Anxiety is alive and well on the mission field. I think it has found fertile soil in a subculture where physical exhaustion, spiritual depletion and unsustainable expectations can be the norm.
For some of us, anxiety will be a chronic condition. For others it will be a seasonal companion. Whatever its nature, anxiety is too often stigmatized and hidden in the world of ministry, where it is seen as weakness or even sin. So…this is me dragging my reality into the sunlight, because we cannot address what we cannot express. And as prevalent as anxiety is, we must give those who suffer the haven of community.
I’m about to get very real with you.
If you follow my blog for life-is-grand missionary fare, this post may be a disappointment. Then again—if you’ve read any of my writing, you know that I don’t shy away from topics like sexual abuse, mission-damaged faith and even terrorism.
But this one’s more personal. It’s the type of thing I would have tried to mask or deny just a few years ago, before life’s tougher lessons steered me toward healthy vulnerability. Or brave authenticity.
I’ve been struggling with anxiety.
I wake up nearly every morning with joy and purpose. I love my life, my work and my community. My faith is deeper than it has ever been and my goals for the future too plentiful to name. I truly feel happy and energized, and still…
I struggle with anxiety.
It’s new. It’s unsettling. And I know I’m not alone. For the entirety of my young and adult years, I’ve known and loved people locked in its grip. I’ve understood from witnessing their battles how vicious an enemy it is. But having it myself has helped me to more fully comprehend its insidious power to wound and confine.
It’s hard to describe what anxiety feels like.
Sometimes it’s a low-level hum at the back of my mind—something ominous warning me that it could grow and overwhelm me if I make a wrong move.
Sometimes it’s the sensation that something frighteningly foreign has overtaken my emotions—blurring my ability to focus, weakening my emotional control and turning my mind to irrational and powerful fear. When it begins to manifest in physical ways, it becomes a crippling force. (Even in those moments, I am grateful that my symptoms are milder than what many others endure.)
In my case, I think the anxiety is a delayed response to the past two years of health-related peril. I call it Medical PTSD—the side-effect of a third cancer diagnosis, the months of uncertain survival and the body- and life-altering surgeries that have earned me a tenuous remission.
I felt strong and hopeful as I went through treatments, surgeries and recovery, tackling the challenges as they arose—bruised but optimistic. And then, just when the immediacy of the concern started to fade, anxiety moved in. The nausea and dizziness and sleeplessness felt like physical ailments, but as I addressed the possible causes for the life-sapping symptoms, it became evident that they were caused by something that felt like courage-fatigue. It seemed so illogical—so contrary to my generally upbeat and positive outlook.
And then there’s the lymphedema, the swelling of my right arm and hand caused by cancer surgery. I wear a glove to contain it—a very visible reminder of what I’ve endured. I use a pneumatic pump for an hour every day to try to control it. I take antibiotics when I travel because flying exacerbates the swelling, which increases the risk of contracting cellulitis again, a fast-moving staph infection that can become life-threatening in locations where medical help is inaccessible or insufficient.
Adding to that is the work I do.
The constancy of demand and desire. The joy and sobering responsibility of entering into the journey of missionaries and their children, some of them galvanizing, some of them heartbreaking, some of them inspiring and some of them infuriating.
There are times when I feel helpless and others when I see God’s hand move in miraculous ways. The rollercoaster is as beautiful as it is draining and invigorating. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling life, and yet…
I suffer from anxiety. It varies in intensity, but simmers constantly.
I’ve found some ways to treat the symptoms. Time spent with Jesus—pouring out my concerns and claiming his peace—has been a sanity saver. I’ve found natural supplements I can take when I feel panic rising. And a calming medication that has toggled the intensity of my symptoms from an 8 down to a 1 or 2 on a regular day.
But some anxiety persists, sometimes even brought on by positive stressors like anticipation—that kind feels particularly cruel—and because so many feel that they must conceal their battle, I am committed to clearly declaring it.
In some corners of the Christian community, the most common response is that more prayer and Bible-reading will make it go away. It’s a simplistic and misleading notion. It adds a sense of failure to people already suffering from a nebulous and crippling affliction that can have psychological, emotional, hormonal and chemical roots.
“If you pray more, you’ll feel better,” they say. Read this verse and you’ll be changed. Repeat this six times and you’ll be cured. Here’s a book that’ll transform you if you do the exercises at the end…
Oh, there is undeniable help in the practice of prayer. I believe that to be true with ever fiber of my imperfect being. It focuses my mind on God. It reminds me of my dependence on him and of how powerful his love for me is. It reinforces the promises I cling to as each wave of anxiety hits.
But the waves still come.
The breathing exercises, the affirmations, the oils… They all help too.
But the waves still come.
And that isn’t failure. It isn’t spiritually shameful or emotionally weak. It’s the natural consequence of the Hard I’ve encountered and endured. It’s the exhausting toll of hard-won survival.
As another departure for a cross-Atlantic journey looms, so does the crescendo of swirling thoughts and heavy lungs I now recognize.
I don’t presume to know any cures. I take it one surge of panic at a time. One pounding-heartbeat at a time. One destabilizing bout of insomnia at a time.
And I remind myself of the words I’ve spoken to people I care for over the years, even before I fully comprehended the ruthlessness of anxiety:
I am not broken, I am bruised. I am not weak, I am enduring. I am not abandoned by God, I am enveloped in the love of the One whose promises lend courage to my fight and patience to this season of disquiet.
I love Jesus. I trust in him. And I know humanity comes with its share of pain and challenge. I will not buy into the shame the Christian world heaps on the shaking shoulders of the frail and suffering. The anxiety I’m battling is neither flaw nor lack of faith.
My God is near. He knows my heart and whispers through my fear. “Be still, my child, and rest in me.” I drag my quaking form into his steady arms and nestle tight to his unfailing love.
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