Letting go of the shrouds of anxiety

In her new book Fight Flight and Faith, Nikki Thompson describes how she was able to trust god’s provision as a Christian with anxiety. 

On the eve of my grand entrance onto the stage of motherhood, I had but one motive as I walked into the small, nondescript office of my newest psychologist in the suburbs: to bring the enemy anxiety down, once and for all. As if I were a contestant on an emotional weight-loss challenge, I had my goal firmly in mind. I would have had no problem describing it in vivid detail. I wanted to emerge a better, stronger, leaner version of myself.

One good enough to deserve this new life inside me.

I arrived at the small waiting room at the top of a flight of concrete stairs out of breath and in need of a glass of water. The kindly receptionist, who also, it turned out, was the Wise Man’s wife, offered me one with an understanding smile, her eyes warm on my belly, and I drank deeply.

Where the Wise Woman had been a dancer in her spare time, the Wise Man was a surfer. I saw the ebbing rhythms of the sea in his languid movements, in the measured ease of his pace, as he appeared in the waiting room and directed me to his office. I found my seat on the centre of the couch and leant forward in nervous anticipation. I had become so accustomed to sitting on these couches over the years, it was almost like muscle memory kicked in, and I assumed my position of alert readiness. The Wise Man rocked backwards a few times on his chair, in a way that reminded me of a relaxed schoolboy.

‘So, Nikki,’ he said, in his disarmingly casual way, the slow drawl of an accent as Australian as summer sun on rocks. ‘What’s been going on?’

I told him how my anxiety, how generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and in particular panic disorder (PD), had returned once more, like some sort of dirty thief sneaking in during the night and messing up my neat house, trampling over every room, even the baby nursery with the small pool of golden lamplight and the mobile perched over the bassinet with the music set to the tune of serenity. I filled him in on the various contours of my story, the peaks and the many troughs, summing it all up finally, like a chief defendant in my own case, my emotional fitness the topic of interrogation. ‘I should be better now,’ I proclaimed loudly. ‘I mean, I’m going to be a mother.’ I pointed at my protruding stomach as if it were obvious that the picture sitting before him was all completely wrong.

The Wise Man sipped his coffee cup infuriatingly slowly, all the while studying me with calm eyes beneath glasses tipped down on his nose. He was clearly not in a hurry. If my life were an ocean, and words were waves that would carry me safely to shore, he was prepared to wait until the right ones arrived. I was ready to slide into shore as fast as possible. I wanted to win peace and take it home with me like some sort of surfing trophy or carnival game prize, shiny and bright and oversized in my arms.

Thankfully, the Wise Man had by then years of experience with stories like mine, of spiritual perfectionist stilt-walkers wobbling into his office, and his ear was good, even over the clamour of my own attempts to explain. He read between the words I spoke, ramshackle and breathless, like so many train carriages banging together, careening down a hill. Alongside the fear in my voice, he heard something else. Perhaps he even saw it too. While in my belly I brought in with me the hope of growing new life, behind me I dragged the heavy deadweight of years of self-condemnation.

It wasn’t just PD messing with my future. It was me.

When he spoke at last, it was in the form of a quiet question, much like the Wise Woman had begun our journey. ‘Why all the shoulds, Nikki?’ he said on almost a sigh, a shrug in his voice. ‘Why should you be better by now. What do you think?’ He sipped his coffee again and waited.

‘Well, because I’m a Christian, of course!’ I burst out quickly on top of his words as if it were the most self-evident thing in the world.

I talked on, quoting the Bible at the Wise Man like missiles I sent across the space between us. I knew he was a believer himself; he often spoke at churches and had even written a book that included discussion of Jesus’ approach to busyness and stress. I’d read it, but perhaps I’d forgotten the message it contained, or not understood it. I thought he’d be on my side. I filed through all the passages I knew about anxiety and worry, everything I could think of, and hurled them into the air across the room at him, like scrunched up pieces of paper, tests I’d failed, and attempted with the force of them to stop the rocking of his chair in its tracks. Do not worry, trust in God, perfect love drives out fear; each another mark against me, evidence of my always erring, of my need for urgent repair, of my fear and lack of faith.

‘Can a Christian not feel unpleasant emotions?’ he answered, this time a little more animated, as he warmed up to his topic. ‘Do you think the disciples never felt fear? The prophets never experienced nerves?’

He began to quote the Bible back at me, less aggressively than I had done, but no less solidly. Actually, he told me stories, one of the best languages I know for conveying truth. He told me about all the failed heroes, stumbling disciples and used-by-God messes that populated the pages of my favourite, but not uncomplicated, book. His words were engaging and catching as he took his time to catalogue the high maintenance, dysfunctional, up and down crowd of God’s people. There was Paul, evangelist to the gentiles, who stumbled often as he spoke, bold on the page, but not in person, who once required a blinding light to take off his blinkers and get his attention. There was Peter, who denied his Saviour not one but three times, while he warmed his hands by a fire in his Lord’s darkest hour, but who nonetheless carried on to become the Rock. There was Moses, God’s man for the job of leading his chosen nation out of slavery, who stuttered so much that he needed his brother, Aaron, to speak for him. Then, of course, there was King David, who wrote the psalms with a poet’s high sensitivity but committed catastrophic blunders worthy of B-grade soap operas. And who afterwards sank into sorrow, into a pit of despair, perhaps even into depression.

All of these, the Wise Man told me, feared, and trembled, and fell down; but did this make them any less loved, any less cared for by God? If anything, the inverse was true. They were all, in different ways, powerfully used.

But at the same time, they experienced powerful emotions.

What were the psalms of lament but God not only permitting but giving us the very language, the building block of words, to describe the darkness of this life, the Wise Man challenged me, offered me, counselled me.

But even then, he wasn’t finished. He waited while I took a sip of water, taking it all in.

‘And what about Jesus?’ he said at last.

‘Did Jesus feel anxiety?’ I said, a little dismayed at the possible act of irreverence we were communally committing.

‘Did he? You tell me?’
‘Well, he was perfect,’ I exclaimed. ‘Yes.’


‘What about the tears?’ The Wise Man spoke the words across the room and this time he had the missile. It was powerful.

I hadn’t thought about the tears, or if I had, never quite like this. ‘Jesus cried when he saw Mary and Martha’s grief at losing their brother,’ I said aloud, letting the words take root inside me, picturing it. A double dose of sisterly sorrow, shared by the Saviour.

He didn’t just cry in that moment.
Jesus wept.
Loudly. Passionately. Violently.
Apparently ‘wept’ isn’t even a forceful enough word to encapsulate

Jesus’ outpouring at that moment. Translators describe it as something beyond even sobbing, something as visceral as snorting.

And again, the night before his crucifixion, in the garden, he cried, his tears mixed with blood.

‘With blood,’ the Wise Man emphasised. ‘Those were no ordinary tears.’

It’s time to stop trying to be perfect. Even in your expectations of your capacity for faith.
It’s time to trust in Jesus, not yourself.

Jesus might not have experienced GAD or PD, but he definitely felt anguish, mental pain, dark emotions. He allowed himself to feel things. And he let his feelings out. In tears. In weeping. In blood. Sorrow to the point of death. Because some things are worthy of tears. Even the tears of God in flesh.

‘Do you think anxiety is sin?’ the Wise Man asked me, no longer rocking, this time leaning in close.

‘I don’t know.’

He paused. I thought. I thought about Jesus again. And about the pain. And about the tears. I thought about brokenness, and I thought about healing. I thought about the cross.

Jesus inhabited a body like mine, without sin, yes, but not without dread, alarm, pain and foreboding. So…

‘No, I don’t think so,’ I answered at last.

‘It’s not your fault, Nikki,’ the Wise Man said, gently but firmly. ‘And you are not on trial. You are not in trouble.’

And then, the moment I believe I turned a corner, the moment my interior view shifted from a small, confined room to a wide, deep sky.

‘It’s time,’ the Wise Man spoke to me. ‘Time to walk off the battlefield. Time to lay down your weapons. There’s no need to fight anymore.’

I thought about all the times I had attempted to conquer anxiety by fighting it. Sometimes literally taking my fists to it. I remembered one chill night in Melbourne, when my adrenaline went through the roof in our apartment, and my husband held up his larger hands and allowed me to hit against them. Punch after punch, as hard as I could.

‘I hate you, anxiety!’ I had yelled, through tears, as I made my knuckles ache with the impact. ‘I hate you so much. Go away, go away. Go away.’ I’d punched and punched and punched. And in the end, I’d collapsed, not in relief, but exhaustion.

Fighting wasn’t just ineffective, it was draining, emptying. If I wanted to be full, emptying myself of anxiety wasn’t the answer after all.

The Wise Man was right. I had stopped running, but I hadn’t stopped fighting, trying so hard to triumph that I was falling flat on my face. How could I have got it so wrong, mistaking striving for growth?

A time not to strive, but to abide.

The Wise Man wasn’t saying anything new; not all of it, anyway. But in that time and place, somehow it spoke more clearly than ever before. Like a sword of peace, to my embattled heart.

‘There’s more to you than your anxiety, Nikki,’ he said. ‘You are not defined by it.’

It’s time to stop battling.
It’s time to stop trying to be perfect. Even in your expectations of your capacity for faith.
It’s time to trust in Jesus, not yourself.
Because it is finished.
And because it is finished, even on those days when you feel anxiety baring its teeth and opening its jaws to roar— and you will again—you don’t need to despair.
To fight, or to flee.
You just need to abide.

God was capable of holding all of me, even the parts I felt most ashamed of. The words ‘do not worry’ were not to be read so much as an admonition but as an encouragement. I didn’t need to be a perfectly assembled model of womanhood to be a mum, or a perfect, non-cracked human to be whole. I just needed to trust that in Jesus, I was loved.

‘Go gently.’

Those were the words I heard the Wise Man say at the end of each session, to me and others, again and again, because no-one can hear them enough. It was a unique way to say goodbye, to close a conversation, but I suppose in that office he’d learnt over the years just how much it needed to be said.

When we learn to go gently, we walk within the bounds of where we’ve been designed to walk; we exercise compassion on ourselves and on others. We walk in grace. While restraints and limitations on our capacities can feel like losses, they can, in fact, be soft strengths. Remembering our humanness can be a comfort, an encouragement to look to the divine. To find our centre. Jars of clay who don’t think the jar is meant to be the treasure.

I walked out of the office of the Wise Man and back onto the suburban roads, busy at peak hour. At sunset. Cars buzzed, trains clattered on their tracks, pedestrians rushed past. It was all the same, but it was different too. I recall it as a moment of illumination. I might not have been blinded and re-visioned, Paul-like, but there was light. More of it than usual. Or at least of a different quality. And it opened my eyes. I saw the orange-gold glint on the train tracks and in the headlights of the cars heading home. All around me I saw it. I could feel it within me, too.

I walked out of the Wise Man’s office not better, but lighter.

Nikki F Thompson has a PhD in literature from Macquarie University and has taught undergraduate writing in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. She blogs at nikkifthompson.com on issues of faith, mental health, and parenting. Nikki loves living near the water in Queensland with her historian husband, Mike, three rambunctious children, and a highly photogenic puppy.

Flight Flight and faith is available at Koorong