My daughter, Ida, runs with the cross country and track teams at her high school. She’s not the fastest runner on the team, but she’s not the slowest either. She enjoys the practices and attends every one, which is a huge credit to her commitment to the team, since practice happens before school at 7AM and after school until 5 or 6 PM. She keeps her grades up so that she meets the academic requirements for competition, and she even does extra workouts from home on the weekends when she doesn’t have a meet to compete in. In fact, running with her team is the only commitment she’s kept consistently and whole-heartedly for multiple years. She is all in.
But at almost every meet, when her turn to head to the start line comes, she freaks out. Somedays are worse than others, and her anxiety can show up in a few different ways. At some meets she seems only mildly nervous, even excited and happy, but when she gets out on the course it’s obvious that she’s not putting her full effort into it. My husband, who has been a competitive distance runner for more than 20 years, attends most of her meets, and he knows exactly the times that she is capable of running on most of the courses. He has instructed her about when to run fast and when to run faster. But sometimes, even if she doesn’t seem all that nervous when she lines up to start, she just doesn’t do her best. Eric, my husband, sees this in her lap times and finish times, but also in her appearance. She looks comfortable, but not competitive. She’s holding back, just going through the motions.
It would be unreasonable for my husband or her coaches to expect that each race would lead her to a new PR. (For those of you who don’t wear Hokas or own a dozen jars of Icy Hot, PR = personal record.) We don’t even expect her to perform consistently 100% of the time; it would be unrealistic. But there are some races where she’s just out there getting it done, and on those days, her lack of oomph doesn’t really match her usual blend of anxiety and enthusiasm.
We’ve come to see that this sluggish, stoic, going through the motions type of demeanor is a signal that her stress level is at its highest. When she says she’s worried and actively looks for reassurance or a pep talk, she’s OK, but when she seems OK, or just kind of quiet, she’s already given up, and what had been garden-variety nervousness has become so overwhelming that she’s shut down her emotions entirely.
When a person experiencing chronic anxiety seems to settle down, it can be a good sign that he or she is feeling more confident about the triggering situation, or about life in general. It can mean that he is becoming hopeful, or seeing light at the end of a tunnel, or even anticipating that confronting and acting on a difficult circumstance will strengthen his courage and prepare him to tackle later problems with more confidence. The danger, though, is that a sudden change in an anxious person’s behavior, particularly one that goes from an expectation of disappointment or traumatic loss to a total lack of emotional response to the situation, they may have already given up.
In some cases this is a signal that they won’t put any effort or hope into fixing a relationship problem, getting treatment for an addiction, or seeing a therapist about their depression or anxiety. But in more severe cases of anxiety it can mean that a person is giving up on himself. When my daughter reacts this way at a track meet, she needs encouragement and probably a day off from training. But if someone is showing this behavior all the time, and is shutting down from experiencing and reacting to everyday life, it is an emergency. It can be a sign that she needs an urgent appointment with her doctor or therapist, as she may be considering self-harm or suicide. In that case, call 911.
Anxiety and depression, from my experience, are two different responses to a past traumatic experience (or experiences). When my daughter is worried about an upcoming race she talks quickly and more loudly than normal, and it is quite obvious that she is full of nervous energy. Her muscles are tight, she’s repeating some things, she is moving around and gesturing while she’s talking. Signs of present anxiety like this can look different from one person to the next, though, and what you see on the outside as a friend experiences anxiety can look and feel very different when you experience it yourself. My daughter and I have some similar responses – we both talk faster, have increased muscle tension, and are prone to arguing with anyone who tries to calm us down – but I also experience a big increase in my sensitivity to sound and touch, ringing in my ears, and muscle pain in my head, back, and legs. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my reactions are becoming more severe, occurring more immediately after whatever trigger I’ve experienced, and sometimes lead into several days of physical pain and illness.
I’m 40 now, and I can see and feel the effects of anxiety and trauma on my body and in my thinking on even my best days. And that’s why I’m writing about this. Depression, anxiety, traumatic experiences, and general struggles are common to all of us, and the work of doctors and scientists, while remarkable and at times even miraculous, will never provide the sort of freedom and assurance that I need to keep going, let alone to feel stronger. It is only by the power of God and the redemption provided through the death and resurrection of Christ that I can keep going.
When I look at my life I see God’s work in redemption too. I am redeemed by Christ through His death and resurrection, and my tears and anger and fear are redeemed as well, because God’s mercy in my weakness has become a lens through which I experience His love. Through Christ my sins are forgiven and I have a place waiting for me in God’s kingdom, but even now I can experience God by seeking His perspective and knowing Him well. When I commune with Him regularly and recognize the redemptive nature of His role in my life, I can see the innate value of developing my own spiritual strength and faith in Him. By committing myself to knowing God through His Word and noticing how His nature and love show up in my life (and my mess), I know Him as a loving Father and a redeeming Savior who has displayed His glory through my own life too. Pursuing a deep, personal, loving relationship with God has shown me that I can trust Him when I can’t trust anyone or anything else.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because His rod and His staff comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
This is a promise for future, but it is truly possible to live in that promise and experience a taste of it even now.