What Causes Us To Worry?

Some have thought that worry is purely a physiological issue while others have concluded that it is purely spiritual.

The historic Christian categories of World, Flesh and Devil are entirely capable of providing a robust understanding of people and their problems, allowing us to avoid simplistic reductionism on either end of the spectrum. We don’t have to engage in either/or thinking and conclude that anxiety is either purely physiological or only spiritual. This means that we can learn from the best insights that modern science has to offer along with the rich truths of Scripture which remind us that God is able to meet us in our struggles with worry.

 

Everyone worries. Some of us more than others. Reports show that nearly 20% of people living in the US struggle with anxiety. That means that approximately 65 million people experience worry that impacts their daily lives and relationships in profound ways.

In 2008, American physicians wrote more than 50 million prescriptions for specifically anti-anxiety medications and more than 150 million for antidepressants, many of which were used for anxiety-related conditions.

CAUSES FOR WORRY

So why do so many of us struggle with anxiety? That question has been at the center of much debate. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other throughout history. Some have thought that worry is purely a physiological issue while others have concluded that it is purely spiritual. Alan Horwitz states this in his book, Anxiety: A Short History:

Between the fourth and sixteenth centuries, religious, magical, and folkloric views of anxiety and other mental conditions largely displaced empirically-based Hippocratic and Galenic conceptions in Western societies. While the latter beliefs persisted within medicine through the medieval period, medical knowledge itself was overridden by ecclesiastical structures. Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, anxiety was once again increasingly likely to be viewed within a medical, as opposed to spiritual, framework. Within medicine, the influences of humoral pathology, which had dominated medical thinking since Hippocratic times, gradually waned. By the end of the eighteenth century, while humoral conceptions remained popular theories of temperaments in the general culture, medicine preferred physiological accounts to explain how mental disturbances resulted from malfunctioning nervous systems (p. 54).

While Horowitz’s view of the church may be oversimplified, we still must ask: what causes anxiety? Does the Bible provide categories that enable us to avoid the swinging pendulum between faith and science? I believe it does.

The historic Christian categories of World, Flesh and Devil are entirely capable of providing a robust understanding of people and their problems, allowing us to avoid simplistic reductionism on either end of the spectrum. We don’t have to engage in either/or thinking and conclude that anxiety is either purely physiological or only spiritual. This means that we can learn from the best insights that modern science has to offer along with the rich truths of Scripture which remind us that God is able to meet us in our struggles with worry.

Below is a simple diagram that captures the many shaping influences that may be relevant to any particular person’s struggle with worry.

World

The category of “world” is everything outside of the heart. These are the external shaping influences that we experience as human beings made in God’s image. It is the person’s situation; their context. To minimize the impact someone’s circumstances has on a person is to be sub-biblical. The God of Scripture takes our situation seriously. This is a place where we can learn most from modern scientific research:

  • Brain: we all have brains that determine our personalities and pre-dispose us to a host of struggles. All of us are constitutionally wired differently. Our brains are also impacted by the fall of humanity. We are all broken at some level and exhibit various mental strengths and frailties.
  • Body: we have bodies that have strengths and weaknesses. They too are broken in different ways and impact how we respond to difficulty.
  • Event and Relational History: we have good and bad things that have happened to us along with people who have blessed us or hurt us.
  • Political/Cultural/Socio-economic Context: we exist in a context that impacts the degree to which we may struggle with worry.
  • Gender: our gender plays a role in how we struggle with worry.
  • Religious Upbringing: the beliefs that shaped us growing up influence our struggle with worry.
  • Age: the longer we live, the more grief and loss we experience. This can make us wiser or more prone to anxiety.
  • Race/Ethnicity: whether we are the majority or minority culture in a given context will also shape the way we experience anxiety.

This list is not exhaustive. You may be able to think of other external shaping influences. Each one can be nuanced to fit every person who has ever lived. No two people are alike.

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