faith, illness

The Difference Between Anxiety and an Anxiety Disorder

I think I must just have one of those faces that doesn’t intimidate people because people seem to think that they can say anything they want to me.

We had been visiting a church for a few months –inconsistently, because of my health.


But, the pastor and church members had been supportive and understanding.


I was actually beginning to think we might stay at the church long term.


One Sunday after church, the pastor pulled me aside.


“Hey, I noticed that your husband always goes to the car after service instead of visiting. Is he okay?”


I don’t usually share this information, but since the church had been so accepting of my health issues, I answered, “My husband is very introverted, and he has an anxiety disorder. He gets overwhelmed with a lot of people, especially people he doesn’t know very well. So, he lets me visit, and he waits in the car.”


What he said next flabbergasted me:


“Well, anxiety disorders are not a salvation issue, but they are definitely a sin issue. Let me know if you need me to talk to him about that.”


I wish I had something prepared to say to him.


I’m accustomed to being shunned and even ignored by Christians because of the unusualness of my situation, but rarely does someone come right out and accuse another person of sin.


Now, I’m actually in support of correcting real sin according to the method commanded in scripture.


But, my husband’s disorder is far from sin.


Instead of answering him, I just stared at him as he walked away, quickly gathered up my children, and we left.


That was our last Sunday at that church.

In the 1970s, a group of doctors met regarding the treatment of what they called phobias. Maybe phobia would have been a better word for the disorder than anxiety.


Phobia carries the idea of an irrational fear, whereas anxiety carries the connotation of just worrying.


For lack of a better way to describe it –for better or worse– by 2000, doctors were calling this set of symptoms an anxiety disorder.


The doctors found themselves with a brain disorder and in need of a title. Since on the surface it rather resembles worrying, the word anxiety was chosen to describe it.


But, it’s actually very different from worry.


An anxiety disorder is the result of part of your brain not properly processing stress.


So, things that should seem safe and normal –like leaving your house or visiting with a group of like-minded believers– causes panic attacks or a panicked reaction of one kind or another.


Worry is choosing to stress over something you have no control over.


An anxiety disorder is an involuntary brain malfunction.


These two things, while the names are very similar, are very different.

It’s unfortunate for Christians who happen to have this disorder that the word anxiety was chosen to describe a brain-processing disorder.


It’s unfortunate because there are scriptures which command against being anxious.


Websters 1828 dictionary defines anxious like this:
“ANX’IOUS, a ank’shus. Greatly concerned or solicitous, respecting something future or unknown; being in painful suspense; applied to persons; as, to be anxious for the issue of a battle.”


Choosing to worry about the future is very different than your brain telling you things are scary when they aren’t.


If you’ve ever met someone who had a genuine phobia and seen them have a screaming panic attack over something as benign a fly, then you know what I mean.


I had a friend whose son was terrified of flying insects.


No amount of reasoning with him helped, because his brain misidentified a fly as dangerous.


They induced his fight-or-flight response.


Was that child in sin because he had an irrational reaction to a fly?


Should he be disciplined?


Of course not!


What kind of cruel person would punish a child when it is quite clear his brain is not working properly?


An anxiety disorder is your brain not working properly.


Like all other mental and physical illnesses, it is a result of the curse after the fall.


Being anxious, or worrying, is choosing to be concerned about something you can’t control.


Choosing to worry about something you can’t control, not trusting that God controls it, that is a sin, as outlined in multiple passages in the New Testament. See here and here.


Having a malfunctioning brain is not a sin.


And, I’ll have nothing to do with a church that says it is.  

Is it possible that someone with an anxiety disorder could also be guilty of the sin of worrying?


Yes, but one does not automatically mean the other.


An anxiety disorder alone is not cause for church discipline.


I do, however, believe that an understanding of God’s character can help both those who worry and those with an anxiety disorder.


Those who worry can use scripture as a reminder that they should choose not to worry but to trust God’s omniscient plan.


Those with anxiety disorders can use scripture to sooth and mediate during times when their anxiety is causing problems.


What I will never tell someone –what other Christians told me when I suffered from postpartum depression– is that if you just read your bible enough your mental health disorder –like an anxiety disorder– will go away.


Just like reading your bible won’t make a broken leg heal or a thyroid work again, it won’t fix a malfunctioning brain.


My thyroid doesn’t make the hormones I need to live. Without medication, I would die. 


I love my bible, and I’m passionate about my faith, but my bible is unable to make my thyroid produce T3 thyroid hormone.


God could heal me, but He chooses not to.


I trust that He knows best.


Telling someone with a brain disorder like anxiety to read their bible and it will go away is just as asinine as telling someone with a thyroid disorder to read their bible instead of taking medicine.


While it is possible God could heal either health problem, that’s not generally how He works today.


If you have an anxiety disorder, remember that this is what God is doing in your life, something He’s using to make you more dependent on Him.


Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a sin or make you feel like less of a Christian because of it.


My husband and I with our various health and mental health issues have had many talks about how much we’re looking forward to heaven, to new bodies with new brains, free of illnesses, diseases and disorders.


We wait with eager anticipation for His return.


All these things and more serve as reminders that this is not our home


Sarah Forbes


My husband read this post and agreed to let me post it. I would never share his medical information without his permission. 


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