Understanding Anxiety and Anxiety Disorder – Part 1

Posted: April 22, 2014 in Anxiety & Depression, Christian Living, Doubt, Theology

AnxietyOne of the fastest growing forms of medical treatment in the 21st century is psychiatry. Treatment for diagnoses such as ADHD, anxiety disorder, and depression have seen a dramatic increase in recent years. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 26% of the adult population suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder.[1] However, not only are we being diagnosed with these disorders, but many are taking medications for them. Antidepressant use has increased by 400% in the last decade, making it the third most common prescription taken among adults.[2]

Professing Christians typically fall into one of two extremes when dealing with mental disorders, specifically anxiety and depression. One end of the extreme labels all mental disorders “spiritual problems” that must be corrected by God through repentance and faith. This view typically associates all anxiety with some form of sin or wrongdoing in one’s life. The other end of the extreme recommends throwing a pill at the slightest hiccup in one’s life or emotions. Having a rough day? Take a Xanax. Feeling down? Get on Prozac.

So what is the proper Christian view of anxiety? How should one think about this disorder? Or is it even a disorder at all? How does the brain relate to the soul? How should we treat anxiety? What does the Bible say about it? To answer these questions and others, we will first examine the distinctions between brain and soul, then we will look at the spiritual and physical aspects of anxiety, and we will examine the relationship between the two, helping us to identify the cure.

Understanding the brain and soul

Historically, Christians have been dualists. This basically means that we believe human beings are composed of two parts, body and soul. For an in-depth argument of why this view makes the best sense of reality, check out this link. For now, let’s just describe this basic distinction between soul and body. Your soul is the real you; however, it is an immaterial you. You body and brain are not the real you, but the real you has a body and brain. To put it simply, your soul is a collection of faculties, including your senses, emotions, conscience, will, mind, and spirit. Many of these faculties are what make us distinctly human and image bearers of God. However, in order to function in this world, your soul makes use of your body, including your brain.

To better explain this dualistic interaction between soul and brain, perhaps an analogy will help. Imagine you are welded shut inside a car. There was no way of escape from the car, and the only means of moving, surviving, etc. was to utilize the car. So in this scenario, you make use of the car to function in the world around you.[3] In the same way, the soul uses the body, including the brain, to function in the world. When the brain and body are properly functioning, the soul can use it efficiently. When the brain malfunctions, the soul has a more difficult, if not impossible, time functioning. As we will see later, both brain and soul can have an effect on the other.

So here is the good news about the Christian understanding of anxiety. Your identity is not in your anxiety or your anxiety disorder, for you are not your brain – you use your brain. So if you do truly deal with an anxiety disorder or perhaps depression, know that while those things may affect you, they are not the essence of who you are. When combined with other treatment options (if necessary), the real you, your soul, by God’s grace, has the power to overcome much of anxiety and its effects. We will examine treatment in part 2.

The Biology of Anxiety

Fear and anxiety are a normal part of the human experience. They are natural reactions to certain stressful or threatening situations. The amygdala, small almond-shaped groups of nuclei located in the temporal lobes of the brain, are responsible for our bodies emotional reactions, including responses such as fear and anxiety. When the body encounters a stressful or seemingly life-threatening situation, the amygdala sends out signals for the body to react. This response has often been dubbed the “fight or flight” response. Our senses are heightened, adrenaline is ramped up, and your body is preparing to assess the danger and react. In a normally functioning individual, this response is triggered when danger is present, subsiding when danger flees. Imagine an rpm gauge in your car. When danger is present the rpm’s are revved up – fight or flight kicks in. When the danger is gone, the car goes back to idle.

amygdalaHowever, in an individual suffering from anxiety disorder, the body is stuck in fight or flight mode nearly all the time. Whereas a properly functioning individual would experience the anxiety and then return to a relaxed state, the anxiety sufferer has a physical/neurological hindrance to mental relaxation. The stress induced by anxiety can wreak havoc on an individual, with many developing other disorders such as agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypertension, and others. As I can personally attest, anxiety disorder can be a very painful, debilitating condition.

So what causes anxiety disorder? How does it develop and how can we fix it? Is it a physical condition, a spiritual condition, or both? Is all anxiety a result of sin?

In part 2 (click here), I will address some of the physical and spiritual/personal causes of anxiety and then examine how to deal with it.

Jordan

 

[1] National Institute of Mental Health, “The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America.” Accessed November 13, 2013. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml.

[2] Harvard Health Publications, “Astounding Increase in Antidepressant Use By Americans.” October 20, 2011. Accessed November 13, 2013. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/astounding-increase-in-antidepressant-use-by-americans-201110203624.

[3] The example was given by Dr. J.P. Moreland during a lecture given at BIOLA in January of 2013.

Comments
  1. John says:

    For a thinking Christian, there is not much, well ANY, scripture to back up your claims about Body and Spirit or this distinction of fear and anxiety as “natural” responses. A few that come to mind
    “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”
    “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
    To many “Fear not” to count in the Bible.
    As a person who has experienced growth and victories over anxiety and questions of doubt, your “When combined with other treatment options (if necessary), the real you, your soul, by God’s grace, has the power to overcome much of anxiety and its effects. We will examine treatment in part 2.” seems to really belittle the God I serve. Overcome MUCH? Is your God limited like science and medicine?
    You have it backwards, the chemical processes in our brain are not the cause of our emotional/spiritual response, our response causes the chemical processes and as we repeatedly have those reactions to life’s situations we create these well worn pathways in our brains that we will use in the future and finally blame for our problem.
    To much to express about this now. I will come back to this in the morning.
    HOPE, where is the HOPE?

    • Jordan Tong says:

      John, thanks for your comments. Regarding the body/spirit distinction, there is most definitely scriptural warrant. Consider Eph. 4:4-6, Matt. 10:28, Eccl. 12:7, Eph. 6:12, and Luke 23:46. Regarding your other comments, I agree with you. I do not think God is limited by natural cause/effect nor do I think that God cannot supernaturally heal a true anxiety disorder. However, we should not exclude medicine or other treatment options just because they are not supernatural. Perhaps they are the means God uses to provide healing. When you have a headache, you pray for God’s healing and strength, then you take an advil, then you thank God for the advil. God get’s all the glory, no matter the means of healing. In part 2, I will discuss how sin, broadly speaking, is in fact the ultimate cause of anxiety and fear – it is the root issue. Sin (from others or ourselves) and sinful patterns can and do affect our brain. So to seek medical treatment while ignoring the root causes is not enough. However, addressing the underlying faith issues does not negate the medical help the brain may need to heal and move back to a state of normalcy. So I think treatment ultimately depends on the severity of the case.

      Jordan

  2. […] Understanding Anxiety and Anxiety Disorder – Part 1 […]

  3. […] from a Christian worldview. If you have read my previous blog posts on these topics (found here: anxiety part 1, anxiety part 2, depression), then you will have a good idea of the nature of our discussion. Below […]

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