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What My Dog Taught Me About Anxiety

Our dog tore both of her ACLs and we made the hard decision to put her to sleep.

She was an absolutely beautiful dog, loving, active, mischievous, and highly-anxious. When she was just a puppy, we were told by the vet that she probably had neurological issues (because we made the lovely decision to buy a pure-breed).

We soon found out that our dog was one nervous-nelly.

She had all kinds of typical dog anxiety related to thunder, strangers, and loud noises (like me yelling at the TV during Steelers games). But she also had “not-so-typical” dog anxiety where she panted and paced often for no reason, snapped at the air like she was catching flies even when she was alone and tried to climb out of our home through the fireplace.

Like her loving owner (me), this dog had some serious anxiety.

But she taught me a thing or two to hold onto when that mean monster shows up.

#1 Anxiety can come out of nowhere.

There are times that I find myself in a place that only moments before was nowhere to be found. I am going along just fine and out of the blue, I have thoughts that are absolutely ridiculous and filled with fear.

[My son didn't text me back. I wonder if he’s okay. He could have fallen in the shower and his roommate is at work. He might be laying there bleeding or worse, he might be dead.]

This may have come on the heels of enjoying a nice breakfast out with a friend while drinking chamomile tea.

#2 Anxiety usually passes.

The same way it roars into my life, it often makes its way out. This is a lifeline for me in the throes of it. On a very bad day, I remind myself that it will most-likely pass. It might take some time, but it won’t be like this forever. The life-long journey to peace is slow.

#3 Anxiety is NOT about trusting God!!!

One day, my pup was just beside herself. It might have been a thunderstorm. She was pacing and panting, wide-eyed and whining. In a moment of clarity, I said to her (very tongue-in-cheek), “Puppy, you just need to trust God more.”

You are probably thinking to yourself, “That’s ridiculous. She’s a dog.” And you know what, it is ridiculous.

For years, I added to the shame of my anxiety by berating myself about not trusting God enough. I memorized verses about fear, the “do not fear” ones especially (and yes, I do know that here are 365 verses about fear, one for every day…you might sense the sarcasm).

I promise you. If memorizing these verses and trying really hard to “trust God more” would have done the trick, I would be all over it, preaching it from the mountaintops. If it were only that easy. But the hard truth is it’s not.

The truth? Anxiety is a neurological disorder.

Anxiety is when a person’s central nervous system is telling them there is an emergency even when there isn’t one. It's fright without solution. Yes, we can feed it and make it worse (I know all about those neurons firing and giant pathways being created). I can be an expert at that.

And yes, new pathways can be formed that calm the nervous system. I am in the slow process of feeding those new pathways now and have been for many years (which has helped tremendously).

In the end, it’s all very complicated and I am not an expert in the field. But that’s not the point.

Here is the point.

For those of you who don’t struggle, please don’t tell someone in the middle of it to “trust God more.” It won’t help. It may just heap more frustration and shame on the person and make them more anxious.

And for those of you, like me, who have this monster hounding them on many days, think about my dog. It’s just as ridiculous to say “trust God more” to ourselves as it is to my dog.

#4 Anxiety dissipates by being “held.”

The best thing we could do for our dog, when she was at her worst and visibly shaking with fear, was to hold or pet her, come close to her, and speak gently and kindly to her.

That’s really what those of us with anxiety need. We need someone to listen to our fears, be gentle and kind to us and most of all, hold us until it passes (this can be emotional or physical).

But what if there is not someone tangible to hold us?

Can we go to God?

Can we hold ourselves?

It’s not magic and certainly not a quick-fix formula, but I believe that God holds us in those awful spaces.

And it's vital that we hold ourselves.

Make room.

Give grace.

Listen carefully.

Ask what we need in the moment.

Be tender and kind.

Love ourselves the way God loves us.

So if you find see me in the grocery store hugging myself and talking myself out of a panic attack, you'll know what I'm doing and please, secretly cheer me on!

Peace be with you.

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