The Common Good

Anxiety and Christian Leadership

Since I was eight, I’ve dealt with moderate to severe anxiety. I imagine most of us remember a time we’ve been anxious about something. Perhaps it was excitement and worry at the prospect of a new job or those last few hours cramming for a test. In such cases, physical reactions like sweaty palms and shallow breathing makes sense. For me, these reactions come on suddenly, seemingly for no reason.

KieferPix / Shutterstock.com
KieferPix / Shutterstock.com

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For me, anxiety means skin itching as I try to fall asleep; flash-images of terrible car accidents involving myself or loved ones; tightness in my chest and difficulty breathing. Even in the most ordinary moments, it means complicated bedtime rituals and thought spirals that lead to self-doubt. The symptoms of anxiety can be somatic, often registering as shortness of breath or even a heart attack. These are not rational, but nonetheless seem quite real. Anxiety has often caused me to be easily agitated with those closest to me, but also to quickly withdraw from larger social situations. It makes me avoid situations that may trigger anxiety, which ultimately isolates me from others.

I thought these symptoms were normal in times of stress, until recently, when I was told by a therapist that I suffer from generalized anxiety, which is most often characterized by irrational worries accompanied by strong physical reactions. Like many people with mood disorders, I fear people will think I’m crazy if I talk about it. I recall my auto insurance company giving me a higher monthly rate not because I am a young, reckless, male, but because I had a prescription to an anti-depression/anxiety drug. Despite the proof that such drugs properly prescribed can help stabilize chemical imbalance, the stigma is always there. But I have realized that it could be more damaging not to talk about it. In a society that often stigmatizes mental illness and even therapy, talking about our struggles openly, and about how God continues to remain with us in them, may help others take steps toward getting the help they need.

When I began a Masters of Divinity program at Wesley Theological Seminary, I was convinced that my generalized anxiety would be a wrinkle I’d iron out as I became more competent in preaching and pastoral care. What I failed to recognize was that my aptitude for ministry in itself was not the issue. I already felt called to hospital chaplaincy and had had experience working with the sick and dying as a nursing assistant. However, despite all the practical knowledge I’ve continued to gain at Wesley, anxiety has remained a debilitating problem.

When my anxiety was at its worst this past spring, I often asked myself, what business do I have pursuing ordained ministry? How can I serve others if I can’t take care of myself? Last week, regarding the suicide of Robin Williams, I heard frequently: “How can someone so funny do that?” The best answer I’ve found is that even when we are in great pain and anguish, feeling isolated from others, we don’t stop doing what we do best. Even in times of depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, Williams never ceased to do what he did best — make people laugh when they most needed to. Likewise, despite my anxiety, no matter how I attempt to close out the world, I still feel called to the ministry of chaplaincy, to bring healing to others through my presence.

I have realized, with much prayer and reflection, that the idea of irradicating anxiety is both impossible and counterintuitive. This is not to say that life plagued by constant anxiety and other mood disorders is what God wants for us as humans. I would challenge theology that suggests that prayer is a “cure” for any kind of suffering, but the fact remains that my ability to manage my anxiety rests in my relationship with God. Though I do not believe God wants us to suffer, I do believe God makes God’s presence known to us by abiding with us even in our darkest times.

Managing my anxiety continues to be a struggle. I have taken anti-anxiety medications; I have done cognitive behavior therapy. For a while, I studied Buddhist thought and mediation to learn to live with anxiety. This has been invaluable and truly a gift from God. For Buddhists, becoming conscious of our breathing is what connects our body and soul.

However, despite what mindfulness has taught me, even in silent mediation, I find myself reflecting on God’s creation, Christ’s sacrificial love for us, and perhaps especially, the Holy Spirit who abides with us. In the practice of silent mediation, Scripture often becomes helpful mantras for me. I’d like to share three of these with you.

1. “Whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18, NRSV).
In the past, I have let my anxiety damage my closest relationships. While humans are far from perfect, we can aim to approach the same love with which Christ loved his Father and all of us. Love is a powerful tool; if we act out of love instead of fear, anxiety no longer has the same power over us.

2. “Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Exodus 4:12, NRSV).
My anxiety has been known to make me trip over my words if expected to speak on the fly. God’s words to Moses have always been a comfort not only when it comes to speaking publicly but regarding my faith in general. I truly believe God is rooting for all of us to grow in faith not only for our own sake, but for the sake of serving those around us.

3. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b, NRSV).
Leading up to finals week in seminary, myself and many other first-year students expressed fear concerning the volume of writing and studying we had to do. I will always remember what our professor, Dr. Amy Oden, said to us. She didn’t offer us tips about memorization or how to write papers more quickly. Rather she simply told us to make time to pray and above all to remember that Christ came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Abundant living is not about getting more money, or getting a 4.0 GPA. And most often, self-care is not about filling ourselves up with knowledge and filling our heads with worries. Rather, it is about emptying ourselves, in order that God’s hope for abundant life has room to live in us.

Mark Masdin is a Masters of Divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary and member of National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amelia and their dog, Moses.

Image: KieferPix / Shutterstock.com

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