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Worried well, or worried sick?

by
14 October 2022

Are stress levels rising post-Covid? Kate Middleton and Will Van Der Hart look at ways to handle anxiety and panic

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MENTAL and emotional health struggles are now well recognised in society and the Church. But, after the demands and challenges of the pandemic, and amid subsequent challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis, many more people are facing their own mental-health problems.

Anxiety is the most common emotion to trigger illness. And, while everyone experiences times of anxiety and stress, some people struggle with problematic anxiety. For example, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), in which feelings of fear, doom, or danger continue long after a problem or threat has gone, is estimated to affect five per cent of the UK population. Concerns about health, real or imagined, are another common cause of anxiety.

By the age of 20, one of us, Will, had already had a brain tumour, heart attack and degenerative neurological disease. At least in his head. . . He is not alone in this. The Revd Nicky Gumbel, former Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, described his own battle with a tendency to catastrophise minor health issues in the 2020 version of The Bible in One Year.

Anxiety as an emotion is not an illness but a healthy human emotion. It functions in the mind like a smoke alarm, focusing one’s attention on things that might be important, or early signs of something that one needs to respond to, or prevent.

Just like a smoke alarm, however, anxiety can become too reactive. This is especially common in times of stress, because anxiety functions on the same physiological system as stress. If life is busy or demanding, the baseline on that system is raised; so, it doesn’t take much to push one into overactive anxiety, which can feel relentless. Anxiety often triggers further difficult emotions, such as fear or guilt. These raise stress even more.

For Christians struggling with this, especially those in any kind of ministry, health anxiety — when one spends time worrying about illness, or about getting ill, in such a way that it starts to take over one’s life — doesn’t just throw up disproportionate worries about illness: it is also often laden with a comparative guilt. Aware of the physical suffering and disabilities of others, sufferers can feel that it is selfish and indulgent to be worrying about imaginary sickness. Paradoxically, this guilt is propagated by GAD and also a consequence of it. Then, there is the awareness that we are not trusting God and “counting our blessings”.

Another challenge of raised stress and anxiety is that their physical symptoms. Anxiety is designed to get our attention, and is often experienced as unpleasant sensations in the body. Stress, too, can cause physical symptoms, as our bodies are constantly primed, ready to react should we need to. Changes in heart or breathing rate, digestive issues as blood is diverted to the muscles, assorted muscular aches and pains, or headaches due to tension — all these are real symptoms.

Of course, it is not a big leap to believe that sensations caused by anxiety point to the presence of some malign illness. When that thought triggers an additional anxiety spike, symptoms often worsen. Meanwhile, the mind is triggered to focus and relentlessly over-analyse the whole thing. It can all add up to a very effective vicious circle.

Recent years have placed further fuel on the fire for those who wrestle with general anxiety, or who specifically worry about their health. Covid-19 created concerns for many who would not have thought themselves vulnerable before; and media reports have often heightened anxiety. Subsequent reports about waiting times and the state of the NHS, post-Covid, can leave us all feeling more vulnerable.

Negative, fear-provoking stories grab our attention; so they are more likely to be remembered, recalled, and retold. The more worried we become, the more our instincts drive us to seek information. We think that seeking reassurance will help, but, instead, can find ourselves doom scrolling through more and more of what makes us feel worse, not better.

So, how to manage health anxiety?

 

Accept vulnerability

THIS seems like a counter-intuitive place to start, but it is important. We are all human, and we all have vulnerabilities, whether in our physical or mental health. Trying to deny or ignore that will make anxiety worse, not better, as our brain tries to break through. And make sure to acknowledge risk.

Our cultural narrative tells us that we need to become invincible, superhuman; but that leaves people thinking in very binary terms. If our health isn’t perfect, we can feel flawed, frail, or like a failure.

There is a path to peace in acknowledging our weakness, and reaching out to God, instead. The Bible teaches that it is in the space where we recognise our limits that God’s power is released in its greatest strength (2 Corinthians 12.9). We do not need to fear our human frailty.

 

Recognise anxiety

SECOND, we need to become more aware of anxiety, identifying its own physical effects, and not becoming drawn into deeper spirals of panic about other illnesses that fuel the fire instead of extinguishing it. Learning to pause, take a moment to breathe, or pray — these skills can help us to hold our nerve in life’s toughest moments.

In Philippians 4.6-7, Paul talks about moments when anxiety has so many pulls on our attention — when there are so many worries occupying our thoughts — that we feel emotionally in pieces as a result. When our minds are overwhelmed, he teaches us to hand those worries over to God, let them go into his care, and find, instead, a peace beyond human understanding — beyond the power of our own mind.

 

Manage stress

VERY often, our attempts to manage mental-health struggles treat the symptom rather than the cause. Anxiety problems are often triggered, or worsened, by periods of stress, change, or uncertainty which have made our minds over-reactive.

We need to remember that stress is a whole-body phenomenon, and that it isn’t just about times when one is “stressed out”. Anything that makes demands on our body or brain triggers stress.

The best times in life may also be the busiest; so we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that we are immune. Instead, we should think through when, how, and where in our week rest can be taken — physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Of course, there are times when you should get in touch with your GP. Whether it is the health concerns themselves or the anxiety that is provoking them, if the symptoms are having a serious impact on your life, stopping you doing things you love, or have persisted for a significant length of time, professional advice is important.

It is important to recognise that managing our minds well does not mean zero emotion. Emotions are our minds’ way of telling us that things are important, helping us to ponder and process the things that matter.

Our feelings can be part of unlocking deeper thoughts or memories — or even a response to something God is teaching or telling us (Luke 24.32).

We all have days when stress gets on top of us, or emotions catch us by surprise, and the “What ifs?” blind-side us. What is important is how we react in those moments, treating ourselves with compassion, wisdom, and kindness.

Condemning ourselves, or fighting the thoughts in our head, is counter-productive. Instead, learning to accept anxiety and hold it out to the Lord can return focus to something more productive.

Perhaps our biggest challenge in 21st-century culture is to accept the truth that we do not have complete control, but are in God’s hands.

 

Dr Kate Middleton and the Revd Will Van Der Hart are directors of the Mind and Soul Foundation. For more about anxiety and other emotional and mental-health topics, go to www.mindandsoulfoundation.org or search for @mindandsouluk on social-media platforms.

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