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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Can We STOP the Anxiety?

It is one thing to tell our selves to trust God and not be anxious; but it is a completely different thing to put it into practice. The mechanisms involved in anxiety feel like an overwhelming internal pressure. It only take one thought and like a shot that starts a race, our mind is off . . . jumping hurdles we imagine to be in front of us with superhuman anxious leaps.

If we mix a bit of catastrophic thinking into the turmoil, we can convince our self of just about any possibility. It might be great to say ‘all things are possible’ when considering future hope, but when anxious, our mind really doesn’t differentiate between a good future and a really scary future. Everything is truly possible.

What anxiety does is bring the past into the present and then project it to the future. Telling you mind to stop doing this is like telling a lion not to scour the landscape for food. Our minds and bodies are wired for survival and being prepared for whatever might come our way is part of that survival.

Then there is trauma. Not everyone has my story and not everyone believes that they have had trauma in their lives. That would be lovely if true, but at some level, all have experienced some form of trauma. Not to diminish the trauma of any type of abuse, but our survival instincts as children can embed fear for many reasons. Have you seen the meme of the demolished house? “I saw a spider.” We laugh, because it is so true.

Last summer, we were searching the storage areas at the RV Park for an air mattress we were told was available. (We live in our RV at the park where my husband is General Manager.) This entailed going down a creepy stairway into a basement storage room. My eyes were continually scanning the walls, floors, and corners for the dreaded presence of spiders. Why? Because at some point in my life, I probably was surprised by a spider crawling on me—or someone else was and their reaction embedded a fear of spiders. On that day, I never saw a single spider, but when I left, I was sure I had barely escaped with my life.

Our anxiety has a reason. Telling our self to stop being anxious has very little effect on our subconscious fears. Why? Because those fears began with good reason. Something happened to create the fear and now we are forever on guard incase it happens again. We have subconsciously pulled that incident into the present and are projecting it into the future. (Just like we project past hurts on people now present in our lives because we believe that they will hurt us in the future.)

If anything bad has happened to us (let me see the raised hand of every single human being), then there is potential for dragging our fear and/or pain from that incident into our present and projecting it into the future. This is an important mechanism for survival! We do need to learn from the past in order to protect ourselves. What we do not need to do is imagine danger where there is none. That is anxiety.

So stop it. Just stop it. (sigh) If only it were that easy. Have you ever seen the Stop It clip from the Bob Newhart show? If not, you need to pause and watch it. Really bad therapy, but it makes us laugh because of the impossibility of actually just stopping it. At the very end, the client says something about not being able to stop it because it has been with her since childhood. Exactly. She doesn’t know why, but something happened to make her afraid of being buried alive. Her fear had a cause.

If we can remember what happened to traumatize us, it is hugely helpful (Don’t discount something that might have traumatized us as a child.) We can then work through the fear. My issue was that I had repressed the memories and therefore could not name the cause of the fear. This didn’t stop me from pulling it forward into the present and projecting the unnamed fear into my future—this was anxiety. I was always surveying the landscape for threats I could not name.

Sometimes we call this process, ‘waiting for the other shoe to fall.’ Just like the woman in the video clip, it looks like paranoia. It isn’t. Paranoia implies that there was never anything there to fear. Her fear existed in the past and since it was never healed (resolved), it still exists subconsciously in the present.

Do you know how much Americans spend on anxiety medication? It is in the billions and I was one of those who created that statistic. No doctor ever asked me about traumatic childhood experiences. My anxiety was perceived as an adult issue with a probable genetic cause. Generational patterns are not the same as genetics. I needed the medication in order to live my life. I am thankful for this, but anti-anxiety medications didn’t stop/heal the anxiety, they only dulled the extreme symptoms. I had to resolve the memories.

As Christians, one solution to the problem is to hold onto the promises in Scripture. I believe I understand why this is so helpful to some and not to others (who feel ashamed when it doesn’t work). It is really a form of mindfulness based in an understanding of God being present in the here and now. In a sense, it is ‘being in the moment’ with God. In order for this to be effective, there must be past experiences that reinforced God’s care in ways that were greater than the traumatic experiences.

What if the trauma outweighs the goodness of God? It is easy to think that is a spiritual problem, but does a child (or adult) who prays for protection but doesn’t receive it have a spiritual problem? We can tell our subconscious self that God is good all the time, but our life experiences often tell another story. Our subconscious feels in danger with or without God.

So yes, for some, Scripture is very effective in reminding us of how God cared for us. For others it feels like grasping at the wind. The actions of others put us in danger and we have to come to terms with that being their choice and not God’s. (Or in some cases, a result of the randomness of life.) We have to find the ways God cared for us around the edges of the trauma. We can’t ground ourselves in a feeling of safety in the present if we haven’t resolved the sense of helplessness in the past.

Slowly, very slowly, I began to sense the anxiety building and realized this mechanism was at work. I had to feel safe inside that moment. As an example, just because I had a car wreck fifteen years ago didn’t mean I needed to prepare for an accident in every intersection. I had to be in my car safely traveling through one intersection at a time. My past did not put me in danger in this moment and it also didn’t mean I was in danger in the future.

A car accident is traumatic, but pales in comparison to abuse. Most of my anxiety was due to trauma. My subconscious child self who could not protect herself needed help in resolving her trauma so she did not continue to live in fear during every present moment and cause me to constantly monitor my future for potential danger.

We laugh at the Bob Newhart skit, but what he tells her is much like what we tell others (and ourselves) every day when we say, “Just trust God.” We are saying, “Stop your anxiety; just stop it!” I love the look on the client’s face. It says, “Don’t you not think I would have stopped this if I could?” That is the exact look I have had a million times in my life when told to trust God and not be anxious. If only it had been that simple . . .

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