Anxiety: The Nagging Emotion
Dr. Clyde M. Narramore

It was Thursday morning and time for the weekly staff meeting. The 20 or so employees filed into the conference room, some laughing and talking. But Michelle was quiet as she sat alongside other coworkers. If it had been possible to accurately assess just how each person in the room was feeling, it would have revealed that Michelle was more anxious than the others.

Was she especially frightened or threatened that morning? No, not really. That was how she felt much of the time. Her life was marked by a persistent feeling of nervousness and worry. She often felt ill at ease, tense, and restless.

All people experience some anxiety at times. But millions feel anxious and fearful nearly all of the time. They are rarely free of this nagging emotion.

Once, during the course of a seminar I was conducting, a woman raised this question: "My grandson, who is in his thirties, is having some serious problems. The doctor says he has an 'anxiety disorder.' Would you kindly discuss this and the causes?"

Naturally, I would need to see this young man and spend some time working with him before I could accurately know about his particular problem.

Psychologists identify at least 12 different anxiety disorders ranging from specific phobias and panic attacks to generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. Each of these has a different set of symptoms, but they all have anxiety at the root of the problem.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of persistent anxiety is an intense concern or fear in the absence of actual or impending danger. This is often accompanied by restlessness, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, or muscle tension. The person may be fearful in situations in which there are few indications of probable difficulties. He may worry, for example, that things will go wrong, that something unpleasant is going to happen to him, that he or a member of his family is going to get sick, that an accident will occur in his family, or even about routine daily activities.

"The fundamental underlying cause of anxiety is the belief that in some way, danger is lurking."

Generalized anxiety is different from panic attacks which are limited to specific periods of time when the person feels incredibly fearful, often with physical symptoms like choking sensations, dizziness, heaviness in the chest, excessive sweating, heart palpitations, difficult breathing, and nausea. People suffering panic attacks may fear they are going crazy, dying, or losing complete control over their lives.

Conditions in today's society, such as terrorism, crime, and secularism, give all of us reason to be concerned, and they put some people under extra pressures. Wars, both small and large, are raging in many parts of the earth. Severe weather catastrophes are plaguing many countries. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, extreme heat or cold, volcanic eruptions, and other devastations are impacting all of us as we view these tragedies on television. Diseases for which there is no cure are rampant. All of these can make any of us somewhat anxious. Indeed, the Bible tells us that one of the signs of the last days before Christ returns to earth is "perilous times" (II Timothy 3:1). But people suffering from anxiety disorders are not necessarily focused on these events. They are restless, tense, fatigued, or have difficulty sleeping and concentrating without knowing why. The roots of their excessive anxiety usually run deep.


The fundamental underlying cause of anxiety is the belief that in some way, danger is lurking. Typically those perceived dangers have to do with the concern that we are vulnerable and not in control of either our circumstances or inner thoughts, feelings and wishes. Anxiety usually relates to one's performance expectations (fear of making mistakes or not being good enough), distrust of one's environment (for example, the fear of being rejected or punished), or to one's own unwanted thoughts or feelings (like repressed anger, rebellious desires, or the wish to hurt others).

Problematic anxiety usually has at least some of its roots in our childhood experiences. Here are examples of childhood experiences which programmed certain people to be especially anxious as adults.

Billy was sensitive and a bit awkward, making his share of mistakes. His mother wasn't a happy person and pounced on Billy at every turn. "You always spill your milk." "Do you have to trip over everything all the time?" In public she would embarrass him by calling attention to the things he did that irritated her.

Naturally, Billy felt like crawling into a hole. His father wasn't any better, and Billy had no one to talk to about his troubles. Consequently, he stuffed his feelings deep inside. The result? He grew up feeling he couldn't do anything right. He became highly anxious, because deep down, he believed he could never please others or live up to their expectations. No matter what he was about to do, he inwardly assumed that he would mess it up. Billy also developed strong feelings of anger and resentment because of the verbal abuse he suffered as a child. Now part of his anxiety is due to his fear of losing his temper and lashing out in anger.

Mary's life fell apart when her parents got a divorce when she was seven. She felt lonely, abandoned, confused, and fearful of what the future would bring without both her mother and daddy. Her parents continued fighting after their divorce until her father moved to another state. But who was listening to Mary? People often forget that when the parents get a divorce, the children do also, and they are much less able to handle it. They can't figure it out, and they probably love both parents. Mary's deepest fears now center around abandonment. She is always afraid she will be rejected, unloved, or left out. Like Billy, Mary kept her fears and uncertainties to herself. As a child she couldn't know they would nag her for years to come.

Donna had a hard time obeying her parents. She's so stubborn, they thought. Rather that seeking professional help, they determined to "teach her a lesson." They frequently pushed her into a dark closet and locked the door. The child almost died of fright, and although she didn't talk about the dreadful experience, neither was she able to forget it. Today as an adult, she's unduly nervous, anxious, and depressed. She always expects something terrible to happen to her and is fearful of abuse, rejection, and mistreatment.
One of the most serious of all childhood traumas is losing a family member by death.

This happened to Laura. Her sister, who was just two years older, died suddenly. The friends and relatives were so busy consoling the grieving parents that little attention was paid to Laura. No one explained death to her. Not being Christian, her parents were at a loss as to what to say. She was left with the overwhelming thought that her sister whom she loved dearly, was now buried in a dark hole in the ground. The traumatic experience stamped itself indelibly on her young mind. This and other negative experiences produced a lingering concern that something similarly dreadful would go wrong in her life. Little wonder that now, as an adult, she is insecure and nervous.

In the case of each child mentioned above, severe feelings of anxiety persisted through their adult years. Even though the original experiences and thoughts were not always on their conscious minds, the anxiety continued just the same because the painful memories lay just below the surface.

"Some well-meaning Christians quote [Bible] verses .... They then expect their friend's anxiety to miraculously disappear. Is Everything Spiritual?"

Sometimes Christians forget that not all problems are spiritual. If a person suffers from anxiety his friends at church may immediately think the roots of the problem are strictly spiritual. Some well-meaning Christians quote verses like, "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee" (Isaiah 26:3) or "Be anxious for nothing..." (Philippians 4:6). They then expect their friend's anxiety to miraculously disappear.

These, of course, are examples of splendid Bible verses, and they are potentially helpful to any Christian. They can bring great comfort by reminding us that God is ultimately in charge of this world, and that we can find security in our relationship with Him. But simply knowing these verses will rarely alleviate serious problems of anxiety. Why? Because we are not only spiritual beings. We have bodies, minds, feelings, and personalities which are shaped during our developmental years. God puts babies in families with parents who help to shape their emotional and relational lives. When those relationships are poor, it takes time, understanding, and more healthy relationships to help them change. Some well-meaning Christians do not have an understanding of this fact. With genuine concern for the victim of anxiety, they may prescribe a cure that is doomed to fail.

Take Mrs. S. who lived in a constant state of nervousness and apprehension. Her Christian friends began to tell her what she should do to overcome this condition. One suggested, "Maybe if you spent more time writing to missionaries or helping at a Rescue Mission, you would feel better. So she tried to busy herself with a variety of good activities. She liked helping others, but it did little to solve her problem. The nervousness continued.

"You need to pull yourself together," counseled another well-meaning friend. But as Mrs. S. shared with me, "I don't know what or how to pull!"

Mr. J's friendly counselors advised him to "just read the Bible." They figured this in itself would take care of his nagging worry. But Mr. J. had already been reading the Bible and spending time praying each day. He usually got a little relief, but it didn't begin to eliminate his suffering. His problem—and those of victims of deep, debilitating nervousness and anxiety— warranted professional help. We can be grateful that when life is such that many of us struggle with anxiety, depression, and serious relational problems, God has raised up well-trained Christian counselors to help. Skilled and experienced, these men and women can sit with us in our worry and help uncover the causes of emotional trauma. They can help the Bible become even more alive as they help sweep away the barriers to feeling comfortable with ourselves, God, and the people around us.

Just as there are many causes for headaches, there are also various causes for anxiety. The symptom is most effectively relieved by eliminating the true cause. That calls for a broad, comprehensive look at the problem—careful diagnosis.

Health Factors

Anxiety and nervousness are often caused by physical disorders. They can also be exacerbated by inappropriate medication. For example, when Jeff became ill, the doctor prescribed medication to help ease the pain. Jeff soon experienced a more troublesome problem than pain. He was not able to relax enough to get a restful night's sleep. When his medication was reviewed and changed, the anxiety disappeared. In addition to side effects from certain medications, there are now some excellent medications for treating anxiety. Since anxiety may be a medical problem, a medical specialist should be consulted immediately in any prolonged case of severe anxiety.

Mrs. T., a fine Christian woman, became so upset and anxous that she could scarcely function. She saw a counselor and discussed her problem with Christian friends. But nothing seemed to help. Becoming worse, she resorted to her family medical doctor. Still no help. Finally, she sought out an endocrinologist (medical doctor who specializes in glandular functions). After extensive tests he pinpointed the cause of her emotional problems, prescribed treatment, and she gradually improved. Now she is relatively free of the nagging anxiety and chronic nervousness she suffered for so long. Her problem was actually physiologically oriented.

As the Twig Is Bent

It's a fact of life that we are what we have been becoming. No one suddenly sprouts a personality. And rarely does a person have a case of "instant maladjustment," or "instant anxiety."

Let's look then for a moment at some of the problems of childhood emotional deprivations that can create anxiety and other problems. Parents of infants and young children need to be reminded that the early years of personality development can be critical. They can establish lasting patterns of tranquil relaxation and enjoyment of life, or, on the other hand, the opposite.

When a child comes into the world, he has certain needs:

One is to be loved and wanted. He needs to hear his parents tell him every day that he's loved, that they're so happy because God gave him to them. And the child needs to be hugged and shown affection for what he is; not so much for what he does.

"There is in all of us the need to feel we are worthy human
beings, that we can contribute something to our world."

The need to belong. God made us with an intense desire to be a part of something significant. It was God who set people in families to meet each other's needs. A child needs more than the same surname and his parents' address. His inner needs call out for acceptance as a loved member of the family. As such, he will be disciplined when the occasion calls for it, but even this will make him feel that he is cared for and that his parents love him enough to want him to be happy and productive as he grows up.

The need to feel worthwhile. There is in all of us the need to feel we are worthy human beings, that we can contribute something to our world. If we're going to grow up reasonably well-adjusted, we need to feel confident that the world can be a better place for our having journeyed through it.

It is in childhood when these and other basic needs should be met. But in many homes, perhaps most homes, they are not.

Tommy was fortunate to grow up in a family where his basic emotional needs were well met. Consequently, his early years were happy and relaxed. Naturally, he had the normal ups and downs of childhood, but essentially his life was satisfying. As he entered into manhood, he took with him wholesome feelings and a healthy self-image that stood him in good stead. He was relatively confident about using his God-given abilities. He felt comfortable with others. And consequently, he was not plagued by anxieties and insecurity.

Prevention Is Important

It is difficult to bring about major changes in behavioral patterns after they have once become established. Remember the so-called "psychotic" monkeys years ago at the Seattle World's Fair? They really weren't psychotic; they had "personality disorders." This happened when Dr. Harlow removed them from their natural mothers as soon as possible after birth. Their feeding needs were served by "surrogate mothers" (cloth skins stretched over wire netting with exchangeable bottles of warm milk inserted into their frames). The baby monkeys grew strong and healthy physically, but their behavior was strange; they did not act or play like normal monkeys. Among other things, when they became older, they demonstrated little or no interest in mating.

When a few of these monkeys were induced to mate and have offspring, the mothers showed almost no interest in their babies. No amount of retraining was able to build into these adult monkeys the traits possessed by normal monkeys who learned them naturally during the critical periods of development. Since they lacked normal contact with their mothers, they grew up emotionally unhealthy.

We humans aren't as set in our ways as monkeys, and with insight, professional help, and spiritual assistance we can resolve many of our childhood problems. But it doesn't happen overnight, and it is much better to have our needs met correctly as infants and children than it is to work out the kinks later.

The Spiritual Dimension

One of the most necessary ingredients for peace of mind is being related to our Creator. There is no real security in any of the temporal factors of our few short years here on earth which will compensate for an insecurity about our eternal destiny. Matthew 16:26 says, "What is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?" When any human being comes to Jesus Christ in faith, confessing his sins and receiving Christ's free pardon, he enters into a relationship with God Himself. This is the spiritual beginning point for dealing with anxiety. I John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment." One incredible resource for overcoming fear is the assurance that all of our sins have been paid for. God isn't angry at us, and He will never punish us because His Son took the punishment we deserved in our place. Knowing that God has forgiven our sins, that His Holy Spirit indwells us, and that we will spend eternity with Him, provide a wonderful spiritual foundation for overcoming anxiety.

We seldom think of Christian parents or of church teachings as having a negative effect on a child. But it is possible in a distorted sense. Take for example the concept of "father." Most people's concept of God is much like the concept they hold of their own earthly father. They perceive their heavenly Father, whom they have not seen, as being much like their earthly father whom they have seen and know. If you should ask a child what God is like, he may very well describe his earthly father. This is reasonable inasmuch as from the time of early childhood, a child knows that along with his mother, his father is in charge, that he is a provider, that he represents authority, and that he can make things happen. So it is with God.

Consequently, a child's view of God is usually shaped by the qualities of his dad. When a father (or mother) is critical, mean, short-tempered, unkind, impatient, unloving, or punitive, the child is likely to grow up thinking of God as having many of the same characteristics. This is often true of adults who are unduly anxious. They think of God in negative terms, afraid that He will punish them or reject them, or find them unacceptable. This adds to their anxiety and affects nearly everything they do.
Occasionally, a well-meaning pastor or evangelist repeatedly threatens his parishioners with fears that God will toss them out if they don't do things God's way. Instead of proclaiming God's love and forgiveness, along with His righteous judgment, such pastors may keep their listeners in a constant state of uncertainty, fearing that they may lose their salvation, and that they may never measure up to God's demands and standards. This is a common cause of spiritual anxiety.

But the message of God's grace is just the opposite. God places us in His family because Christ paid for our sins, not because we live well enough to earn it. The Bible says, "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. I and my Father are one" (John 10:28-30). Security is a gift God gives to us. That is real security!


A person who is anxious and nervous in most situations can realize some relief through practical procedures. First, find someone with whom you can discuss your anxieties. All of us do better when we have a caring friend with whom we can share our burdens. In fact, the Bible instructs us to "bear each other's burdens" (Galatians 6:2), and to encourage each other and build each other up.

Next, try to identify the culprits in your environment. Make a list of the situations that trigger anxiety in your life. Perhaps in your marriage or your daily work there are conditions which you can avoid. If you know that certain situations will cause you difficulty, do your best to avoid or change them.

The same with people. If you know there are certain personalities that cause you to feel ill at ease and insecure, don't keep asking for trouble. If it isn't necessary to be around them, choose to stay away. If it is a family member or someone you want or need to be in relationship with, talk with that person and tell him or her how you feel. That person may be doing things that upset you and yet never be aware that he is causing you real concern and pain. Even if it is strictly your problem, he might take steps to help you.

"While we are all products of our past to some extent, we need not be prisoners of our past."

Next, take note of your activities. For example, are you being pressured to volunteer to do jobs which will only cause you anxiety? If so, try to make the necessary changes. It is not pleasing to the Lord to needlessly put yourself in harm's way. Many people who once suffered from anxiety have learned what to avoid, just as a person who cannot tolerate certain foods does not eat them. Modern life may also be bearing down on you to the extent that you need to simplify your lifestyle. There are numerous ways to reduce stress by living more simply. Take time for renewal and restoration.

If your marriage is unfulfilling, seek help from a Christian counselor. If a child is causing you undue worry, get counseling for him. If in-laws are creating pressure in your life, talk to your mate about making definite changes.

Look inside. Since most anxiety comes from longstanding inner conflicts, memories, habits and concerns, it is usually necessary to gain greater understanding as to the reasons for your anxiety. Sometimes talking to a caring friend is enough. But often we need a trained professional counselor to help us uncover the hidden sources of anxiety and learn to overcome them. Don't keep living with undue anxiety when there is help available.

Rework your childish thoughts. Once you have identified the causes of your fears, decide whether the threat you have so greatly feared is real. Often we have been afraid because we have been continuing to view things through a little child's eyes rather than through the eyes of an adult. The Bible says, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (I Corinthians 13:11). As adults we can put off childish thinking, including childish fears, and see things more realistically. Things are rarely as potentially catastrophic in an adult's eyes as they are in a young child's!

Take time each day to read a portion of God's Word. It may not supernaturally make your anxiety disappear, but if you let it penetrate your life, it can bring unbelievable comfort. God gives us this promise: "For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you up in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Psalm 91:11,12).

In summary, nervousness and anxiety have various causes. Some are physiological, some are spiritual, and some are emotional growing out of childhood experiences involving losing control.

While we are all products of our past to some extent, we need not be prisoners of our past. We don't have to go through life feeling nervous and anxiety ridden. We can turn to God, and we can also have the help of friends, family members, or professional counselors whom God has gifted in doing His will on earth!

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