Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Theological Implications of Anxiety

Man lives an anxious existence. After rebelling against God and paradise man’s existence changes radically: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gn. 3:17-19). Ever since the fall mankind has been violently cast into a world of darkness, terror, death, and decay. Humanity, due to the violence of sin, hides from God and is terrified of him (Gen. 3:8). Man also continues to suffer the confusion of Babel. We are confounded by the world around us which is often unintelligible and completely lacking in compassion, understanding, and God’s truth. We are cast about, confounded, misunderstood, and confused. Or as one of my favorite songwriters Ray Lamontagne sings, "Trouble...Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble trouble been doggin' my soul since the day I was born. Worry...Worry, worry, worry, worry worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone"

There is no hebrew or latin word for panic as apart from fear or terror (transliterated in the Hebrew as yirah). The word “panic” is derived from the Greek word “panikos,” “pertaining to Pan,” the god of the darkness of the woods who arises deep panic and fear driving poor creatures into irrational behavior or suicide. Panic often accompanies hysteria (hysterikos) or fear, like that of the men whom having been exorcized by the ministry of Jesus sat afraid at his feet (Lk. 8:35). Episodes of panic and hysteria have historically been attributed to supernatural forces or demonic affliction. Only since Sigmund Freud have panic disorders been more thoroughly partitioned off from any possibility of spiritual affliction. The diagnostic category of “anxiety neurosis” was first postulated by Freud in a paper entitled, “On the Ground for Detaching a particular syndrome from Neurasthenia under the description Anxiety Neurosis (1894).” Freud’s description of anxiety neurosis is similar to today’s DSM-III description of panic attacks, which both include disturbances of heart rate, sweating, fear, vertigo, etc. What ought not come as a surprise is that Freud attributes panic attacks to sexual impotency and frustration, whereas today’s medical establishment attributes panic disorder squarely into the all-encompassing reach of “bio-chemical imbalance.”

Anxiety is now the number one emotional problem of our day. For women, panic anxiety is the number one mental-health problem of our day. Dr. Archibald D. Hart attributes the rise of panic disorders to the supercharged pace of American life, “High adrenaline, caused by overextension and stress, depletes the brain’s natural tranquilizers and sets the stage for high anxiety.”[1] The adrenaline-anxiety connection is central in Hart’s analysis which may well be remedied by tranquilizers or more practical means: exercise, diet, etc.

Though I am sympathetic to depression and anxiety disorders, we need to speak honestly about the world and the human condition. As a necessary disclaimer to those hypersensitive about cleaving to psychotrophic medications, I must say that we ought to make an allowance for medications that are prescribed for those suffering from certain debilitating illnesses that inhibit daily functioning, such as the inability to get out of bed. Christians are not Christian Scientists or Scientologists who deny the blessings of modern medicine, and therefore we must prayerfully consider and weigh out the costs and benefits of SSRI’s, tranquilizers, MAOI’s, and Tricyclics.

Though man is formed in the image of God as the crown of His creation, the fall has had consequences on the body. Man in his rebellion against creator and creation has exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25) and now bears in his body the marks of sin, despair, depression, terror, panic, and ultimately death (6:23). Sin itself is a spiritual as well as biological and chemical phenomenon. When considering how to deal with depression and anxiety, which go hand in hand, we need to reconcile ourselves with the most fundamental truths concerning man’s existence. First, man is born in a state of a “bio-chemical” imbalance – which is the norm and not the exception, “They meet with darkness in the day time, and grope in the noonday as in the night” (Job. 5:14). He is not the “noble savage” envisioned by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who is born in a marvelous light, who in his essence holds an intrinsic goodness in perfect communion with the natural world. There is not a natural bio-chemical harmony with God or with the rest of creation. In the fallen and confounded state of man, which despises God and closes himself off from the neighbor, the inward and outward retreat of man from the font of life is a neurotic and thoroughly dangerous venture. Everyday normal life is lived in tension – in disorientation – a continual crisis of faith – lived out in paradox, doubt, and affliction – mediated only by God’s promise, “I am the Lord your God, and you are my people.”

While being sympathetic to those suffering from debilitating illnesses, we must also make an allowance for anxiety as a discipline. Anxiety is experienced in fear, disorientation, along with a range of physiological consequences – increased heart rate, sleep disturbances etc. Or as Luther wrote, “The pagan trembles at the rustling leaf. The uniform teaching of Scripture is that fallen men are fleeing from God.” In man’s fleeing from God he has run headfirst into a pit of darkness and despair in which he can find no deliverer – not in his idols, work, or imagination. He must be rebuked, turned, rescued, and returned to the font of life from whence he came, “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty,” (Job. 5:17).
I have researched and written about the history of antidepressants medications and the structural involvement of the big pharmaceutical firms in DSM here.

[1] Hart, Archibald D. The Anxiety Cure: You Can Find Emotional Tranquillity and Wholeness. Nashville, TN: Word Pub, 1999, p. vi (preface).


  1. that's awesome that you referenced Ray LaMontagne -- very appropriate lyrics for the entry

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. (the post time is an hour off)

  4. Very good post Michael. Well written. I especially like the exegetical vocabulary points that you make.

  5. I just read it again -- You make a lot of interesting points. I'm not sure about a couple of the statements but I like how you talked about the topic coming from an unconventional prospective. The part about the effects of the human condition was especially thought provoking.

  6. Hi Michael!

    Here's a quote I thought you might appreciate from Bonhoeffer:

    "[Christ's disciples] must not fear men. Men can do them no harm, for the power of men ceases with the death of the body. But they must overcome the fear of death with the fear of God. The danger lies not in the judgement of men, but in the judgement of God, not in the death of the body, but in the eternal destruction of body and soul. Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily."

    BTW: I am a huge fan of Ray LaMontagne. Huge is an understatement.

  7. Hey Mike - is that Bonhoeffer quote from 'Ethics?' - I really like that. Glad to hear you like Ray LaMontagne - guy really speaks to me.

  8. I think to profess anxiety as a mechanism God uses to "discipline" is where I disagree with you, as this can be a dangerous seed to plant in one's head, especially if they are suffering from a mental illness. With the point I think you were trying to bring across, I think "communication" would be more sensible rhetoric.
    As a species with often over-sized adrenal glands and under-sized prefrontal cortex, it is easy to see how fear can pervade man's thought and separate him for God. While experiencing anxiety, many do not see it as a form of communication, they submit to avoidance behavior, and cling to things that will only give them temporary relief/safety. In my eyes, it is this persistent "clinging" that continually separates man from God. There is a choice to embrace or cowardly run away. By consciously embracing anxiety, treating it as a learning experience, and perceiving what the experience actually is, can bring a very enlightening revelation. All the shaky nerves, sweaty palms, teeth-grinding, and heart pounding wasn't really fear, but love.

  9. PolliDrankPickleJuice,

    Are you saying someone who struggled/struggles with a mental illness could actually "cling" to avoidance, itself, as a "temporary relief?" If that is true then couldn't "persistent clinging" to avoidance and its effects eventually become ingrained behavior(s), which could linger even when the mental illness cease to actively exist?
    What do you mean when you say "embracing" anxiety?

  10. anonymous,

    For people suffering from neuroses, avoidance behavior is reinforced by anxiety reduction, so yes the more this stimulus-reinforcement occurs the more ingrained it can become into one's personality and behavior. Treatment for disorders such as depression/anxiety aim to replace avoidance behaviors with approach behaviors. My mention of "embracing anxiety" was a reference to approaching anxiety, and if possible, without the use of psychotropic drugs. The goal being to identify the psychic energy that is causing the aberrant behavior, and taking the steps to increase normal functioning.

  11. psychic energy??

  12. The administration of the anti-anxiety drug xanax would yield suitable results only when you are consistent in your xanax regimen but altogether while taking xanax, you are likely to encounter certain xanax effects such as tremors, bewilderment, headache, giddiness et al. These xanax side-effects are temporary only but whenever you encounter them, you should approach a doctor immediately.


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