Understanding Your 3 a.m. Anxiety

Why do we wake up in the middle of the night unable to go back to bed? What does it look like to take our weary hearts to Jesus and find rest for our souls?

When Deepika Padukone revealed her struggles with anxiety in a 2015 article in the Hindustan Times, I dismissed it as a publicity stunt. And when I heard more stories from people struggling with anxiety, I belittled it as a sign of weakness. I lacked both understanding and empathy until I faced my own anxiety.

Also in 2015, The Huffington Post sounded the alarm in an article stating India’s working professionals were hit hard by depression and anxiety. The article quotes an industry study on this topic saying, “Over forty two percent of employees in the Indian private sector suffer from depression or general anxiety disorder due to demanding schedules, high stress levels, and performance-related perquisites.”

In India, depressive and anxiety disorders saw an increase of 35 percent, according to a Lancet study, due to restrictions on social contact, lockdowns, economic insecurity, and school and business closures, as reported in a 2021 article in The Hindustan Times.

In Christian circles in India, we are told that anxiety is a sin. “How can a believer struggle with anxiety?” it is said. There is some truth to it but there is also prejudice and falsehood in this assertion. Anxiety is associated with shame and defeat in our culture. In our minds, a believer with anxiety makes our Saviour look weak and fragile. So we rarely hear stories about people dealing with anxiety in the church.

The response to people facing anxiety from both the pulpit and the pew is to pray more and read the Bible more. Again, there is some truth to this but “doing more” is not a cure-all technique for sins and struggles in Christianity. With such a critical posture in the church toward a growing epidemic, people remain silent, hidden, and often struggle alone.

When Anxiety Becomes Personal

When the pandemic began in March 2020, I put myself on a war footing. We moved our young church plant into an online format quite seamlessly. The ministry team came up with many creative ways to keep the congregation engaged online. I enjoyed the fresh energy, oblivious to what was happening on the inside.

Anxiety is associated with shame and defeat in our culture. In our minds, a believer with anxiety makes our Saviour look weak and fragile.

Within a few months, I experienced emotional and spiritual fatigue. I realised I was not made for ministry in an online environment. I began to get tired of zoom meetings. It sucked the energy from my soul. I tried to overcompensate this lack of energy by trying harder to connect with people online. But it made things worse.

I began to resent online meetings, especially when videos were switched off. It felt like people kept videos off because I was not interesting or I was not engaging enough in my communication.

The more such thoughts began to dominate my waking hours, the more I found myself eating unhealthily and sleeping at odd hours to drown out this nagging sense of uneasiness. Soon I began to worry about the church plant itself and my worry turned into fear. People were leaving Delhi by the dozens and this was hurting our small community.

I began to have anxious thoughts like, “What if the church plant fails? What will people think of me?” I spent several months unable to sleep, my mind preoccupied with lies, my heart feeling empty, and my life feeling without purpose. It was on a Saturday morning at 3 a.m., unable to sleep when panic set in and I crashed.

I vividly remember that night. It felt like I was standing over an abyss that was pulling me into its deep darkness. Though I tried to shake it off, I was gripped with fear. A voice inside kept saying, “You are done. You are not going to make it.”

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety by itself is not a “bad” emotion. We all know the feeling of anxiety when we are about to write an exam or face an important interview. In such cases, anxiety can even make you focus and stay alert. Anxiety can be experienced because of many reasons. It can be situational, stress-related, socially induced, or due to seasons of grief or loss.

Remember the time a dog started barking at you and you got scared? It made your heart race, blood pump faster, breathing became difficult, and your palms began to sweat. Anxiety induces a similar response from our body. It is our body’s way of saying that something needs attention.

Sometimes we confuse fear and anxiety because our emotional responses are the same for both. Fear has to do with something in the immediate while anxiety has to do with something in the future. Fear caused by a chasing dog is an immediate threat while the general fear of dogs is an imagined threat. The latter has to do with anxiety. 

The response to an exam you have not prepared well is fear. But if you tell yourself that if you do not do well in the exam, you will never find a good job, no one will marry you, and you will become a failure in life, that kind of fearful response is anxiety. We are projecting our fears into an unknown future and start making conclusions in the present based on it.

When I opened up about my struggle with the church, my fear was that I will appear weak. On the contrary, I received compassion and comfort.

All these feelings consumed my heart at 3 a.m. that morning. It has been a couple of years since this experience and I have learned much during this time, being well aware that I am emotionally vulnerable. I have a better understanding of the causes of my anxiety and how to respond to it early. This experience taught me to be more understanding of the anxiety of others and to take a posture of empathy.

Navigating Your Way Through Anxiety

Letting Others Into Your Struggle

I messaged three people at 3 a.m. that morning asking them to pray for me. One of them called me right away. I kept telling him over the call, “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” I wept uncontrollably. I was afraid. But he listened and prayed for me and helped me process what was happening without judgement.

My trusted friends were with my wife and me as we navigated our way through this season of anxiety. There were several nights when our dear friends would just sit in our living room, giving us company and space to vent our feelings.

When I opened up about my struggle with the church, my fear was that I will appear weak. On the contrary, I received compassion and comfort. Sometimes all you need is someone with whom you can share your struggle. Letting others into our struggle is God’s method to provide help and comfort to us in our time of need.

Stepping Away From Social Media

One quick decision I made was to step away from social media for almost a year so my heart is not distracted and preoccupied with the world. Since then I have taken periodic breaks from social media and used it in a disciplined way. I have realised the community that social media offers are merely a shadow of what is real and biblical.

Though I was surrounded by “likes,” it only heightened my loneliness. Stepping away from social media, I discovered that my world did not come to an end. Life without social media is possible. The break was genuinely helpful.

Meditating on Scripture

This seems like a basic discipline but one thing I realised during my anxiety was that though I was studying and reading Scripture, I was not internalising God’s word. It was mechanical, not personal. So I decided to slow down, read, and meditate on Scripture.

I used the prayers of Puritans to guide my heart in prayer. The use of liturgy helped me confess and praise God. I used one sentence of meditative prayers from Scripture. In all this, I was learning to lament and bring my sadness before God.

I began to look deeper into my heart, look farther into my past, to the effects of my family of origin, and constantly look up to Christ as my true Saviour.

My private worship discipline needed a reset. As I looked to Christ and the cross, my heart moved from focusing inward to focusing on who I am in Christ and what he has done for me. Being preoccupied with myself leads to anxiety while meditating on Scripture is being preoccupied with Christ and it leads to gratitude and a sense of wonder.

Seeking Professional Counselling When Needed

Anxiety is a surface feeling that has deeper roots. I wanted to know what these roots were to deal with the source and not just the symptoms. I knew I needed some focused help. My wife and I started counselling sessions. It gave my wife a chance to hear my struggles and gain insight into our relationship. Through counselling, our marriage was strengthened and I gained insight into my heart’s idols—things I valued more than Jesus. I began to look deeper into my heart, look farther into my past, to the effects of my family of origin, and constantly look up to Christ as my true Saviour.

The Non-Anxious Christian

As I looked to Christ through my struggles with anxiety, I felt the power of the gospel in a new way. Particularly the experience of Jesus in Matthew 26 as he was facing death on the cross.

Jesus is overwhelmed with sorrow and pain as the weight of God’s wrath descended upon him. He is pleading with God the Father who seems distant from Jesus’s cries because of our sin. His anguish made him shed blood, sweat, and tears. His sweat seemed like blood. It almost seems like Jesus is battling feelings of anxiety of infinite proportion, yet without sin. It moved my heart to see Jesus repeatedly asking his close friends to sit with him.

As he walks down this dark and lonely path, Jesus longs for his friends to be around him. And yet, we find his close friends sleeping while he is in great agony. He weeps alone. He feels forsaken. It began to dawn on me that Jesus completely understands my struggle. With compassion, he empathises with me because he has felt what I was feeling.

Jesus faced the ultimate battle alone so that I do not have to be alone in my personal battles. He found his friends sleeping but we have a friend in Jesus who is ever-present, interceding for us. In Christ, I can be weak so that he can become my strength. Oh, what a Savior!

One song that became a personal anthem since then was “Yet not I but through Christ in me” by CityAlight. The following lyrics are true for me and for anyone who struggles with 3 a.m. anxiety.

“The night is dark but I am not forsaken
For by my side, the Saviour he will stay
I labour on in weakness and rejoicing
For in my need, his power is displayed.”