Living in Christ’s Peace through the Anxiety of Chronic Illness
I’ve always struggled with anxiety, but recently had felt a measure of victory over that ugly emotion. I thought seeking therapy, better boundaries, and self-care strategies were all I needed to put my struggles in the past. Then I got diagnosed with an auto-immune condition. This summer, my anxiety roared back to life.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety, but recently had felt a measure of victory over that ugly emotion. I thought seeking therapy, better boundaries, and self-care strategies were all I needed to put my struggles in the past.
Then I got diagnosed with an auto-immune condition. This summer, my anxiety roared back to life.
Anxiety from living with a chronic illness felt different my past experience. This wasn’t an external situation like work or a difficult relationship—the trouble layinside me.
Suddenly, the source of my anxiety was impossible to escape from, and impossible to cure.
But having seen God’s wholeness sprout in entrenched darkness before, I knew—if only intellectually, that Christ is present in everything. We worship a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Good news of peace and comfort must be available to all, not just the happily healthy.
But despite my theories about peace in illness, I needed help for specifics. So I reached out to writers and activists with decades of living with chronic conditions and asked for advice.
They are wise guides, and not just for those of us currently ill. The women I spoke to have found wholeness in every health circumstance. They are leaders for us all.
First: Forgive Yourself for Feeling Anxious about Illness
Even after years of trying to deal with anxiety, I felt ashamed when anxiety struck after my diagnosis. I knew better, didn’t I?
But after interviewing those with chronic illness, I felt reassured. KJ Ramsey, author of the forthcoming This Too Shall Last, was blunt. “We cannot expect ourselves to not feel anxious when our bodies are inundated with stressors.”
She was echoed by Jamie Bagley, author of Book of Hours: In Shadow and Sun, who deals with fibromyalgia. “A lot of anxiety [about illness] is not unfounded,” she said. Suddenly, my anxiety felt less like a personal failure than an understandable symptom of disease.
As I’ve learned more about the reality of long-term illness, anxiety seems even more reasonable. The women I interviewed faced financial stress: not working while paying for medicines, therapies, or tests. They anticipated possible pain, worried whether doctors would believe their stories. They felt anxious about their schedules and social lives. They felt anxious about the future.
They even felt anxious about their anxiety. Elizabeth Hinnant, who deals with myalgic encephalomyelitis, said she’ll sometimes panic about having a panic attack.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but accepting that their anxiety was understandable helped bring a measure of peace. Hinnant says, “I…try to acknowledge the hyper-vigilant part of me as a companion who cares about me even though they might not always have great advice.”
The more I’ve learned about anxiety—both from these women and past experience—the less I think anxiety itself is a sin. Instead, ignoring it is. Yes, Paul exhorts us not to be anxious, but adds, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, bring your requests to God.” Anxiety is a signal to start a conversation with God about what we’re feeling, not a sign to shut our emotions down.
You’re allowed to feel anxious about your illness. Being honest with yourself and God is the best place to start finding more peace.
Realize That You’re Not Meant to Handle Your Illness-Related Anxiety Alone
“No human being can bear the weight of the uncertainty of illness on their own,” says KJ Ramsey, whose arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, affects her spine. “The weight of being sick should be carried by a community, not an individual.”
Her words brought to mind Luke 5, where some people broke through a roof to lower a paralyzed man to Jesus. When Jesus saw the companions’ faith, he said to the paralytic, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” For me, this is a beautiful picture of how wholeness is a community undertaking.
Most of the women I spoke to had found trained therapists to help them survive. “I needed more than coping,” Bagley said. “I needed tools and I needed a teacher to help me use those tools.” Likewise, Elizabeth Hinnant depends on a psychiatric nurse practitioner to guide her through health decisions.
Of course, paying for these therapies increases financial stress, but the women stressed how important the help was to their lives.
Besides professional help, though, finding community is an essential part of managing long-term stress and anxiety. After my diagnosis, I was comforted by three women in my small group who had gone through serious health crises, some still ongoing. I found incredible comfort in learning from their hard-won wisdom.
“Find the people who get it.” Jamie Bagley said. “Let them see you. Let them love you when you’re at your most vulnerable. Your people love to be asked to help. You’ll get to help them too, another time.”
Unfortunately, the church often forgets to include those with chronic illness in community. Rather than carrying the man on the mat, the church often assumes he’ll get himself to Jesus on his own. Several of the women mentioned how frustrating it is when church events aren’t accessible, and disabled and ill people aren’t included in planning. Not only does it leave them isolated, but the church loses the valuable experience of those who know suffering first-hand.
“Paul says that the weaker parts of the Body are indispensable,” says KJ Ramsey. “Those who are weak are bearers of great life and truth in our midst.”
Remember Spiritual Practices Can Help—But They’re Not a Magic Formula
I’ll be frank: when I asked those with chronic conditions about how faith helps them, I was surprised by their honesty.
Take the response of Kristy Burmeister, author of Act Normal, whose disease, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, weakens the connective tissues of her body. “When I’m in acute pain,” she says, “I don’t get any help from spirituality... I haven’t found prayer to be helpful at all.” Instead, she says faith helps her “endure between periods of acute suffering. I’ve become more attached to Christ on the Cross and identifying all of the… suffering we endure with his suffering.”
KJ Ramsey was similarly blunt. “The answer for anxiety… isn’t… slapping Bible verses on our pain,” she said. “The answer is found in experiencing the love of God in real people, who care and show that they’re present.”
All of the women I spoke to found refuge in faith, but expressed anger or impatience with the shallow theology that they’d sometimes been sold on Sundays. Elizabeth Hinnant had to reevaluate some of her church’s teachings in order to make peace with her illness.
“I understand the impulse to… say God wants good things for our lives, but interpreting [‘good things’] as ‘perfect health’ prioritizes healthy people as having ‘God’s best’.” But she doesn’t feel less whole than those who are physically well. “I’m honestly healthier—mind, body, and soul—now than before I was sick… Don’t limit [growth] to one kind of body!”
Still, several of the women found contemplative prayer a helpful practice. KJ Ramsey says that the tools she’s learned from breath prayer, for example, accompany her in every situation. “It’s a tool that I can access anytime, no matter where I’m at—while sitting at a doctor’s appointment, sitting in traffic with symptoms… I can remember that God is with me.”
In my own case, I began to appreciate the simple, raw power of confessing to God how I felt. In the darkness after several nights of insomnia, I cried out to Jesus, “I’m frightened.”
The insomnia did not disappear. Still, I felt the darkness recede with my honesty. One breath and prayer at a time, I got through that night, and the occasional dark nights that have followed. Rather than depending on faith as a sure-fire method to fix my pain, I’m finding it’s an invitation to find God no matter how bad things are.
Chronic Illness Is Part of Life, Not a Detour from It
The more I learn from those who live with illness, the more I see how all of us fit in that category. I’m reminded of the title of author Bruce Kramer’s book: We Know How This Ends. Whether you’re currently ill or not, every one of will experience sickness, disability, and death.
“Disability is not separate from the rest of life,” says Hinnant. “It’s a common, normal human experience.”
I once would have found that statement scary, but the more I get to know the ordinary, resilient stories of people living with disease, the more I find it comforting. As Hinnant put it, “Life is different [after illness] but it’s still just life.”
Learning from those living with pain, mental illness, disability, and other chronic conditions is a gift for us all. “Many of us have aged before our time,” Jamie Bagley said. “We have deep resources of wisdom to share.” The more the body of Christ can acknowledge hurting bodies and uncomfortable emotions, the closer we’ll be to a God who experienced suffering to save us all.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
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