Last Sunday we looked at Matthew 6:24 – 34 in the Sermon in the Mount series. This post is one in a series that addresses some follow up issues. The first three posts are Anxiety: is it ok to plan for the future?, Anxiety: will God always give me food to eat?, and Anxiety: the link to peoples opinions. You can listen to the sermon HERE, or subscribe in iTunes.
Up to this point everything I have preached and written on anxiety has been about fighting with our heart and mind. We have considered the wonderful truth that God cares for us and that his opinion is far richer and rewarding than the opinions of those around us. Anxiety begins in our mind, so it is absolutely crucial we start our battle there. But there is another side to anxiety, and it is often the more plaguing side–our bodies.
Anxiety almost always has an immediate and negative effect on our bodies: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, shaking/trembling, dizziness, stomach pains, and shortness of breath to name a few. Most people who struggle with anxiety have what’s been called a target organ. Our bodies normally become conditioned to respond to anxiety in a particular way, and there is one part or aspect of our body that seems to take the brunt of our anxiety. It’s often the physical side effects of anxiety that people hate the most. Dealing with a racing mind is one thing, dealing with a body that is rebelling against you is another, and often the more difficult.
I bring all of this up to acknowledge that anxiety has both a spiritual/mental aspect (I’ll call this our heart) as well as a physical aspect. Most of us will have to approach both sides if we are going to find victory over anxiety. We should expect nothing less than this two pronged approach. You are a human being, and that means you have a spiritual and a physical component. To be human in the fullest extent means that you have both of these. That is one reason we will receive resurrected, renewed bodies when Jesus returns–we are not going to float around as disembodied spirits for all eternity! Contrary to what many people think, Christianity has much to say about both aspects of our humanity. Jesus is deeply concerned for your heart and your body, and in the end Jesus will fully restore and renew both parts of our humanity.
So, what can we do to battle anxiety on the physical front? One of the simplest and most effective things you can do is exercise. Some studies have found that regular exercise–at least three times a week for thirty minutes–can have the same positive effects as prescription medicine for anxiety. One expert I’ve spoken with put it like this: “Our bodies literally store up anxiety. Exercise can get rid of it.” I find that interesting, mainly because exercise fits so well with how God made us and what he wants us to do. God gave us a body, and he intends for us to use it to the best of our ability. Sloth is never praised in Scripture. Solomon absolutely pummels laziness in Proverbs (Proverbs 6:6, 9, 10:26, 13:4, 15:19, 19:24, 20:4, 21:25, 22:13, 24:30, 26:13 – 16), while Paul writes, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” 2 Thes. 3:10. Please do not hear me saying that if you are anxious you are a lazy person. Most people I know work very hard. But I also know it is possible to work very hard in our modern age without getting our heart rate up for an extended amount of time! What I’m getting at is this, for many of us our daily work (albeit hard) is not the physical equivalent of going for a three mile jog or twenty mile bike ride. We work hard, but we may not be fully engaging our bodies.
I don’t think it is coincidence that using our bodies and being good stewards of them, both of which are God honoring acts, helps battle anxiety (as well as depression). And please don’t think there is a need to divide the two front attack: heart and body. I have found in my own battle against anxiety that addressing both sides of my humanity is helpful. I need to read and memorize Scripture so that my heart is transformed, and I need to regularly and extensively use the body God has given me to break the physical cycle of anxiety. So, if you’re struggling with anxiety, take up this other tool to battle it. And remember, all of exercise’s benefits take time to show, so stick with it.