Wednesday, April 25, 2018

No Idea What to Call This

As I stood to the side and looked out over the busy room - the church gym transformed into a place for a women's conference - I was reminded of a conversation I had a little less than 15 years ago. A conversation where I was told that I likely wouldn't be able to do what I was doing that weekend. Attending a women's conference with more than 170 women at it was not supposed to be something I could manage, let alone also helping to put the event on.

You see, I was told I had Social Anxiety Disorder in that conversation. As I've chosen to talk about this more in the last few years, I've discovered that many people don't know what this is, don't understand what I mean when I say that.

There's a lot of good information out there about it, but it doesn't seem to be very widely understood. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I'm going to share the definition of it from the Social Anxiety Association:
"Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interactions with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person's life." 
It is the third most common mental health issue in the world today. And 7% of the population (including in the church) is dealing with it at any moment, and 13% will at some point in their lives.

Now that we've established some basic facts, on to my purpose in writing this post . . .

I'm incredibly appreciative of the friends I have who have learned what this looks like for me and how they can support when I'm in settings like this women's conference. They're a large part of what makes it possible for me to be a part of them. Even though these types of events are exhausting for me, I'm grateful I can be a part of them.

As I speak up more about this battle in my life, I frequently realize how little about it is understood by so many in the church. Despite the facts about its prevalence that I share above anxiety disorders often seem to be misunderstood in Christian circles.

I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from the word anxiety having multiple meanings in how we use it and we're not always clear on the differences. Everyone has moments when they feel anxiety over something. The difference is that, for most people most of the time, it doesn't interfere with their ability to do things. They're not so paralyzed by it they can't move on from it.

I can't even begin to count the number of times well-meaning people have quoted Philippians 4:6-7 or 1 Peter 5:7, or any other myriad of Scriptures when they find out I struggle with anxiety. Don't get me wrong, those verses contain great truth. Truth I cling to when my mind is going crazy. Truth that does help me to calm my mind sometimes. They remind me of what I need to be doing, and they're a part of how I function everyday.

There is a spiritual aspect to all of this and it absolutely must be dealt with if I'm going to be able to live a full life. But, for me, and for others who also live with this, it goes beyond that. The physical and mental part of this is just as important to deal with as the spiritual part. Whether it be medication or counselling or some combination of that, we cannot ignore that this is a part of dealing with this in our lives.

I guess I'm writing this to try to explain some realities, but as I put this out there, I'm also realizing that it doesn't do much good if I don't get to something practical.

So, what can or should you do when someone you know is battling an anxiety disorder?

1) Ask them what they need from you in social settings that make their battle more difficult. 

They likely know what others can do that helps, but they're not going to ask, because that opens them up to being negatively judged, which is part of their anxiety. When you offer, you're letting them know you're not negatively judging them.

2) Be patient - even when it's awkward.

Maybe, especially when it's awkward.

Sometimes I'll be managing okay in a situation, until I'm not. I can't predict when that will happen and I often can't see it coming until I'm at the point where I can't manage anymore. I know it's awkward when that happens. It's why I go through seasons where I just avoid everything. But, avoiding everything doesn't help, it makes it worse. When I have people around me who are patient when my anxiety makes things awkward, it makes it easier for me to manage the next thing.

So, be patient. Stay with them. Let them know, that's not enough to make you leave.

3) Don't be afraid to lovingly, gently speak the truth.

When my anxiety gets going, I know my thought patterns are ridiculous and full of lies, but I often can't stop them myself. That's when I need people in my life who will gently and lovingly remind me of the truth.

Don't yell it. Don't try to argue me into believing it. But keep speaking it. And remind me that I need to speak it out loud too. Eventually it will get through and help.

4) Don't decide that this struggle means they can't be there for you.

Just because we have a struggle in this area of our lives doesn't mean we're not capable of supporting you in whatever you're going through. We all need friendships where the love and support goes both ways. Let us be there for you when you have a need, the same way you're there for us when we have a need.

Obviously, every person is different, so every person's battle with anxiety is different, but I think these suggestions are general enough for everyone. That's why I started with asking the person what would help them.

I know these things make a difference, because I have friends who do these things all the time. Ultimately, it's God Who makes it possible for me to be part of a team to put on a women's conference. But, He often chooses to use those around me to be the way He does that. I'm incredibly grateful for the community I have.

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