And though she be but little, she is fierce.” -William Shakespeare
I’ve heard my friends time and time again express the same sentiment in regards to how I present myself to the world: “but Rachel,” they say, “you don’t look like you have anxiety!”
While it’s flattering to think that my friends think that I have my life together, and while that’s certainly not false – my life is considerably more organized than it used to be – the issue is far more complicated than it seems. Those who battle anxiety aren’t cowards; they don’t hide in the shadows, constantly pulling out their hair or chewing off their fingernails. While many of us might, the truth is that anxiety is a constant battle that no one knows about, often happening right in the middle of things going perfectly fine. I can think of plenty of times, even in the last few days, where my mind was an anxious mess and yet on the outside, I appeared perfectly calm and collected.
“So Rachel,” you ask, “do you have anxiety or not?”
The short answer? Yes. I have frequent episodes of anxiousness, sometimes multiple times an hour. On the really bad days, I don’t go outside or even speak to another person, because the unbalanced chemicals in my brain try to convince me that no one loves me and that I’m not safe. I get jittery. I want to quit everything. I feel constantly inadequate. And yet…
Yet. There is so much power in that little word. And yet. I get up in the morning, take my vitamins, brush my teeth, and somehow make it through my day. Even I don’t understand it sometimes. But if there is anything I’ve learned about this perplexing condition, it’s that I have anxiety, but it doesn’t have me.
Read that again. Keep reading it until it sinks in. Yeah, my cute little tag is “The Anxious Introvert”, but that is not my identity. Though there are days when I wake up and the little monster in my brain refuses to let me think about anything except the multitude of little “what if” scenarios it has concocted in my restless slumber, that is not who I am.
Who am I, then, if not this anxious person I so laboriously described? And how do I become this person, when anxiety keeps me from doing the things I love with the people I love the most? I’m glad you asked. Here we go kids – I’m about to let you in on a little thing I call courage.
In the start of 2019, I set an intention for myself to do something that scares me every day. Whether that’s something as small as trying a new (and often strange-smelling) food or bungie-jumping off of bridges (haven’t done that yet, but there’s always a first), I told myself that whatever came, I wouldn’t say no just because I was scared. (Obviously safety should always be considered, but usually that isn’t the issue with me). I had a conversation with one of my closest friends where I described this intention – I knew this year was going to challenge me, and no matter what happened, I was going to trust that God would give me the courage to handle whatever He put in my path.
This year I’ve experienced a lot of crazy stuff. I’ve eaten at some pretty wacky restaurants, talk to some unusual but insanely interesting people, and I’ve done things that I’ve never considered myself able to do. Things that used to keep me up at night, like driving long hours on the interstate by myself, or talking to complete strangers about their lives, or even raising my hand in a classroom setting to answer a question, have stopped becoming such a horrifying thought. But does that mean that simply forcing yourself to do things like this gets rid of anxiety?
The truth is a little more messy. Yes, my courage has gotten bigger, but so have my fears. The monsters in my closet now have eyes, when all they used to be were shadows (and, let’s face it, all of my old-lady sweaters that my sister thinks I should bury in the back yard). My brain still spirals out of control. I still spend many nights tossing and turning, and hours in the bathroom throwing up my lunch because, once again, my brain has convinced me that no one likes me. So where’s the punchline? Hang with me here.
I want to take a moment and note that I do take medication for my mental health needs, and those little blue pills make a world of difference in the seratonin levels of my brain, so I’m not saying that the answer here is to just gut your way through anxiety and hope for the best. But for me, personally, living the life I want to live only comes through a combination of that medication and reminding myself every day that I am not required to worry about the outcome of things that are outside of my control. Other peoples’ thoughts? Not in my power. Other peoples’ actions? Not my business. The crazy, dumpster-fire style society we live in? Not my responsibility. Then whose is it?
Courage is a shady subject in my book because it can mean a lot of things. It takes courage to overcome anxiety, whether you do that by admitting that you need help, or going to new restaurants or even talking to strangers. But there’s another component to this which I think gets overlooked more often than not: it also takes courage to let your fears go.
The world is scariest when I try to control it. It reminds me of how small and powerless I really am. But when I remember that I am not the one in charge of holding things together, all of the sudden my mentality shifts to that of an observer instead of a micromanager. The relief I experience when I remember that God is the One holding all things is similar to that of a hot shower on a cold day – all of the things which kept me frozen in place start to melt away and I can breathe and relax and even sleep a little better at night.
Anxiety lies to me constantly about God’s character and who I am as His child. It tries to convince me that God does not love me, that he won’t provide for me, and that I have to do everything in my power to take care of myself. While anxiety keeps me on my toes on a daily basis, it is detrimental to my spiritual health because it changes my focus from what God says about life to what I think about it, and with my limited perspective this is usually a bad thing.
God’s word is the truth which fights Anxiety – but it takes courage to let go of that roaring voice in my brain and instead search for that still, small voice which comes through the Holy Spirit. On nights where my fears seem to be louder than an air horn at close range, this can be hard to do, because I certainly don’t feel the truth of God’s love in those moments. But then I am reminded of what God says to be true, and I repeat those truths until something sticks.
When anxiety tells me, no one loves me, I remind myself that my heavenly Father put his own son on the cross because he couldn’t stand the thought of being eternally separated from me.
When anxiety tells me that I am not good enough, I remind myself that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
When anxiety tells me that I am physically and mentally flawed, I remember that when God knit me together in my mother’s womb, he put me together deliberately, declaring his creation to be good.
Although anxiety isn’t something simply cured by a change in mindset, and indeed even these reassurances require a multitude of repetition before they take root, the most important thing to remember is that God is still in control even when anxiety refuses to let me believe it. So what do I do when this situation arises?
I have courage.
Faith is not passive, my friends. It is by no means something that simply happens in your brain. It’s more like a muscle; something you hold onto and excercise daily, and in order to do this, you must have courage. You must be willing to be vulnerable, to know that you might get hurt, to know that your anxiety might be right, and then trust that even if that’s the case, God will take care of you.
That, in my experience, is the true meaning of courage. In spite of the battle, we put our armor on and expect it to work. We shut out those angry voices and trust that even when we don’t see it, the hand of God is still there, still working in our lives. And though we can’t see very far in front of us, we take one step, and then another, knowing that even if we go the wrong way, the love of God will see us through.
So take heart, my friends, and don’t be afraid. Anxiety is normal, but it doesn’t have to be the influencer of all of your decisions. This week I dare you to be brave – and trust that even if things go horribly wrong, the God who made the universe has got your back.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
-Psalm 23:4, NIV