Unmasking Anxiety (Part 1)

a non-anxious life anxiety blog hurry leadership soul hurry Apr 03, 2024

Blog by Alan Fadling

We’re living in anxious times. I don’t hear anyone saying otherwise. And many of us feel utterly overwhelmed and powerless against the flood of anxiety that fills our hearts, our minds, our news feeds, and our social media communities.


A couple of months ago, my latest book was released: A Non-Anxious Life. The more I talk with leaders about unhurried living, the more I realize that anxiety is a very common variety of soul hurry. I know anxiety has driven a lot of my own work over the years. That kind of busyness may look impressive, but it hasn’t borne good, lasting fruit.


In the first chapter of A Non-Anxious Life, I mention six faces of anxiety that have helped me right-size it in my imagination and in my way of living and working. Too often, I’ve assumed my anxiety was an inevitable part of how I functioned, rather than a way of living and working that could be transformed. Let me share three of those faces here: (1) an operating system, (2) a not-so-wonderful counselor, and (3) an anxious squirrel. I’ll share the other three in a couple weeks. You can also read more about them in the book.



Operating System 

When I was a freshman in high school, our math club was given a computer kit to literally solder together part by part. It was an Imsai 8080, one of the first microcomputers. Yes, I was one of those cool “math club” kids!


There was no keyboard. The computer was programmed using hexadecimal codes entered through a series of flipped switches. There wasn’t much you could do with it that was practical.


Today, our computers have robust, intricate operating systems that provide a foundation for amazing apps and other programs that we use every day. Those operating systems function under the radar for most of us, and few of us ever have to understand how they work.


What I realized as I was writing this book is that, from my earliest childhood memories, anxiety has often functioned like an operating system in my life. It was ever-present, providing a kind of underlying base on which I built my life. It drove my work as a student, my learning to play the guitar, and eventually my work as a pastor.


I don’t have to tell you how incongruent an anxiety operating system is for church leadership. As I’ve often said, Jesus is right about how ineffective and unproductive anxiety actually is. But that didn’t stop me from doing a lot of my work on autopilot that was based in anxiety.


I’ve discovered that it is possible for peace to replace anxiety as our default operating system. We can learn to let the Prince of Peace be at the center of our assumptions, expectations, and beliefs rather than anxiety. It’s a worthy upgrade.



Not-So-Wonderful Counselor 

Every time we come through Advent and Christmas, we read Isaiah 9:6 and are refreshed in our awareness that Jesus comes as Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, our Mighty God. But first in Isaiah’s list of names he will be called is Wonderful Counselor. No one is a better guide than Jesus. Walking with him and working with him is having the best possible counsel at hand in our every moment.


Anxiety, on the other hand, also wants to be my counselor. It urges me to let it give advice about my present and my future. It claims to have insight about what will happen down the road based on the unexpected or unpleasant circumstances in my present moment.


For all that I’ve listened to anxiety’s advice over the years, you would think that I considered it a primary mentor. But the counsel of anxiety is not all that wonderful. It assumes scarcity while the kingdom of God operates in abundance. Anxiety wants to hurry me. Peace slows me down.


I’ve been grateful to learn to downsize anxiety’s authority in my life and work and to refocus my attention on the truly Wonderful Counselor that Jesus is in my life. Instead of trusting the advice anxiety gives with such urgency, I learn that my Wonderful Counselor gives guidance that is much more spacious, gracious, and peaceful.



Anxious Squirrel 

I love cycling in Orange County, California, where I live. The weather cooperates most of the year, but let me share one experience I don’t much enjoy on the bike trail.


I’ll be riding along, enjoying the scenery, when a squirrel will dart out in front of me and miss becoming a squirrel pancake by about twelve inches. I will then feel a jolt of adrenaline that feels like anxiety at full volume.


I have to wonder if these little guys have a death wish. I like to imagine them daring each other to jump in front of those big rolling things that race by. But I think I know what’s actually happening: They hear me coming and it sounds like danger. In reaction, their little squirrel brain urges them to find safety. “Go home!” it demands. Except home always seems to be on the other side of the bike trail.


The instinct to race home puts them in more danger than if they took a moment to see what is making the sound and decide on the best course of action—which, of course, would be to stay put. But they never seem to understand that.


My anxiety is a lot like this squirrel instinct. Something shocks me or threatens me, and I go into self-protection mode. “Get safe!” is what my security-seeking brain cries out. But if I don’t take a moment to look around, I may put myself in the way of greater harm by operating in the tunnel of anxiety. I hope I’m smarter than an anxious squirrel.


For Reflection:

  • Does one of these faces of anxiety ring especially true to your own experience? How does this way of seeing anxiety affect your perspective?