The Prospering Soul – Christians and Anxiety

When you say the word “anxiety”, it can mean different things to different people. To a lot of people, anxiety is the same as being a little frightened. To others, it’s being really scared, but with good reason (like if you have to give a speech and you’re afraid of public speaking).

Medically speaking, anxiety isn’t just being frightened or stressed. After all, it’s normal to be frightened or stressed. God made us so that we could experience fear, because a little bit of fear is actually protective. There are dangers all around us, and if we had no fear at all, we’d end up becoming lunch for a wild animal, or road-kill. So there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of anxiety – in the right amount, for the right reason.

But anxiety in the wrong amount or for the wrong reason, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. That’s the anxiety that we’ll be talking about today.

The official description of anxiety reflects this idea of the wrong amount of anxiety about the wrong things: “… marked symptoms of anxiety accompanied by either general apprehension (i.e. ‘free-floating anxiety’) or worry focused on multiple everyday events, most often concerning family, health, finances, and school or work, together with additional symptoms such as muscular tension or motor restlessness, sympathetic autonomic over-activity, subjective experience of nervousness, difficulty maintaining concentration, irritability, or sleep disturbance. The symptoms are present more days than not for at least several months and result in significant distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (This is taken from the beta-version of the latest WHO diagnostic guidelines, the ICD-11, but has yet to be formally ratified).

There are six main disorders that come under the “anxiety disorders” umbrella, reflecting either an abnormal focus of anxiety or an abnormal intensity:
1. Panic Disorder (abnormally intense anxiety episodes)
2. Social Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of social interactions)
3. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (abnormally intense episodes of anxiety following trauma)
4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (abnormally intense and abnormally focussed anxiety resulting in compulsive behaviours)
5. Specific phobias (abnormally focussed anxiety on one particular trigger), and
6. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of everything)

The common underlying theme of anxiety is uncertainty. Grupe and Nitschke wrote, “Anxiety is a future-orientated emotion, and anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain.” [1]

The dysfunctional approach to uncertainty that underlies anxiety is in turn related to genetic changes which affect the structure and function of the brain, primarily in the regions of the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, which then alters the processing of our brain in five different areas:
> Inflated estimates of threat cost and probability
> Hypervigilance
> Deficient safety learning
> Behavioural and cognitive avoidance
> Heightened reactivity to threat uncertainty

In simpler language:
> the brain thinks that threats are more likely and will be worse than they are
> the brain spends more time looking for possible threats
> the brain fails to learn what conditions are safe, which is aggravated by
> the brain over-using avoidance as a coping mechanism, and
> the brain assumes that unavoidable uncertainty is more likely to be bad.

It’s important to understand at this point that anxiety disorders aren’t the result of poor personal choices. They are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [2].

The other way of looking at it is that some people are blessed with amazing tools for resilience [3, 4].

It’s not to say that our choices have no impact at all, but we need to be realistic about this. Everyone will experience stressful situations at some point in their lives, and everyone will also make dumb choices in their lives. Some people are naturally better equipped to handle this, whereas some people have genes that make them more vulnerable. It’s wrong to blame yourself, or allow other people to blame you, for experiencing anxiety, just as it’s wrong for other people to assume that if one person can cope with the same level of stress, then everyone else should too.

It’s not to say that you shouldn’t fight back though. Just because your facing a mountain doesn’t mean to say you can’t climb it. It will be hard work, and you’ll need good training and support, but you can still climb that mountain.

Managing anxiety is very similar to managing depression like we discussed in a previous post. Following the tap model, there’s overflow when there is too much going into the system, the system is too small to handle it, and the processing of the input is too slow. So managing anxiety involves reducing the amount of stress going into the system, increasing the systems capacity through learning resilience and coping skills, and sometimes by improving the systems processing power with medications.

Reducing the input – stress management

Sometimes the best way of coping with anxiety is to reduce the stress that’s fanning the flames. It mightn’t seem to come naturally, but as we discussed in the last chapter, there are a few basic skills that are common to all stress management techniques that can form the platform of ongoing better skills in this area.

Engaging the “vagal brake” as proposed by the “Polyvagal Theory” [5] is as important in anxiety as it is in depression. By performing these techniques, the activity of the vagus nerve on the heart via the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system is increased, which not only slows down the heart, but enhances the activity of other automatic parts of our metabolism. Some of the techniques allow a relaxed body to have a relaxed brain which can cope better with whatever is confronting it. The full list will be a blog for another time, but the simplest technique is to breathe!

It’s really simple. Sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.

Increasing capacity – coping and resilience

Like with depression, anxiety responds well to psychological therapies which help to increase coping skills and enhance our innate capacity for resilience. And like depression, anxiety improves with CBT and ACT [6, 7], which enhance the activity of the pre-frontal regions of the brain [8]. For anxiety, CBT teaches new skills to handle uncertain situations, and to re-evaluate the chances of bad things happening and what would happen if they do. ACT puts the train of anxious thoughts and feelings in their place, and teaches engagement with the present moment, and a future focusing on values, and accepting the discomfort of uncertainty by removing the distress associated with it.

Practicing each of these skill sets is like practicing any other skill. Eventually, with enough practice, they start to become more like a reflex, and we start to cope with stress and anxiety better automatically.

Increased processing – Medications

Sometimes, to achieve long-term successful management of anxiety, a little extras help is needed in the form of medication. Like depression, the main group of medications used are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRI’s for short). Medications appear to reduce the over-activity of a number of brain regions collectively called the limbic system [8], which are involved with many innate and automatic functions, but in its simplest form, the limbic system controls many of our emotions and motivations, including fear, anger and certain aspects of pleasure-seeking [9]. So essentially, SSRI’s help the anxious brain to make better sense of the incoming signals.

There are other medications commonly used for anxiety treatment, collectively called benzodiazepines. Most people wouldn’t have heard that term before, but would have heard of the most famous member of the benzo family, Valium. Benzos are like having a bit too much alcohol – they slow down the activity of the brain, and induce a feeling of relaxation. When used appropriately (i.e.: in low doses and in the short term), they can be helpful in taking the edge off quite distressing feelings of anxiety or panic. But benzos are not a cure, and after a while, the body builds a tolerance to them, where a higher dose is required to achieve the same effect. Continued long term use eventually creates dependence where a person finds it difficult to cope without them.

The final way to help manage anxiety is prayer. Like for depression, there is limited scientific information on the effects of prayer on, although a small randomised controlled trial did show that prayer with a prayer counsellor over a period of a number of weeks was more effective than no treatment [10].

Though given that anxiety is a future orientated emotion, excessively anticipating possible unwelcome scenarios and consequences, it’s easy to see why prayer should work well for anxiety. Trusting that God has the future in hand and knowing “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) means that the future is less uncertain. The Bible also encourages us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) When we give the future to God, he will give us peace in return.

Again, like in the case of depression, it’s sometimes hard for Christians to understand how strong Christians can suffer from anxiety in the first place. After all, we’ve just read how God gives us peace. And the Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).

So when you’re filled with the opposite, when all you feel is overwhelming fear, it makes you feel like a faithless failure. Christians without anxiety assume that Christians with anxiety aren’t living in the Spirit. And it’s the logical conclusion to draw after all – if the fruit of the Spirit is peace, and you’re not filled with peace, then you mustn’t be full of the Spirit.

But like depression, when you look through the greatest heroes in the Bible, you see a pattern where at one point or another in their lives, they went through physical and emotional destitution, including mind-numbing fear … Moses argued with God about how weak and timid he was (Exodus 3 and 4), Elijah ran for his life in panic and asked God to kill him, twice, over the period of a couple of months after Queen Jezebel threatened him (1 Kings 18 and 19). Peter had spent three years with Jesus, the Messiah himself, hearing him speak and watching him perform miracle after miracle after miracle. But Peter denied his Messiah three times when he was confronted with possible arrest (John 18).

For the same pattern is also seen in King David, Gideon, and a number of other great leaders through the Bible. The take home message is this: it’s human nature to suffer from disease and dysfunction. Sometimes it’s physical dysfunction. Sometimes it’s emotional dysfunction. It’s not a personal or spiritual failure to have a physical illness. Why should mental illness be treated any different?

As the stories of Moses, Elijah and Peter testify, being a strong Christian doesn’t make you impervious to fear and anxiety. Hey, we’re all broken in some way, otherwise why would we need God’s strength and salvation? Having anxiety simply changes your capacity to experience God’s peace. As I said in the last chapter, closing your eyes doesn’t stop the light, it just stops you experiencing the light. Being anxious doesn’t stop God’s peace, it just makes it harder to experience God’s peace.

In summary some anxiety, at the right time and at the right intensity, is normal. It’s not unhealthy or sinful to experience some anxiety. Anxiety at the wrong time or at the wrong intensity, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. Anxiety related to a dysfunctional approach to uncertainty, and is a future-orientated emotion because anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating.

Like depression, anxiety disorders can be managed in four main ways, by reducing the amount of stress coming in with stress management techniques, by increasing capacity to cope with psychological therapies like CBT and ACT, and sometimes by using medications, which help the brain to process the uncertainty of each situation more effectively. Prayer is can also useful to helping to manage anxiety.

Christians are not immune from anxiety disorders, and it’s important for the church to understand that Christians who suffer from anxiety are not weak, backsliding or faith-deficient. Having anxiety is not because of making poor choices. Though if you have anxiety, trust in the promises of the Bible, that God has the future under control.

References

[1]        Grupe DW, Nitschke JB. Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2013 Jul;14(7):488-501.
[2]        Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2.
[3]        Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10.
[4]        Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84.
[5]        Porges SW. The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology 2007 Feb;74(2):116-43.
[6]        James AC, James G, Cowdrey FA, Soler A, Choke A. Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2013;6:CD004690.
[7]        Swain J, Hancock K, Hainsworth C, Bowman J. Acceptance and commitment therapy in the treatment of anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical psychology review 2013 Dec;33(8):965-78.
[8]        Quide Y, Witteveen AB, El-Hage W, Veltman DJ, Olff M. Differences between effects of psychological versus pharmacological treatments on functional and morphological brain alterations in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder: a systematic review. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2012 Jan;36(1):626-44.
[9]        Sokolowski K, Corbin JG. Wired for behaviors: from development to function of innate limbic system circuitry. Frontiers in molecular neuroscience 2012;5:55.
[10]      Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle WH, Koenig HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med 2009;39(4):377-92.

If you’re suffering from anxiety or any other mental health difficulties and if you want help, see your GP or a psychologist, or if you’re in Australia, 24 hour telephone counselling is available through:

 Lifeline = 13 11 14 – or – Beyond Blue = 1300 22 4636

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Fear: Friend or Foe?

Fear.  Should we run, fight, or think?

I was lazily wasting time at Zarraffas this afternoon, and while I was savouring the richness and depth of my triple masai mocha, I was filling the time by flicking through Facebook.

I came upon a blog post by one of the best thinkers and writers I’m personally acquainted with, one Ruth Limkin, who shared the story of how she was given an opportunity to snorkel in a pristine area of ocean in the South Pacific that is limited to only a handful of people, such is the fragile beauty of the ecosystem there.  As she started swimming into the warm, calm, azure waters, she felt this sudden dread.

Five years ago in a similar situation, she misjudged the current, was swept into some coral, and sustained a laceration to her knee.  This left a lot of blood in the water which, quite reasonably, made her think that she had suddenly become shark bait.  She made it back to shore otherwise unscathed. But it left her with the implicit memory of that event.

This year, despite the obviously calm surroundings, she recalled that fear. Her brain told her to get out of there.  She did manage to overcome her fear though, and enjoyed the snorkelling!

Her lesson was that the pain of yesterday can become todays fear, which robs tomorrow of its promise.

I don’t disagree with Ruth.  I’m not intelligent enough to do that.  But I guess I come from a more medical and analytical perspective of this phenomenon, and I wanted to flesh out her point a bit further.

We all feel it at sometime or another – your heart pounds faster and heavier in your chest. Your breathing gets faster. Your muscles tighten. And your brain either says, “Run” or “Fight”, or sometimes it says nothing at all and we simply freeze up.

The human fear response is both rational and irrational.  We usually don’t understand why we are faced with conflicting realities of internal anxiety and external tranquility, feeling scared while looking at calm clear waters.  Sometimes when we take a step back, we can gain some understanding of why we have reacted the way we did, and cognitively overcome our fear.

B-grade pop-psychologists make us believe that courage is the absence of fear, and that the way to move forward is to eliminate or repress your fears.  But that approach is wrong for a couple of reasons.

There is a good reason why we have fear conditioning.  There is a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is integral to emotional processing.  Central to this is the amygdala, which is responsible for adding emotions to our experiences, especially fear and anger.  When something happens that has real or perceived negative consequences (we experience pain, or we think that there is a high chance that we will experience pain) the amygdala pairs that aversive sensation with the memory of the total experience.  This helps us learn from our mistakes [1].

For example, if a pre-historic man was walking through a forest and came across a sabre-toothed tiger, the fight-or-flight response would help him escape.  But the amygdala would attach the memory of the emotion to the memory of the event itself.  Next time the man walked through a similar forest, or even recalled that event in his mind, the emotion of the memory would also be recalled.  This is why Ruth felt uneasy despite the lack of danger.  Her surroundings triggered the emotional memory of the previous snorkelling experience.

But while unpleasant, fear does confer a survival advantage.  Without the same emotion being recalled, we wouldn’t remember what situations were dangerous and which were safe.  Recalling the emotion and realising there may be sabre-toothed tigers around, or strong currents and sharks, means that there is a much smaller chance of us becoming lunch.

There are two pathways in the brain that are involved in the fear response.  The direct pathway goes from the senses to the amygdala, bypassing the thinking parts of our brain entirely.  Again, this confers a survival advantage as the quicker you can prepare yourself for danger, the more likely you are to survive it.  The signal is not properly analysed, but it doesn’t need to be.  It is better to be wrong and live than to be right and eaten by something.

The second pathway from the senses to the cerebral cortex then back to the amygdala is more precise, but it is slower than the direct path.  It can downgrade the fear response if it is not appropriate.  Well, it can in most people.  Anxiety and panic disorders arise when the balance between the direct and indirect pathways is skewed in the direction of the amygdala.

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, you should see a good GP.  There are specific forms of psychological therapy that you may need to engage with.  Some people also need medications to assist with the process.

For most people though, we can simply allow the recalled feeling of fear stop us from engaging in life.  When we sense fear, the natural reaction is to run or fight.  That is the direct pathway talking in our brain. The lesson from our neurobiology is that we have another choice.  We can let our cerebral cortex do its job, we can think about the situation, and allow our higher functions to downgrade our primitive reactions.

We also need to understand that fear is ok.  It is necessary, in fact.  Without it, we wouldn’t adapt to our surroundings or learn from our mistakes.  We should not avoid fear.  We should not fight fear.  But we should not let fear control us.

Nelson Mandela, a man who experienced great fear but greater hope, sums it up beautifully, and so gets the final word, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

References
[1] Dalgleish, T., The emotional brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2004. 5(7): p. 583-9.