Anxiety in an Anxious Age

by Greg Wiens

I enjoy traveling, which I frequently do. One of the things I enjoy about it is the many new people and different places to explore.  I never tire of studying people and attempting to understand the culture or environment that causes them to think or act as they do.

However, one of the downsides to traveling is that I find it easy to get out of my routines.  As I have written elsewhere, I am not a disciplined person, but I do maintain healthy habits that keep my life growing consistently.  These habits include a morning routine that starts with Mary Kay and me reading and reflecting on our lives and the day ahead.  I have a routine of exercise that keeps me in shape physically.  These routines or habits govern my life and center me in Christ. 

In traveling and serving others, I find my schedule is not always what I desire; time zones, meetings, hotels, and coffee shops don’t always allow me to keep a consistent routine.  As I have aged, I have worked harder and done better, but it is still a challenge.  When I return home, I immediately reestablish my sense of routine or healthy habits. 

As I reflect on my habits, I have come to see that they keep me well.  They are Christ-centered and therefore feed my heart, body, mind, and soul.  They are holistic and not compulsive.  They provide freedom, security, and peace. 

Yet, I find it intriguing that there is so much anxiety all around me today. I don’t think it is just a result of Covid, for it has been increasing for the last 100 years.  I also find it intriguing that it is as prevalent among followers of Christ as it is in those far from faith in Christ. I think deeply about this.

There is something in this observation that lets me know that it is not right belief that eliminates anxiety. One could argue that it is related to rightly held beliefs. As if the followers of Christ who are experiencing anxiety are simply not “really” believing. But I don’t think so; as I look at followers of Christ, I know. It seems that it is impacted by faith for sure, but it is also impacted by their emotional state.  This can be circular, meaning that each of these can impact the other. 

It seems to me that one’s emotional state is informed by their faith, but not necessarily determined by it. I have never been one to worry, before Christ or since. So to say my faith has kept me from worrying is a bit naive. Surely as I have aged and matured in my faith in God’s providence has solidified into a belief structure that continues to keep me free from anxiety. But not being prone to worry prior to faith in Christ seems to be a better predictor of one’s anxiety than simply faith in Christ.

So what is the origin of anxiety? It seems to me that most who struggle with anxiety lack a solid nurturing, emotionally connected, and life-giving relationship with one or both parents. It seems that anxiety isn’t always a natural consequence of this, but the lack of this early emotionally connecting environment provides a clear breeding ground from which anxiety can develop in childhood and beyond.

As I have watched people over a lifetime, I find it interesting that the anxiety often didn’t surface as children but did later in life.  I think this has to do with kids’ emotional energy, which can mask anxiety well into their late twenties.  It is only then their emotional energy seems to dissipate, and anxiety surface. 

Indeed there are many other factors that can increase anxiety, such as PTSD, trauma, and chronic stress.  However, these factors often find root in the fertile soil of a lack of emotional nurturing, a sense of abandonment, and a lack of attunement as a young developing child. 

I know I have only touched the surface of this subject and have much more and deeper things to process.  But I am reminded that Paul tells the Philippians in the letter he wrote to them (4.4-9):

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

Paul is telling them and us to keep our hearts, minds, memories, and souls focused on the one with eternity in his hands.  I don’t see him condemning anxiety here, simply stating that it has trouble growing in soil that is continually being renewed by what is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  It isn’t just a head exercise but rather is a relational one.  Notice Paul says that these are the things they saw in their relationship with him…there was and continued to be a relationship with Paul in this context. 

We live in an anxious society, culture, and pace which is fueled by poor emotional foundations and unhealthy relationships.  Let’s keep processing how healthy Christ-centered habits and solid emotional foundations can allow us to experience the peace deep in our souls that only God can produce.

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