Anxious? Me, Too. How To Lean On God When Feelings Don’t Cooperate
March 26, 2020
by Amy Givler, MD
I’ve been a family doctor in the same location for 30 years, so many of my patients have been with me a decade…or two…or three. Following people through their life stages has been a joy. We’ve grown older together. I’ve been acutely aware of this in the last two weeks as I’ve called patients to reschedule them. I’ve wanted to call them myself to make sure they don’t need anything, because I’d rather they avoid any medical facility for the next six months.
Most of my patients are over the age of 60, and many are over 80. As I call, I picture each one and can’t keep my mind from wondering how COVID-19 would affect that patient. They all have co-morbid conditions (why would they see me otherwise?), and many already have compromised lung function. Could they tolerate even a “mild” case? I doubt it.
And then, before I can stop myself, I find myself thinking, “Will I ever see this person again?” I love being a doctor. I love these patients. I don’t want to lose them.
I think about my patients, and my elderly father, and all my precious older friends, and then my mind multiplies those folks by a million—will the world lose a vibrant older generation in one fell swoop? The thought terrifies me.
If you spoke with me today, I doubt you would think I’m anxious unless I told you. I hide it pretty well. Yet I’m startling at loud or unexpected noises. I have a slight tremor. It feels like something is caught in my throat. I’ve lost nine pounds in two weeks—I’m just not hungry. And every morning I have been waking up with a start, my heart racing, as if I had just heard an intruder. And all through the day those feelings persist.
I’m experiencing, in other words, all the symptoms of anxiety my patients have described for years. I guarantee you, I will be more empathetic in the future.
Our hospital here in north Louisiana still has only moderately-ill suspected COVID-19 patients (on March 26), with nobody critically ill…yet. We’re actively discouraging patients from coming for any reason, so the hallways are eerily quiet. It reminds me of the videos I’ve seen of the water along the shoreline receding just before a tsunami hits. Especially depressing are the ones with curious people walking farther toward the ocean’s edge. I want to yell, “Run away! Now! Disaster is coming.”
But, of course, for those of us practicing medicine with a heart toward suffering people, running away is not an option. Even those of us not on the “front line” can help those of us who are by educating our patients, and the public, about the virus and how to avoid it. I’ve been actively making myself available by phone and text to friends and family, far and near. And many people will need support and advice in the coming weeks if they are sick and at home with mild symptoms.
But before we can give something useful to others, we have to have something to give. I’m speaking to myself here, because there’s one more symptom of my anxiety I haven’t mentioned yet—racing thoughts. Left unchecked, my racing thoughts can render me ineffective because I won’t be able to think clearly, speak rationally or act helpfully.
This symptom is unlike the others, though, because I can do something about it. When I tell my pounding heart to slow down, or my hand to stop trembling, nothing happens. My sheer willpower cannot change my feelings or the situation. But I can turn my thoughts toward God, and I can remind myself of His power and His promises.
What I think about is a choice within my control. I can remind my soul of what is true, as David did in Psalm 42:11: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (ESV).
The Bible has a lot to say about worry and fear in times of trouble. Psalm 46:1-2 encourages us to look to God for help: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way…” (ESV). The “earth giving way” sounds pretty cataclysmic. Yet the psalmist is still choosing not to fear. 1 Peter 3:6 commends Sarah because she didn’t “fear anything that is frightening” (ESV). Her husband Abraham had put her in risky, scary situations. Yet she chose not to fear.
The only way I can be fearless in a fearful situation is if I remind myself that God is in control, that He is with me, and that He loves me and has my best interests at heart. Thus, I get my focus off my circumstances and onto God. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock” (Isaiah 26:3-4, ESV).
This is something I have to remind myself daily, hourly, minute-ly. I’m remembering back to another time in my life when I struggled with anxiety. I was pregnant with our third child and getting chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was constantly thinking about our baby being exposed to toxic chemicals. How could he not be killed by them? Only when I felt him kick was I reassured. But then five minutes would pass and anxious thoughts would crowd in again.
That’s when I turned again and again and again to Jesus. “I choose to trust you, Lord. I know you care about my baby and me. I know you love me.” That’s when I memorized Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (ESV). (And just to not leave you hanging, that baby was born healthy and is now a third year medical student.)
That verse in Philippians gives me the pattern of the path to peace. First, I choose to not dwell on the fearful things. 2 Corinthians 10:5 puts it another way, urging us to “take every thought captive” (ESV). And then I use the tools: Prayer, then supplication with thanksgiving and then making my requests to God.
In the three days I’ve been reflecting on this, my anxious feelings have diminished somewhat. But I still woke up this morning with that hyper-alert feeling, my throat still feels tight and my heart is still beating faster than normal. Yet it’s becoming more of a habit to turn to God and give Him my future.
This is not pretending that terrible things aren’t happening. No, because they are. But this is facing the future knowing that God already knows what it will hold, that His loving arms are surrounding me, and that He will sustain me. In this way may I, and may you, be better equipped and ready for what lies ahead.
Thank you Amy for this, I have been dealing with this as well. Like you the more anxious I feel the more I just have to turn to our Lord, as I told Him this morning, HE is the only Hope we have and I have no option but to TRUST Him and know He has this. HE will take care of His children.
I probably have more moments of not feeling at peace but I am sure working on that and you words are very inspiring.
THANK YOU and we are certainly praying for you all.
Thank you for this really helpful post. I have just passed it on to my daughter (who is a doctor on the frontline in her hospital here in UK) recommending that she reads it, memorises the verses it contains, and meditates on them when she is anxious in the weeks ahead.
This, coming from a physician who is still on the front line, is the most efficacious article I’ve read concerning the how to — the nuts and bolts — of leaning on the LORD in the face of what is only natural: anxiety. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it here.
Amy!!!! THIS COMFORTED ME SO SO SO MUCH. What you described with your anxious thoughts, both now with COVID 19 and when you were pregnant, that vulnerability made me feel so comforted. I have also memorized pHillippians 4 (ALEXA, REPEAT. ALEXA, REPEAT) and the words of the Lord have penetrated to the deepest part of me. HOW POWERFUL HOW MIGHTY are the words of the Lord, stronger than any anxious thought. Thank you for all you have done for your patients, for WPC, for people like me, for the world on the FB group. Your prayers have been a balm to my heart. What a privilege to be fightint next to you.
thank you, Amy, for being so honest with your journey. It’s a great reminder of where to turn every minute of every day.
Amy, thank you. Your words are a deep breath! The honesty and rock solid reminder that we have a firm foundation and very PRESENT help in these times. Your patients are so blessed. It is so good to be fighting this battle along-side you!
Thank you, Dr. Amy, for such a transparent and vulnerable article at such a moment. It’s such a privilege to serve in God’s kingdom with other Jesus followers like you! Enjoyed all the Scripture that you shared. I like a hidden verse in Nahum 1:7 “the Lord is good, a strong refuge when trouble comes. He is close to those who trust in him.” NLT “See you” by Zoom in a couple of weeks, Lord willing.
Amy these scriptures truly touched my heart at a time when Im “digging my nails into the cross of Jesus and holding on through this storm” i know our GOD is with me and my entire family.I believe in the power of prayer and HE is holding my hands ” Love the Lord your God with all your mind,heart and your strength and soul” Also “love one another” Put these in your hearts If ever there was a time for these scriptures, it is NOW Forgive all and let no rifts come into your families. Love in Christ As Pastor John said let the Psalms be your guide to meaningful prayer
Amy, thank you so much for this great article. I too was having some anxiety moments, but as you pointed out it is drawing me closer to my Triune God.
Amy, thank you for this article. I also have been dealing with anxiety during this trying season. In addition to considering the passages like Philippians 4 you mentioned, I have also found the narratives in 2 Kings 19 and Acts 4 to be helpful. Both involved anxiety-filled situations. The Assyrians were at King Hezekiah’s doorstep and the apostles were in jail for sharing their faith. The prayers each prayed are revealing: in both situations the prayer begins with a reminder of God’s attributes. Then the actual problem is shared with the Lord. I have been finding that reminding myself and meditating on the attributes of God have really made a difference on my anxiety levels. So, not just a command to not be anxious, but filling my mind with his sovereignty instead has been very helpful to me.