“I need you to love me a little louder today.” (Healthyplace.com)
This past year, our dog, Autumn, tore both of her ACLs and we made the very hard decision to put her to sleep. She was an absolutely beautiful dog, a loving dog, an active dog, a mischievous dog, and a highly-anxious dog. At our first vet visit when she was just a puppy, we were told that she probably had neurological issues (because we made the lovely decision to buy a pure-breed). Little did we know then, but soon found out, that this dog was one nervous-nelly.
Life marched on and she had all kinds of typical dog anxiety related to thunder, strangers, and loud noises (like Allen and I yelling at the TV during Steelers games). But she also had “not-so-typical” dog anxiety where she panted and paced often for no reason, snapped at the air like she was catching flies even when she was alone (it’s called fly-biting syndrome) and tried to climb out of our home through the fire place.
Needless to say, you get my point. Like her loving owner, this dog had some serious issues with the dreaded monster of anxiety. As the years went on, I learned some very valuable lessons from my Autumn, many that I remind myself on the days that anxiety rears its ugly head in my own life and the lives of those I love.
#1 Anxiety can come out of nowhere.
There are times that I find myself in a place that only moments before was nowhere to be found. I am going along just fine and out of the blue, I have thoughts that are absolutely ridiculous and filled with fear. (I haven’t heard from Josh today. I wonder if he’s okay. He is, Esther. You are ridiculous. But he could have fallen in the shower and all his housemates are already at school. He might be laying there bleeding or worse, he might be dead. How will we deal with this? I will be wreck. Stop it Esther. This is nuts.) This may have come on the heels of enjoying a nice breakfast out with a friend while drinking chamomile tea.
#2 Anxiety usually passes.
After years of observing Autumn’s and my own anxiety, I have come to realize that it doesn’t usually last. The same way it roars into my life, it often makes its way out. This is a lifeline for me in the throes of it. On a very bad day, I remind myself that it will eventually pass. It might take some time, but it won’t be like this forever. It seems to be cyclical. Shalom (meaning completeness, soundness, peace) is a life-long journey, with many fits and starts along the way.
#3 Anxiety isn’t about trusting God.
One day, Autumn was just beside herself. It might have been a thunderstorm. She was pacing and panting, wide-eyed and whining. In a moment of clarity, I said to her (very tongue-in-cheek), “Autumn, you just need to trust God more.” You are probably thinking to yourself, “That’s ridiculous. She’s a dog.” And you know what, it is ridiculous. For years, I added to the shame of my anxiety by berating myself about not trusting God enough. I memorized verses about fear, the “do not fear” ones especially (and yes, I do know that here are 365 verses about fear, one for every day…I would imagine you might sense the sarcasm). I promise you. If memorizing these verses and trying really hard to “trust God more” would have done the trick and that formula could have worked, I would be all over it, preaching it from the mountaintops. If it were only that easy. But the hard truth is it’s not.
This is a message for all of us. Anxiety is a neurological disorder. Anxiety is when a person’s central nervous system is telling them there is an emergency even when there isn’t one. Anxiety comes from a place of fright without solution. Yes, we can feed it and make it worse (learned all about those neurons firing and giant pathways being created in my Physiology class in college). I am an expert at feeding it. And yes, new pathways can be formed that bring calm to the nervous system. I am in the process of feeding those new pathways now and have been for many years (which has helped tremendously). In the end, it’s all very complicated and I am not an expert in the field. But that’s not the point.
Here is the point. For those of you who don’t struggle, please don’t tell the person in the middle of it to “trust God more.” I promise you it won’t help. It may just heap more frustration and shame on the person and send them deeper into hiding. And for those of you, like me, who have this monster hounding them on many days and during many seasons, think about my dog. Give yourself some grace. Tell yourself some truth. It’s just as ridiculous to say “trust God more” to yourself as it is to my dog.
#4 Anxiety dissipates by being “held.”
The best thing we could do for our dog, when she was at her worst and visibly shaking with fear, was to hold or pet her, come close to her, and speak gently and kindly to her. That’s really what those of us with anxiety need. We need someone to listen to our fears, be gentle and kind to us and most of all, hold us until it passes (this can be emotional or physical). My favorite words in the whole world are, “It’s going to be okay. You (the real you) are going to be okay.”
The big question that nags is what if there is not someone tangible to hold us? Can we go to God? Will He calm our hearts? It’s not magic and certainly not a quick-fix formula, but I promise you that He cares for you. He loves you. He will listen. He will be kind and tender to you. He will hold you until your heart and mind calm. A verse that I reprimanded myself with for many years got flipped on its head one day by our counselor. I Peter 5:7. Instead of “cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you,” it is actually the reverse in the Greek. It really says, “Because He cares for you, you can cast all your anxiety on Him.” God is the initiator here. We ARE cared for. He holds us. To that truth, I cling with my life. Shalom.
(By the way, I loved my dog and I miss her very much. I wouldn’t have traded her for the world, fly-biting and all.)