Why I’m Grateful for My Anxiety

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F_Heather

I suffer from anxiety.

Early the other morning, I woke before the sun was up, as I sometimes do. I stumbled to the bathroom, hoping that would help me fall back to sleep, but when I got back in bed, my body was on fire. The stomachache that had plagued me for three days came back then, and it was as if I were being roasted on a spit like a chicken.

After five minutes of burning, I gave up on sleep and went downstairs.

On the couch in the dark, I clutched a pillow, willing the waves of panic to go away.

When they didn’t, I started praying. Help help help help help help.

The internal fire turned up higher for a second. The intensity of it made me start to cry.

But the tears were like magic. The burning cooled.

Oh, I thought, my mind finding clarity. This is what I’m supposed to feel.

My body had woken me up to lead me to this. It used the anxiety to show me reality: You are sad. You are grieving. You need to acknowledge that.

Having obeyed my body, my stomachache eased a little. Though I still felt anxious, I thought I might be able to go back upstairs and sleep another hour.

I did, still tense, but not on fire.

That night was my therapy session. On the couch, I kept yearning for it, almost panting for relief.

I was anxious that day because I was scared of what would happen in that session. I knew what I needed to discuss, and that I needed help to discuss it. I hoped the anxiety would die down with honesty. But desperate as I was for the anxiety to go away, I was afraid of the cost of truth.

That push and pull—truth, or seeming safety?—is what anxiety is all about.

Years ago, when anxiety stalked me, I always wondered what the hell was wrong with me.

I thought my weird panics were crazy. They were also sinful. After all, the Bible says DO NOT BE ANXIOUS ABOUT ANYTHING.

I thought I should be able to erase anxiety with prayer.

It never worked.

But I don’t try to erase my anxiety anymore.

Instead, I’m grateful for it. Because over and over, anxiety leads me to still waters.

Don’t get me wrong—staying in anxiety is not God’s best for me. The state itself is not blessing. It is horror and fear and slavery.

But here is anxiety’s hidden blessing: it forces me to figure out why I am panicking.

Now that I have compassion on myself for feeling anxiety, I see that it is like a barometer that warns me to find shelter because a hurricane is coming. If I pay attention and ask for help, God shows me what I must do to be safe. And I can tell I’ve heard correctly, because when I do, the anxiety dies down.

When I’m most cheerful about suffering from anxiety, I actually feel lucky. It’s like having emotional compass in my back pocket, telling me how to find my way home.

When I ignored anxiety’s warnings, when I explained them away, I would wonder why the anxiety never left. Why I could not heal. Why I felt estranged from people I loved.

Now that I have come to terms with emotions, now that I pay attention and take them seriously, I know why we are called to not be anxious.

It’s not because feeling anxiety is a sin. It’s because ignoring it is. It’s because staying anxious is consenting to living in hell.

Though I was scared about therapy, I trusted that God would keep me safe—really safe—if I was honest with myself and everyone around me. I knew that the hellfire I was in is not livable long-term, so I had nothing to lose, no matter how afraid I felt.

I was right. The therapy session went better than I’d hoped. Panic is always worse than the truth, no matter how much the truth blows up my life.

Anxiety shows me how desperate I am for salvation. When I wade into the reality of my suffering I find a clear, safe path. Period.

I have to laugh: how ridiculous that anxiety would teach me to trust God.

I used to think my anxiety meant I was damaged goods. I thought my anxiety meant I shouldn’t trust myself. I thought people who did not suffer panic were stronger, better, more worthy.

But I no longer see my anxiety as weak. I see it as a kind of discipline: God teaching me what the true cost is when I ignore my heart. God teaching me that, against all odds, I know the path to freedom.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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Comments

  1. “I know why we are called to not be anxious. It’s not because feeling anxiety is a sin. It’s because ignoring it is.” I’m so glad to have found this today, even a month after you wrote it. My sister has just started suffering from anxiety and I’ve been struggling with it for years. I have found what you said to be so true: that the anxiety is a compass, pointing us back to the love and spirit of God, always with us, ever present. That love doesn’t necessarily relieve us of the suffering but instead, holds us close, “teaching me what the true cost is when I ignore my heart.” Lovely.

  2. Fantastic. Love your writing and your deep thinking. I bet thousands upon thousands will resonate with your story and insight. You are so right about the honesty being key. And FYI, essential oils can help damper that fire a bit. I find I don’t need the anxiety to get that bad. I have learned to listen much earlier in the process most of the time. Most. Xoxo

    • Thanks, Michelle. You know I have some, and they definitely feel like self-care, but I haven’t noticed any dramatic shifts. Maybe introducing them earlier would help 🙂

  3. Powerful words, Heather. And a wonderful insight into how we work, how we’re wired. Thank you!

  4. “Panic is always worse than the truth, no matter how much the truth blows up my life.”
    Even though I don’t struggle with anxiety, this idea certainly resonates with me in situations where I am faced with confronting truth, even though it may be hard. Even if it “blows up my life” or my week or something I’ve always held onto.
    Thank you so much for so clearly articulating your struggle and the ways in which the light pierces in.

    • The truth is fierce and dangerous and so necessary. Jesus’ words about “I come not to bring peace, but a sword” make more sense to me the older I get. We are warriors when we seek God.

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    Heather, I so agree, though on a somewhat different topic. I have a terrible lower back, and it’s been a pain – literally. But…working through tough things related to my family of origin really helped it ease, so I know that is often a signal of emotional stress. But also, I wouldn’t have hiked as far, skated as far, biked as much, or walked around and caught as much light and social contact if I hadn’t needed to keep moving. You’ve had a lot. You’re a trooper. Much love in the process to you!

  6. Megan Gahan says:

    I struggle with anxiety myself, and I am finding SO much to ponder in this post, Heather. Your last line:

    “God teaching me what the true cost is when I ignore my heart.”

    WHOA.

    I had never thought about it that way before. Thank you for doing the hard work and soul searching, and for being selfless with it so we can learn and grow from it as well.

    Much love, friend.

    xx

    • Hey, thanks for this, Megan. I have found that ignoring my needs and feelings just delays pain. I still struggle to figure out how to honor my feelings while also loving others generously, but I think the struggle to balance both is worth it. Hope you are finding some freedom from anxiety, too.

  7. Heather, I think it’s helpful for others to hear the way you are being intentional about “listening to” your body’s responses and then holding that up before God. (“help help help . . .” is about the most articulate prayer I can manage some days too.) Most of us have the delusion that we’re “getting by” with our anxious feelings, when, in reality, we’re biting people’s heads off, being short with our kids, and making everyone else around us anxious!

    • Oh, my, yes. I used to really struggle with taking out my anger and anxiety on my husband–I could be vicious before I realized the awfulness of it. Staying stuck means being okay with taking out our unhealth on other people. So much abuse comes from that–not monstrous people, just people too frightened and self-deluded to do the hard work of healing. It gives you pause when you realize that.

  8. I want to post here that a reader helped me realize that those suffering from anxiety disorders might not find my post helpful–my anxiety has always been situational, and so has clues that lead me to the situation. A more generalized disorder probably wouldn’t be helpful in that same way–though I imagine the clues might more lead someone to caring for themselves and managing the disorder successfully. I DON’T want anyone to think what I’m saying is a naive one-size-fits-all solution. Our emotions are complicated, and my experience is just my experience 🙂

  9. Thank you for your vulnerable truth here today Heather… the battle is real and your words help so many. xox

  10. From one anxiety sufferer to another–your words resonate. I know the sleepless nights. Lots of them. Thanks for putting to words what so many suffer–anxiety piling up. It took a long time for me to learn not to be ashamed, not to ignore anxiety, or to run from it. So true: “But I no longer see my anxiety as weak. I see it as a kind of discipline: God teaching me what the true cost is when I ignore my heart. God teaching me that, against all odds, I know the path to freedom.” Thanks, Heather, for sharing your struggles and victories.

    • Thanks, Amy. Gosh, I am astonished at how many of us are popping up and saying, “Me too.” That itself is a great blessing. Sorry that you know how this feels, but I’m proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you and declare that we can find healing.

  11. Olive Chan olivechan says:

    Heather, thank you for your vulnerability and perspective. Reading your words, I was reminded of the time I learned in my own life that depression is my friend (http://timandolive.com/can-depression-be-a-friend/). “Even the darkness is not dark to [God]” Psalm 139:12. I’m currently seeing a counsellor too and boy is it hard work, actually looking at my emotions and asking what they’re pointing to. Blessings to you on your journey. We aren’t alone.

    • Oh, Olive, that post is beautiful. There’s something about humble acceptance that is so winning. Thank you for writing it. Yes: let’s affirm that God also dwells in the darkness.

  12. You explained the reality I had about my anxiety this week in better words than I could put together. For so long, I was just scared of it, but now I realize it has a purpose. Thank you.

  13. Sandy Hay says:

    I don’t know if I’m ready to be grateful for my anxiety…yet… but I am grateful for your words today Heather. LOTS to ponder 🙂

  14. Nicole A. Joshua says:

    I have been struggling a lot with anxiety these past few months. Some days are better than others. Just yesterday I wondered whether I needed to turn to God more when the waves of panic hit. Sometimes I do, but mostly I just push through on my own. Your post is giving me a lot to think about. Thank you for your honesty, Heather.

  15. Leah Kostamo says:

    Thank you, Heather for your vulnerability and wisdom in this piece. It reminds me a bit of one of my favourite blog posts ever (by Alice Bradley of Finslippy fame — just spent 15 minutes searching for it to share with you, alas it’s buried in her archives and I can’t remember when she posted it.). Anywho — thank you.

  16. Thank you for sharing! So good! I’ve struggled with anxiety and fear most of my life and you’re right — it can be a really healthy way of exploring that uncomfortable place and figuring out what the root of the problem really is.

  17. Abby Norman says:

    I get this. I SO get this. Figuring out why I am anxious is so hard, and so worth it. Peace be with you friend.

  18. I have found the same thing with all of my negative emotions. Feeling them sucks, but they are telling me something important. I just have to figure out what. You’re right, in that sense they’re something to be grateful for. I really appreciate you sharing this.

  19. Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk says:

    I became grateful for my anxiety when I realized it is something so many people struggle with – if I know anxiety personally, I can be present to others in their struggle and offer presence and solidarity. The connection between anxiety and suppressed truth is deep – my panic attacks started when I had to face a difficult truth and the cost of owning the truth. I so relate to your story, Heather. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Yes! This is so true, Kelly. It’s so easy to keep quiet about it, but the truth is anxiety is a major feature of our culture, and speaking it aloud (like shame) so helps us manage it.

    • Saskia Wishart says:

      I am with you on this one Kelly, even just this last month I have been realising how many more people are affected by anxiety than I would have expected and how my own battles are leading me to be more empathetic and present with others who are struggling. I am grateful for the bravery it takes to share and the solidarity it does produce in all of us, so thank-you Heather!

  20. Oh Heather this is so comforting and timely as I am navigating an unfamiliar landscape of anxiety myself. ‘I no longer see my anxiety as weak. I see it as a kind of discipline: God teaching me what the true cost is when I ignore my heart. God teaching me that, against all odds, I know the path to freedom.’ These words made me tear up – thank you for being so beautifully honest and for holding up a lamp in the woods.

    • Oh, Father, I pray for Naomi, that you would help her navigate this. Draw her nearer to your truth, your courage, your power. Help, Lord, help.
      Thanks for your kind words, Naomi. I am so glad this post proved helpful to you.

Trackbacks

  1. […] When I finally acknowledged the arid temperature of my life, when I grew a few thorns and did not give up moisture so easily, the hot sun turned from scourge to friend. […]

  2. […] Why I’m Grateful for My Anxiety by Heather Caliri. A life-giving post on how the struggles we think are so bad for us can actually guide us. […]

  3. […] over at SheLoves Magazine today, with a little love letter for something I thought I’d never be grateful for. Won’t you […]

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