It was around 3 AM, and I knew that unless I opened the door, she would never go away. Her cries were desperate and difficult to drown out. I was tempted to let her in, but my husband gently pulled me back to bed. Her cries echoed like wailing stars outside the block of wood that separated her from us.
I lay there for ten minutes as the intense firestorm at the door increased in pressure. As I leapt towards the door, her body rushed past me. She jumped into the bed with my husband and began to purr. Each day, it was becoming increasingly clear that the cat we rescued suffered from extreme anxiety.
At first, we thought Isabella’s constant desire to be in our presence was endearing. We thought it funny when we’d awake with her perched on top our heads. But then, her fearfulness and anxiety became more pronounced. Each time my husband took a business trip, she gnawed the fur from her body. It was a violent and cathartic way in which our cat dealt with his absence. We knew that the bald patches weren’t the result of allergic reactions or parasites but anxiety.
When the Huffington Post asked people to describe what an anxiety attack feels like, they were flooded with a plethora of responses. Some people said that it feels as if you’re drowning, others described it as feeling as if you are facing a terrorist attack or being chased by dinosaurs. But the consensus is that when a panic attack comes, the walls close in, and a person’s own body becomes their worst enemy. But you can’t escape your body – which is why panic attacks are so tormenting. The attack makes a person want to literally crawl out of their skin. An anxiety attack feels like you are going to die.
Physiologically, when a person experiences a panic attack, the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain becomes hyperactive. The amygdala is the same region of the brain that kicks into gear when a person senses an imminent threat. Panic attacks cause the region to overreact, and it’s an extreme reaction. The fight-or-flight response is magnified. And then the harrowing experience of panic ensues.
Southern Methodist University conducted a rare study where patients were monitored around-the-clock for physiological instabilities before an attack. The team of researchers discovered that panic attacks are not unexpected. They start about an hour before the patient is fully aware of what’s happening to their body. Although the body is in a panic mode for an hour, it’s only within those last few seconds or minutes that one finally realizes that they feel as if they are going to die. Unfortunately, there is no way to emotionally or mentally survive an hour-long panic attack. Therefore, it is a grace, relief and mercy that the person isn’t aware of what’s happening to them until those last few moments.
The anthesis of anxiety is peace. The book of Philippians, which is called the Book of Peace, also happens to be one of the few places in scripture where the word anxious comes up. In Philippians, the reader is told not to be anxious about anything, but in every situation to pray with a heart of thanksgiving and present requests to God. Prayer is the answer to anxiety.
In the summer of 2014, a study published in Sociology of Religion released its findings on how prayer and anxiety connect, and whether or not the anxious really do find relief. The study acknowledged that prayer helps people manage and reduce negative emotions. The study also noted that how a person envisioned God while they were praying made a difference in their anxiety. Those who benefited the most from prayer were those who saw God as loving and intimate. When people saw God as distant and cold, there were no real, tangible benefits and no ease from the anxiety. The studies’ implications are clear. One’s perception of God interacts with both their spirituality and health.
Philippians 4 is devoid of instructions to think of God as loving and intimate. The book of Philippians is a letter written specifically to the people of the church of Philippi – a group of people who believed God to be both loving and merciful, holy and just.
No one really knows where anxiety disorders originate. The general thought is that anxiety is a combination of nature and nurture. It is an amalgamation of anxiety-riddled DNA and a life built upon a fault line that ruptures often. A person who grows up in an environment full of abuse or contention may find that they are increasingly anxious as they age. Eventually, they find themselves on a cream colored couch with a prescription for Xanax in their hands. These are the same people that might experience their first panic attack in their mid-twenties. It’s as if a culmination of the all the stress over the years has finally taken its toll on the body. The body wants out.
In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard describes anxiety as the dizziness of freedom, but he couldn’t have been further from the truth. Anxiety traps a person within the most uncomfortable, primitive confines of their imagination. When one suffers a panic attack, the mind and body are imprisoned. The innocent party desperately wants to escape. There is no freedom in anxiety.
The apostle Peter echoes the sentiments of Paul in the Book of Philippians. Peter tells the Christians to cast all their anxiety on God because God cares for them. God becomes the place to hold the anxiety, and the path through which to transport the emotional baggage is prayer. In Philippians 4:5, Paul tells the church that the ‘Lord is at hand.’ Upon first glance, one might assume that the apostle was referring to the Second Coming. However, Lead Pastor Sam Storms believes that Paul is speaking about the nearness of Christ in terms of time and space.
And so, we are to be anxious for nothing and remember that the Lord is at hand. Before anxiety comes to lodge, we are to remember that God is with us, beside us. And His Presence is the antithesis of anxiety.
This essay is an excerpt from Pieces of Prayer