Understanding Anxiety Disorder Part 2 – Causes and Cures

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Anxiety & Depression, Christian Living, Doubt, Theology

anxiety1In “Anxiety – Part 1” we discussed the distinction between soul and brain and the biology of anxiety disorder. In this post, we will examine the causes, both physical and spiritual, of anxiety disorder and the treatment options.

Causes of Anxiety

Although anxiety has physical and neurological aspects to it, it is my conviction that the ultimate cause of anxiety disorder is sin. Please understand I am not saying psychiatric treatment is unnecessary, for it can be very helpful as we will see below, but the underlying issue runs much deeper than our brains. In order to properly understand how sin is the root cause of anxiety disorder, three aspects of sin – three parts of the whole – must be explained.

First, the original sin, as told in Genesis 3, separated man from God and resulted in a curse placed upon the created order. Man was no longer connected with God as he was designed and man’s body (including his brain) was subjected to disease and death. Man was no longer in constant, perfect fellowship with God. His soul had died to God, and this did not leave the brain unaffected. While I am not in a position to number all the effects of the fall on the brain, our actions, and our emotions, I am sure of this: major disruption occurred. Mankind is a broken, sinful, and fallen people, and anxiety disorder is just one outworking of this problem.

Second, and more specifically, our own sinful actions – rooted in our sinful nature – create distance between us and God, increasing the likelihood of anxiety. To understand this, we must realize that God is the ultimate source of peace, hope, and joy. Every other created thing will always let us down, including our selves. If your hope is in your health, it will eventually let you down. If your hope is in money, it will soon vanish. These things will always leave you unsteady and insecure. Therefore, decisions that move us away from God and toward created things will always have the by-product of increased anxiety. If anxious thoughts and emotions continually increase and begin consuming one’s life, a person can develop anxiety disorder, where the brain is stuck in anxious mode. Here, spiritual and psychological issues have created a physical problem; habits have changed the functional workings of our brain.

Finally, the sinful actions of others can wreak havoc on our emotions, generating anxiety in our minds. One only needs to see the abused child, the battered wife, or the bullied schoolgirl to understand this cause of anxiety. Sinning against others by not loving them (and all the vices that accompany a lack of love) creates an environment where individuals have difficulty trusting others and difficulty finding peace in their surroundings. These harmful actions toward others can cause the victims to live life on the edge of fear and worry. So here again we see sin propelling us away from God and toward an anxious mind.

Causes of Anxiety Disorder

In Part 1, a distinction was made between anxiety and anxiety disorder; however, it bears repeating for the sake of understanding. General anxiety is an emotional and psychological response that all humans experience. While this form of anxiety is ultimately a result of sin and separation from God, it is part of the normal human experience. However, anxiety disorder is a different animal. It is considered a disorder precisely because it is not part of the normal human experience. In layman’s terms, anxiety disorder can be defined as the brain being “stuck” in anxiety mode – stuck in fight or flight. The brain/mind becomes fixated on one or many fears and these dominate much of one’s mental life. This disorder is painful, debilitating to one’s life, and lasts for long periods of time. But how is this disorder developed? What propelled someone from normal anxiety to an anxiety disorder?

Broadly speaking, there are two causes of anxiety disorder, albeit similar ones. First, anxiety disorder develops due to repeated patterns of anxious thoughts. According to Medical News Today, “We make ourselves anxious with “negative self-talk” – a habit of always telling ourselves the worst will happen.”[1] It is helpful to think of your brain chemistry as a pathway that your thoughts and emotions normally travel. However, when one habitually entertains anxious thoughts, the brain develops ruts along the path. The more habitual the anxious thoughts, the deeper the ruts become. Over time, these “anxious ruts” become your new normal pattern of thinking. Therefore, even if you no longer have the anxiety that originally created the problem, your brain chemistry has now been altered and you are stuck in this anxious mode. You have anxiety disorder.

Second, anxiety disorder can be caused by an intensely stressful situation, a great tragedy, or prolonged periods of severe stress. According to WebMD, “Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the way nerve cells within these circuits transmit information from one region of the brain to another.”[2] Most people are familiar with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and anxiety disorder can be similar. Extreme stress on the body and emotions overloads a person’s brain and alters their brain chemistry, creating anxiety disorder. Here, external factors and internal responses are the root cause.

Before moving on, a brief word should be said about the role of genetics. Scientific studies have indeed shown a causal relationship between genes and the development of anxiety disorder. However, given the soul/brain distinction in addition to the nature of the causes of anxiety disorder, one must never think he is captive to his genes. While genetics may give you a propensity toward developing this disorder, you still maintain a certain degree of control over your mental health through your choices and responses to situations.

How to Treat Anxiety Disorder

Before I give recommendations for treatment of anxiety disorder, let me be clear that I am not a psychiatrist or a mental health professional. My recommendations are based upon a Christian worldview, personal study, and my own struggles with anxiety disorder. I highly recommend the consultation of a psychiatrist and a biblical counselor.

There are three general options for treating anxiety disorder, and I think all three are valid options for the Christian. First, one should seek to identify the root cause of the anxiety disorder. How did this begin? What were the first thoughts or stressful circumstances that propelled you into a constant state of anxiety? Once this is identified, you can seek to understand how God would have you respond in trust and faith in him. Cut off the root of anxiety by placing your trust in God, the one who is all-sufficient, all-powerful, and all-loving. Are you worried about your health? Seek to find peace in God’s sovereign will for your life. Are paralyzed by the loss of a close loved one? Find rest and security in the all-loving God who died for you. Have you been abused by someone and now feel shame and guilt? Run to the God who can give you a new identity in Jesus – a perfectly clean identity. Anxiety his no room to flourish when the mind is fully trusting in the God and Savior of the universe. However, this treatment option does not deal with the long term neurological effects created by the anxiety disorder. While the original anxiety may now be “cured”, additional help may be needed to cure the mental effects.

The second method of treatment is Christian-based cognitive therapy. Here, one is basically seeking a biblical method of thinking to dig oneself out of the mental ruts created by the long periods of anxiety. The brain created anxious pathways and it can likewise create new ones – pathways based upon Christian convictions. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “…take every thought captive to obey Christ.” Finally, Philippians 4:6-7 says, “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The pattern here is clear. We must trade anxious thoughts for faith-filled thoughts of God’s truth. Habits of these thoughts can bring the peace of God so often longed for by the anxiety sufferer.

However, there are times when a person’s brain chemistry is truly altered and despite the first two treatment options, the brain is still pumping out anxious thoughts and emotions. One may be truly trusting in God, but the brain is working against one’s soul and will to trust God. For others, the anxiety and its physical symptoms (e.g. panic attacks, agoraphobia, etc.) may be so severe that one has difficulty dealing with the underlying issues. At this point, I believe medication is an appropriate option. Medications (e.g. benzodiazepines, SSRI’s, and azapirones) can help reduce or even eliminate the physical symptoms of anxiety and even curb many of the anxious thinking patterns. However, medication should never been seen as a cure-all, as the underlying anxiety must be dealt with. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Medication will not cure anxiety disorders, but it can keep them under control while the person receives psychotherapy.”[3] While many Christians are skeptical about psychiatric medication, the view is unnecessary. When one begins to understand the mind/body connection, they can understand that mental and physical illnesses often have both biological and personal choice components.

Conclusion

As one can see, anxiety and anxiety disorder are not a clearly defined subject with a single approach to healing. The disorder can often be complex and requiring of multi-faceted treatment options. Additionally, many Christians have severe misunderstandings about the causes and cures of the illness. My personal recommendation for anyone interacting with an anxiety sufferer is this: show lots of grace, be firm yet loving, and be patient. For those currently experiencing anxiety disorder, first turn to Jesus in faith, and then use the other two ordained means of help (i.e. medication and therapy) if necessary. May God grant you grace and peace.

I will leave you with these verses.

Psalm 39:7
But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.

Psalm 42:11
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

Psalm 62:5
Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.

Jordan

 

[1] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/anxiety/what-causes-anxiety.php

[2] http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/mental-health-anxiety-disorders?page=2

[3] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml?wvsessionid=wv650bd43245ce405884dd789794894544

Comments
  1. Very good stuff, Jordan, Thanks

    I am struggling with one major part. I went through several years of non-formal nouthetic counseling*, trying to find the sin involved in my anxiety issues. I did discover sin, in the form of sinful and unbiblical reactions to treatment in my past. However, the real breakthroughs never really occurred until I saw a psychotherapist and he walked me through (via cognitive therapy) some past issues. Only when I discovered the underlying hurts–and their patterns, connections, etc) did I begin to find real healing.

    So personally, I would warn anyone in a scenario like mine against a purely biblical/nouthetic counseling scenario. I recommend a combination of nouthetic and psychotherapeutic styles, where deep wounds are uncovered and sinful/unforgiving attitudes are addressed.

    Thanks again

    –Dave Brown

    • Jordan Tong says:

      Dave, thanks for your comments. I agree with you that other means may be used to treat anxiety. My suggestions are by no means the only ones available. However, I would contend that even through the use of cognitive therapy, it is best if one filters those thoughts through his Christian worldview.

  2. […] Understanding Anxiety Disorder Part 2 – Causes and Cures […]

  3. […] Understanding Anxiety Disorder Part 2 – Causes and Cures […]

  4. […] 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 you will find a […]

  5. Donna Lett says:

    I have suffered from depression and anxiety since childhood. I believe the root was an angry abusive father. Plus, I lost both of my parents from long illnesses last year. So I have been struggling with how to deal with these issues. ive been on benzodiazipenes for years and now my psychiatrist wants me off these meds. I have been extremely apprehensive about this change. But now after reading your article, I am going to ask my pastor about locating a cognitive-based Christian therapist to help me. I have been to a LCSW and found little help with this method. I have been receiving Christian grief counseling and found it extremely beneficial. I just wanted to say thank you for your articles–they were extremely well written and sensitive to those of us dealing with these diagnoses. God Bless you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s