Difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘being’ anxious unlocks an answer

“…for nothing be anxious.” *

I think there is a difference between feeling anxious and being anxious.

Photo by Jesse Therrien

Anxiety is a normal, perhaps even healthy, feeling when faced with the unknown, the unsafe or the unwanted. Usually this feeling of anxiety resolves when you pass through the situation and relief follows or, if your anxiety was justified, more concrete thoughts, actions and responses are required.

Sometimes it is the psycho-emotional effects of feelings of anxiety that help guide you through challenging situations – heightened vigilance, physical alertness (adrenalin), cautious progress.

But what if it is not so much that you ‘feel’ anxious, but that you are ‘being’ anxious; that you find yourself continuing in anxiety with or without an initial trigger.

Many of us in life can find ourselves weighed down with all the mental and physical responses of anxiety for hours, days or months. We are being anxious and we have forgetten how not to be anxious.

At such times, phrases such as the Biblical epigram for this post, “for nothing be anxious”, can seem infuriating and mindless to the person who would rather do anything but be anxious.

When our friends or spouses or colleagues tell us to ‘get over it’ when that is the one thing we can’t seem to do, we feel even more anxious. That is presuming anyone but ourselves even knows. In most cases, these predicaments are carried with silence, a supreme act of the will considering the turmoil inside.

So when the Bible says ‘for nothing be anxious’ do we have yet another voice condemning and consigning the anxious person to deeper isolation?

On the surface we might think so, but considering the Bible is supposed to represent God speaking to us, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

As we think more deeply, we might remember that Paul who wrote these words did so from prison, one of many traumatic and harmful episodes in his life. He would have been well acquainted with anxiety, perhaps even while composing his letter to the Philippian church, so is unlikely to be speaking glibbly.

No, instead, I have come to see that these simple words are advice from someone who had to put them into effect himself many times.

When we are trapped in anxiety, it is not the challenging event or situation that is stirring our feelings, rather that everything our mind turns to seems dire. We are not feeling anxious, we are being anxious. Anxiety, not the circumstances, is what is wrong.

Paul did not say, ‘for nothing feel anxious’ – it might seem an arbitrary distinction but I think not. We will all feel anxious and as a general rule, you cannot stifle genuinely evoked emotion.

However when you wake in the middle of the night and your mind begins to wander across your life and everything seems dire and doomed and desperate, Paul is right to say, with my paraphrase,

“Hold on, step back a minute and rather than being caught up further in what you are thinking are negative circumstances, recognise that anxiety has a life of its own here, and is separate to and different to who you really are and what your life is really like. As you begin to see that this anxiety is a condition of being rather than a genuinely evoked feeling, you can choose, with some practice and the grace of God, to step out of it.”

Photo by Peter Hallett

In other words, for nothing (none of the situations of your life) be anxious.

Recently when caught in a moment as described above, the words of this Bible verse came to mind and with it these thoughts (we Christians call this the Holy Spirit): ‘This is not you or your circumstances speaking, it is anxiety turning everything to despair.’

Instantly, as I recognised this truth, I let out a sigh of relief and as if the sun had risen over a dark landscape, the colour seemed to return. Not that there weren’t concerns in life, but they seemed manageable and not all-consuming.

The next part of Paul’s advice is:

“…but in everything by prayer, and by supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.” *

To further guard your mind from anxiety, Paul recommends replacing the activity of anxiety – touching on the many scenarios of your life with despair and doom – with the activity of prayer – touching on the same scenarios with faith in a loving and present God.

I hope that the next time anxiety grips – in the dark of the night, driving to work, sitting at home – you will ‘for nothing be anxious’ – step back and recognise that the negativity of prevailing anxiety is not true and is not you. Allow it to seep away, and if need be, touch on each thing with a word of prayer to God.

And whether this helps or not, why not talk to someone about anxiety in your life – if there is not a friend or family member, then perhaps a pastor or counsellor at church, your doctor or Lifeline.

* Philippians 4:6 (Youngs Literal Translation)

Anxiety information at Beyond Blue

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