What worry can do to you
In an interview, author and speaker Joanie Yoder shared her story of how worry nearly ruined her life—until she found practical answers in unexpected places.
“My life was filled with anxiety and worry, but I was able to cover it up, like a lot of people do, until I had an experience that caused me to hit rock bottom. It was then that I was forced to face my anxieties, my fears, my dread, and my worries.
“Catherine Marshall said that the greatest discovery we can make is to realize that our own strength is not enough. I experienced that discovery. I had nothing left of my own inner resources. I didn’t seem to have the strength, physically or emotionally, to go on.
“I had developed agoraphobia, which is a dread of open spaces—a fear of going out. For me, it was a fear of going into the supermarket. It was so intense that I would panic and go into a sweat. I was afraid that I would go totally insane in front of people—or, even worse, die.
“Sometimes I would interrupt my shopping, shove my cart into a corner, and run home. As soon as I was in the house, I had this sudden relief of being safe and secure again.
“I thought I was the only person who felt like this. My eating habits changed, my sleep was erratic, I was trembly and shaky, and I was generally anxious about life and all its responsibilities. I couldn’t face anything. I felt I was all washed up by the time I was in my early thirties.
“There were underlying reasons for my difficulty. As I look back now, I realize that there were three reasons for my inability to manage life:
“One was extreme immaturity. I was underdeveloped emotionally to handle responsibility.
“Second, I had developed a bitterness habit. I didn’t really recognize it as such, because I felt I was always justified in feeling as I did. Mine was always a just cause.
“And the third reason, which I think is common to all of us, was a tendency to be self-sufficient. I tried to do everything in my own strength. And when I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own, I felt I ought to be able to.
“Those three factors had a crumbling effect. It led me toward a breakdown that I needed. I think it’s a breakdown we all need. It wasn’t a nervous breakdown, but a breakdown of my self-sufficiency.
“From my own experience, and also in observing other people who are in this painful situation of running out of their resources, one of the characteristics is a need to control—the need to control life, circumstances, people, and unwittingly, God—because we feel afraid of what might happen. We feel that if we can control things and make things go a certain way, we will be less afraid.
“My problem was that I didn’t feel in control of my self-protection—protection from the things that I was afraid of. So I began to build a cocoon around myself. That cocoon became as small as the word implies. I had a tiny space in which I felt safe and secure—the four walls of my house. In fact, I so cocooned my life that it contained a population of one—me.”
We may not all identify with Joanie’s method of coping, but we all know what it is to face situations that make us uneasy, even panicky. Some of us lie awake at night thinking about the fate of a son or daughter. Others worry about job situations or health or a family that is falling apart. Worry can show up in a throbbing tension headache. Others experience a pounding heart and shortness of breath. For still others, unrecognized fear lurks behind our tendency to overeat, overspend, or overuse anything that will deaden the pain. We all know what it means to face circumstances beyond our control.
Followers of Christ aren’t immune to worry or its complications. Sometimes our spiritual beliefs seem to make matters even worse. We want so much for our faith to make a difference in our lives so that family members, neighbors, and co-workers see us trusting in the goodness and presence of God. We worry about letting them down.
The results are costly. Anxiety divides our attention and subtracts from our energy. We don’t know what to do with the concerns that wear us down.
In a sense, we worry because we are made in the image of God, given an imagination that enables us to see the good and bad possibilities of life. We’re designed with the capacity to care about what happens to ourselves and to others.
The challenge is to learn what God has given us to help us deal with our broken world. Bad things happen and we’re unsure of our own safety as well as the safety of our loved ones. So . . . we worry.
Worry is a feeling of uneasiness, apprehension, or dread usually related to negative thoughts of something that may happen in the future. Such possibilities may be important to think about, but those thoughts are healthy only if we are able or willing to do something positive with them. Worry defeats us when it replaces wise action or needed rest with fearful emotion. Reacting in fear based only on our emotions will detract from the present while doing nothing to prepare us for the future.
Because stressful anxiety is an issue of the heart that costs far more than it gives, the wisdom literature of the world regards worry as a habit that none of us can afford. The Bible, however, treats worry as an emotion of choice that impedes our relationship with our Father in heaven.
The primary New Testament word for worry (merimnao) means “to be anxious, to be distracted, to have a divided mind.” It is an emotion and state of mind in direct opposition to trust. Anxiety becomes our alternative to relying on the faithful presence and provisions of God.
All of us indulge in worry from time to time. Anyone who takes responsibility seriously can’t help but consider what might happen. It’s one reason things get done. People who claim they don’t have a care in the world are either foolish or in denial.
Not surprisingly, many high achievers are worriers, driven not only by a desire to succeed but also by a fear of failure. But those who appear to be laid-back worry too. They simply show it in different ways.
When we are preoccupied with what might happen, we let worry superimpose a possible future on a real present. Such worries often arise out of one of four categories.
1. Threats—real or imagined—cause us to worry. There is no way to be completely safe from harm, yet all of us must determine the difference between being careful, being careless, and being consumed by fear.
2. Choices that could make or break us can be a source of worry. We may use delay tactics to avoid making a wrong choice. Most decisions don’t change our lives in unalterable ways. But some do, and so we worry.
3. Past experiences buried and lost from our conscious memory can be a third, yet unrecognized, cause for worry. For some people, event-based anxieties are linked to the trauma of war, abuse, or an accident. For others, it’s a series of negative experiences with parents, teachers, siblings, or peers that has left invisible scars.
4. Medical conditions can cause feelings of anxiety that do not respond to reason or spiritual insight. Some of these maladies include hyperthyroidism; hyperglycemia; prescription drug reactions; pituitary, adrenal, or parathyroid dysfunctions; and other hormonal, allergic, or chemical factors.
Such reasons show that even if some emotions are beyond our control, we need to find solutions that put our fears to work for us rather than against us.