Does the Bible say being anxious is bad?

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Does the Bible say being anxious is bad?

March 27, 2024 -

A young woman appears anxious and curled up while sitting in a chair and looking out of a window. By fizkes/stock.adobe.com

A young woman appears anxious and curled up while sitting in a chair and looking out of a window. By fizkes/stock.adobe.com

A young woman appears anxious and curled up while sitting in a chair and looking out of a window. By fizkes/stock.adobe.com

We’re facing a global anxiety epidemic.

Anxiety disorders have increased 25 percent since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, growing from about 298 million people affected to 374 million.

Recently, two new studies illustrated that Americans are more worried about their mental health than their physical health, even more than threats of cancer or Covid-19.

While people suffer daily from debilitating anxiety, what does the Bible say about anxiety?

And how should we as believers address anxiety?

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a protective physiological response to a real or perceived threat. But when that anxiety runs free in the brain and body, it causes division—physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Think of a panic attack. For those who have suffered from them, they can hit without warning. Suddenly your heart rate spikes, you’re shaking, you can’t take a deep breath, and you feel constriction in your chest.

You can logically believe that there is no real physical threat to your safety, but your body says otherwise. More division is created between the body and brain.

Anxiety and fear are responses we all experience when the amygdala (the brain’s emotional response center) is activated. The amygdala sends a stress response to the hypothalamus, which signals the autonomous nervous system via the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.

It is the brain’s job to pick up on that perceived or real fear, then sound the alarm to the rest of the body through the adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. This will create system alerts through heart rate, blood sugar changes, digestive drama, neurotransmitter synthesis, and even reproductive and immune system alerts.

Anxiety is never just at the brain level alone. It is a whole-body response system.

That’s how God designed us.

Anxiety in the Bible

In the Bible, the Greek word for anxiety is merimnao, “a divided mind.”

When anxiety hits (or fear or chronic stress), we experience division. We want to believe truth, but our body is sending out alerts from nearly every system in order to protect us.

The phrase “divided mind” shows up in the Bible in the following verses:

  • “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
  • “But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things’” (Luke 10:41).
  • “Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
  • “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense, or what you should say” (Luke 12:11).

These passages appear to refer to the perceived threat anxiety brings, when there is uncertainty in the future creating mental division.

Sometimes the word is translated to mean “concerned” or “care,” like in these passages:

  • “For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare” (Philippians 2:20).
  • “That there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:25).

These passages refer to intentional concern for the well-being of others. It uses the same word but in a positive context that is proactively caring.

The same Greek term is used in both contexts, both affirming it and warning against it.

Alerts in a storm

The disciples spent time daily in the presence of the One who calms the sea, yet in their own dysfunction, they experienced the same mental division we do.

In Mark 4, the disciples get caught in a terrifying storm while Jesus sleeps peacefully on a cushion. The disciples know Jesus is there, but in their momentary panic and distress, they wake him up and accuse him of not caring about their safety.

We do this, too.

Thanks to a powerful alert system in the body, and often a history of trauma, many face mental threats that are more perceived than real. This mental division creates self-criticism, with believers asking, “What am I doing wrong?”, “Why can’t I get rid of the anxiety?”, or “What is wrong with me?”

As a trauma survivor and someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, I know how debilitating this is. I know how bad things can get before seeking out help.

Is anxiety bad?

God created us with a powerful alert system that is highly intuitive and sensitive to our thoughts. That alert system creates new narratives, leading us to anticipate the worst. Experiencing protective anxiety isn’t bad.

However, pushing through and ignoring the alerts in your body will cause division. It will bring negative consequences and unpleasant symptoms, perpetuating the cycle. Suffering alone and isolating will also make things worse.

In the Bible passages that translate the phrase “divided mind” into the word anxiety, they refer to situations when mental division causes us to become wrapped up in an outcome that we don’t yet know. Instead of being present with today, we shift into predicting the future, anticipating the worst. Like the disciples in Mark 4, we lose focus when the natural danger system has sent all other systems into overdrive, creating disunity.

Being concerned for the state of the world may prompt you to prayer. But spending hours imagining worst-case scenarios and preparing for apocalyptic disasters will prompt a response in the body that will lead to negative health outcomes—and more anxiety.

3 questions to help calm your anxiety

Yes, we are facing an anxiety epidemic.

But we also are image-bearers with highly responsive alerts in our bodies that warn us of danger. Instead of getting mad at our bodies for the symptoms they present, we can use these alerts as a way to check in and reroute.

Next time you start to feel a flicker of discomfort in your belly, a slight tightening of your chest, a warning thought in your mind, ask yourself:

  • “What is my body telling me about my safety in the world right now?”
  • “Did something recently happen that could trigger a feeling of unsafety and division in my brain and body?”

Then ask yourself:

  • “What can I do to bring unity back to my body and brain?”

Your body, created to respond to threats appropriately, will always let you know when something is wrong.

The question is, what will you do with those alerts?

 

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