I didn’t admit my anxiety until I was 35.
I was counseling a man experiencing significant panic attacks. I asked him to describe the sensation. He was from a rural NC town so that his manner of speech was lyrical and visceral: “Up in my chest…there’s a tight turnin’ – like someone twistin’ a wet towel”. “And I feel,” he said, “this doom…this terrible doom.”
I’d heard people describe anxiety before – but the way this man said it… He made a fist next to his chest and slowly twisted it while he drew out the ‘Os’ in ‘doooom’. I found myself staring at his whitened knuckles. ‘Doom.’ His pain cut through my professional detachment. It took me back home – in fact, it took me further back than that. He sent me back into my own chest. I felt his anxiety – and when I did – I remembered my own.
On the drive home, the sensation in my chest lingered. ‘My gosh,’ I thought, ‘I’ve felt this a thousand times, but never named it what it is. I’ve called it ‘frustration’, ‘stress’ or ‘restlessness’, but that night I realized that all these were all deflections. I was trying to place my anxiety ‘out there’ – away from me – away from my chest. Yes, something ‘out there’ was frustrating me. I just need to get away from it. I just need to get past it.
But this man placed anxiety back in my chest.
He put it back where I don’t want it. All my life I’ve been trying to get it away from me. I’ve thought that this twisting, fearful feeling meant that something was wrong with me. If I could pretend it wasn’t there, then I could feel better about myself. But maybe the anxiety means something else. Maybe, when I get this generalized sense that something is wrong – maybe that means that there really is something wrong.
Now I know that anxiety can become irrational. I can excessively worry and fear things that aren’t really dangerous. My anxiety might evolve into a germ-phobia so that I wash and re-wash my ever-reddening hands. My sense of ‘unease’ might develop into an intense fear of abandonment, so that I avoid close relationships. I might even spend hours alphabetizing my soup cans to stave off ‘disorder’. But maybe these ‘false anxieties’ are just ways of masking the real danger – the real wrongness.
So with a little therapy, you can stop scrubbing, you can risk relationships, you can tolerate a little chaos in your pantry. But…. that doom remains in your chest – if you are brave enough to admit it. Yes, you can move in this world with substantial freedom from irrational fear. But there is still something wrong. That twisted towel in your chest tells you so.
You can overcome irrational dangers. But what about the real ones? What about death? You can’t desensitize that away. What about true guilt? You might be able to cognitively dismantle false guilt – but when you sin – you can’t make yourself right by merely thinking it so. Or what about the fact that your soul is never satisfied? Isn’t life one long lesson that what we truly want – isn’t here? No matter how accepting you become, you can’t silence that hunger. Anxiety (existential anxiety, that is) is a truth-teller.
The wrong use of therapy will tell you that all anxiety is misplaced. But the right use of anxiety will tell you that you are misplaced. Anxiety teaches us: the reason this place doesn’t feel like home is because it isn’t.
Maybe we knew it all along. This place isn’t home. And if we can admit that we don’t belong here, then doesn’t that begin a search (perhaps a hopeful, joyful search) for the place where we do?
“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy like a bird in spring.”
– G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. In
addition to counseling individuals and couples, Roger teaches and leads discussion groups about applying the Bible to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor, holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean, and they have seven children.