. Be aware that the words I type here are just my own, and I am in process, just as you are. Although the shape of this blog is still rather fuzzy, I do know that I will write mainly on my experiences. Whether it’s about my journey of being a graduate student, reflections on marriage, my struggle with anxiety and depression or about my faith in Christ, I hope you can identify with pieces of my story.

As I turned ideas over and over in my head, I couldn’t come up with any other title for the blog: “Branches.”

For those of you that turn open the Bible every once in a while, this theme is probably familiar. It is from the passage in John 15 which says:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

This passage has carried much significance for me in various seasons of life, and as I am someone who loves metaphor, imagery, analogy and simile, picturing myself as a “branch” growing from the Vine is helpful in my understanding of the Christian walk.

This image brings me back to the theme of continuing. Branches that remain in the vine bear fruit because they receive nutrients and water from the vine. On the other hand, branches that do not remain in the vine wither and are cut off and burned. The latter are not receiving proper nutrients and water from the vine that allow them to bear fruit.

Both branches are growing, but it is the way in which they are growing that determines whether they bear fruit or are cut off.

If we are the “branches,” this remains true of us as well. C.S. Lewis states:

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

We are all “branches,” in the process of becoming a more “heavenly creature or a hellish creature.” Every choice we make is driving us in a certain direction. We either bear fruit or we wither–remaining stagnant is not an option.

Are we aware that every choice, even the seemingly insignificant ones, are literally molding and shaping us in profound ways?

If you doubt that this is true, it only takes time with a neuroscience textbook to learn that our brains are made to be shaped. We are creatures of habit, and this is not just some anecdote, but rather, it is a biological truth of how our bodies work. Every time we think a thought or perform an action, the neural networks in our brain are firing. As we continue to think the same thoughts and perform the same actions, the axons of our neurons become more and more myelinated through repetition. Myelination essentially enables the signal to move faster across the axon, thus making it easier for us to repeat a thought or an action. This is how habits form.

As a “branch” that desires to remain in the Vine, I must be self-aware enough that I can reflect on my own thoughts and actions. What are the patterns of thought, feelings and actions that seem to come easy to me? Whether these are driving me towards the Lord or away from Him is an extremely important thing to consider.

I am always continuing…what direction am I headed?

I ask (and challenge) you: What choices do you make that drive you in the direction of being a “heavenly creature?” Opposite to this, what choices do you make that drive you towards being a “hellish creature?”