Re-thinking Anxiety and Insomnia

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My wife asked me to do a post on this subject because she thought I had a unique perspective that others may appreciate. This is my response and before you try and discredit me since I am not a healthcare professional, please know that these are subjects which are very near and dear to my life and that of my family. I know the effect of anxiety and how debilitating it can be and I have lived with and been taught by it for decades. That being said, I am not here to challenge any present strategy you may have for dealing with anxiety or insomnia. If you are on any drug regiment, I insist that you do not make any changes until you discuss them with your medical provider. What I will do here, is offer a different way to view anxiety and for many of you, I hope this perspective serves you as much as it has me.

On a global scale, roughly 4% of worlds population suffers from anxiety. In the US, that number jumps to 18% or nearly 1 in 5 people. For those ages 30-44, that number jumps again to 23% or nearly 1 in 4. Roughly 61% of anxiety sufferers are women. When we examine insomnia, the global range is between 10%-30%, with the US averaging around 30%-40%. Women have a lifetime risk of insomnia which is 40% higher than that of men. If we add the Covid pandemic, economic challenges, political infighting, the rise in crime and ecological uncertainty, we can and have been watching these numbers trend upwards among all age groups.

The modern medical and psychological worldview considers anxiety to be a deficiency or problem which requires a therapy. The use of the DSM V definition conveniently gives a definition to the symptoms of anxiety to which a therapy (either behavioral, psychological, medical or some combination thereof) can be applied until symptoms dissipate. I’m not diminishing this definition, nor this approach, but for the purposes of this post, I want to explore this subject philosophically and spiritually and open you up to a worldview which is not the predominant one.

What if anxiety is not a problem? What if our insomnia and anxiety are not derailing our lives nearly as much as our interventions for dealing with them? What good purpose could these powerful experiences have for the sufferer and for the world at large? Since medical science is stuck within an empirical frame, it cannot and will not consider that which lies beyond empiricism. These world-views are formed by breaking the problem down to the smallest variables and addressing each in turn. While I don’t deny that neurotransmitters are involved, I neither see them as causative, nor as the sole solution. I believe a holistic perspective offers a helpful perspective.

I’ve had anxiety all my life, but I really began suffering from it in my late 20’s and early 30’s when panic attacks started to truly interrupt my life. My first stop was to my medical doctor who assured me I was in great health despite my checking myself into the ER for what I thought was a heart attack. I was and remain in great physical health, therefore, the onset of anxiety seemed to come from nowhere.

Anxiety is not understood by those who do not suffer from it. Even when systems of faith quote Jesus’ admonition to “not worry”, it falls within the category of “easier said than done.That doesn’t diminish the scripture’s power to guide us as I’ll show later. In fact it opens up a new direction on this subject. What if one in five of us are not deficient, broken, or are having a malfunction? What if anxiety is simply sensitivity? There is a lot going on in our world, both seen and unseen, which import their energies into our spheres of experience. If insomnia is an “awake” brain, then to what is insomnia waking us up? If you answer “Nothing.” then you are missing my point. Heightened sensitivity, may be sensitivity to aspects of the world with which we are not willing or are unable to interact.

I agree, these are unconventional definitions, but sit with them for a minute. I believe anxiety is a grace that is trying to wake us up to deeper and more important realities. Think about it, most anxieties are not really about planes, crowds, or our present state of health. These are but surrogates for the deeper reality of our own mortality. We fear flying because we fear our death and we have not reconciled the important work of saying and doing what needs to be said and done. I was amazed at how I easy flying became once I knew I had created a legacy for my kids and wife to know me should I die.

In like manner, sleeplessness is a voice asking me to pay attention to something that may not seem related to my life. Anxiety has been a wonderful teacher to me. I hope to share with you what I’ve learned, namely that the presence of anxiety means that I’m in a luminal or transition space and it is inviting me to step into my best and most authentic life. Nerves, butterflies, and fear for me are not to be anesthetized, avoided, diminished or missed. Instead they are to be embraced, and followed through the discomfort unto my true soul waiting on the other side of each trial. Once I realized that, though uncomfortable, I am not in danger, I learned to listen to what they are really saying, not what I was trying to get them to stop saying.

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7)

In scripture anytime an Angel, Spirit, or the Lord would manifest themselves, it would scare the person and they would tremble and shake. The first words from those coming from this spiritual world are always: “Do Not Fear.” This verse reminds us we are not alone, we are in the presence of our Maker or God. Then the advice here is so profound. In prayer and (duplications-begging/pleading) WITH THANKSGIVING…this is a vital frameshift…gratitude for the presence. Grateful for that which makes us tremble. THEN, make your request and then the peace which goes beyond our thinking, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ (within the mediator which has shown up as our anxiety).

Anxiety and sleeplessness are not easy and I’m not diminishing their effect on life. Sleeplessness makes life harder, but it also brings about a sober-mindedness that is rare without it. When anxiety and insomnia hit me, I go with them even if they bring a sense of melancholy. So what if my heart races and my voice shakes in front of everyone. So what if I have a big day tomorrow and I need my rest. If I avoid them, medicate myself, or take on some label as broken, defective, or troubled, then I can never be who I truly am. All such interventions always felt like a sort of renaming of me. Anxiety does not get to define who I am, only God can do that. What happens if we don’t give it that power?

I think the spiritual world is calling people to wake up, to pay attention, and as Ken Wilber would say, rise up, grow up, clean up and show up. Instead, we’ve chosen to avoid difficult growth paths that beckon us on to authenticity. Maybe I’m not crazy. Maybe there is nothing wrong with you. Perhaps everything in the world exactly as it is supposed to and your insomnia and your anxiety are not check engine lights warning of a problem, they are alarm clocks summoning us to pray, to act, get off our backs, to make a plan, to work not merely despite but because of such realities.

If I’m right, nearly one quarter of America is fearful and resisting waking up to become themselves and to step into the transformation that such challenges in life are designed to produce. Consider this perspective, and discover who you will be on the other side of anxiety and insomnia. Discuss any changes you want to make with your healthcare provider. Never stop a therapy without guidance. Then if you want to see and go beyond everything, then to get there we must sit in the dark night and be still. We must surrender outcomes and the illusion that we can control everything…we cannot. We must be willing to receive this and each and every moment, not just the one of panic, or sleeplessness, but the ones that come as a result of them. Let’s step into, go with, flow with WHAT IS. Let us wake up enough to hear and once we hear, let what has been heard set our future agendas.

The question is, do we want the “us” who remains on the other side enough to go through another dark night? I pray we do.