Coping with Anxiety Disorders: Talking Openly about Mental Health
Anxiety is a scary thing. It often misconstrues the truth, leaving us consumed with worry that refuses to let us function in the here and now.
Unfortunately, anxiety is a common thread of humanity, something we all experience. We know the Bible tell us, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6 NIV), but for many, anxiety is more than a normal reaction to life. There is a distinct difference between worries we all experience and an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States. More than 40 million people, or 19.1 percent of adults in the US, have an anxiety disorder, and approximately 7 percent of children ages 3 to 17 experience issues with anxiety each year.
The common thread of anxiety disorders is excessive and irrational anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.
While there are various types of anxiety disorders, some of the symptoms include the following:
- Physical or behavior symptoms—chest tightness, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, trembling, feeling weak, difficulty sleeping, hyperventilation, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, dry mouth, tense muscles, isolation of self, being easily startled, irritability, restlessness, fidgeting, and avoidance of triggers (such as situations or places that might induce anxiety)
- Cognitive thoughts—I must be crazy. I must be having a heart attack. I feel like I’m going to faint. I might make a fool of myself in front of these people. I feel alone and depressed.
- Emotional symptoms—an impending sense of doom, indecisiveness, rumination of ideas, difficulty concentrating on anything except the current source of anxiety, and intrusive thoughts
Environmental factors (a prolonged illness or traumatic event), genetics, brain chemistry, developmental and psychological factors as well as substance abuse may all contribute to the risk factors of a person developing an anxiety disorder.
It is important to realize certain physical symptoms of anxiety disorders can be linked to or confused with other medical conditions, such as heart disease, chronic pain, and diabetes. Additionally, anxiety has a high rate of comorbidity, particularly with depression. Comorbidity is simply when an individual experiences two or more illnesses at the same time.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fears and anxiety that typically persists for longer than six months. They often interfere with daily living.
There are various types of anxiety disorders with differing symptoms. Here is a list of some of the most common disorders:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)—GAD produces persistent, irrational fear about various areas of life. This worrying may consume hours each day, making it hard to focus on completing daily responsibilities, and may result in a person being exhausted with headaches, the inability to sleep, and muscular tension.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)—According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “This disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation.” As a result, someone with SAD may avoid social situations or not contribute to conversations or discussions. They may worry about being scrutinized and, as a result, isolate themselves.
- Panic Disorder—This disorder is characterized by panic attacks and sudden feelings of terror, sometimes occurring repeatedly and without warning. A panic attack causes intense physical symptoms, such as dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. Often people experiencing panic attacks begin to withdraw from situations or make unhealthy behavioral changes to avoid triggering additional attacks.
- Phobias—People with a phobia are fearful or anxious about certain situations or objects that cause irrational fear. They will typically go to great lengths to avoid these triggers. This avoidance may overtake a person’s life depending on the type and number of triggers he or she experiences.
An often-heard myth is mental illness can be “prayed away.” As Josh Weidmann said, “God is not the author of anxiety, but He is sovereign over it.”
God can miraculously heal at any time of His choosing. However, anxiety disorders, like physical disorders, often need professional treatment, and the Lord has graciously provided us with those resources.
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable; however, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the sad reality is only 36.9 percent of people with anxiety disorders receive treatment.
It is critical for the church—God’s children—to talk openly about and normalize mental health challenges and available treatment resources. Often, the vulnerability of one who has dealt with a similar struggle sharing his or her experience will embolden others to step forward and seek help.
The type of treatment utilized by professionals will depend on the type of anxiety disorder needing treatment and may include psychotherapy or “talk therapy,” medication, and other complementary approaches, such as relaxation or grounding techniques. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one of the common treatment modalities used by mental health or social work professionals treating anxiety. CBT works to examine and change one’s thoughts and behaviors.
When searching for a qualified mental health professional, it is important to find someone who is both professionally equipped and shares a common faith and belief system. Keep looking until you find someone who meets both criteria and makes you feel comfortable.
Ways to Support Loved Ones with an Anxiety Disorder
- Educate yourself on anxiety and what your loved one may be experiencing. Learn the signs of anxiety and his or her potential triggers.
- Listen and allow them to talk freely.
- Encourage them to take care of themselves—eat healthy, get enough sleep, be physically active, and seek professional help.
- Remember anxiety can cause physical symptoms in addition to extreme stress. This is not the same “typical” worry everyone experiences. Telling others “I know how you feel” is not helpful.
- Do not minimize their feelings or try to rationalize their fears. Saying things such as “It’s all in your head” or “Don’t stress about it” will likely make things worse, not better. They often know their fears are illogical, but that does not make the anxiety disappear.
- Encourage them to spend time in God’s Word.
- Help them separate truth from lies and to recognize their feelings are not necessarily the truth.
- Do not expect treatment to bring overnight results. It will take time. Balance patience with encouraging their steps forward. Celebrate their achievements along the way.
- Take care of yourself so you remain healthy while caring for them.
Jennie Ard is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and chief of staff at One More Child. Her work has focused on children and families, particularly in the realm of child welfare, including foster care, adoption, and mental health.
Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.