When someone is diagnosed with clinical anxiety, it’s often after they’ve suffered for months or years – often without really noticing it, or knowing what it was.
That was the case for Paul Grimmond, now the Dean of Students and a theology lecturer at Sydney’s Moore Theological College. He first experienced panic attacks as a teenager, then again in his 20s as a Bible college student. Speaking to Hope 103.2, he said it took some time to understand what was happening to him, describing episodes that were quite simply “terrifying”.
“It started with ‘ice-pick’ pains in my head, which led to fears about my health, accompanied by feeling dizzy and nauseous,” he said. “I ended up in casualty many times. Then when I was in third year of college I had a full blown panic attack, with symptoms similar to a heart attack – constricted bands of pain across my chest and in my arms, pins and needles in my hands. My friends called an ambulance and I went into casualty. Two days later, I had another attack which involved involuntary muscle spasms, my limbs flying into the air.
“They ran every test known to man and there was nothing wrong with me. In the end it turned out I had what’s called a conversion disorder, which is where anxiety leads to an actual bodily expression. I had six months of counselling and that helped me to get back to functioning.”
Too Much, Too Young: Burning Out in Ministry
Paul’s next bout of anxiety was in his mid-30s: a classic case of burnout, working in a ministry role that he now knows was “way over his head”.
Only two years out of Bible College, he was placed in charge of the Campus Bible Study ministry at the University of NSW – overseeing eight staff, 25 ministry trainees, five campus churches, and 500 students. On top of that, he was a husband, a dad—and his father-in-law was dying.
“It was a very senior role with a lot of pressure that turned into depressive episodes,” he recalls.
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“I started getting symptoms like waking up at 4am with my mind racing, other times I’d end up curled up on the floor not wanting to get up.”
He ended up taking more than a year out from ministry work to recover.
Offering Hope to Others
Now, years later, although Paul still deals with some anxiety, he also has tools under his belt to handle it – and a passion to help others who struggle in similar ways.
On Thursday, April 4 (2019) he’ll co-present a webinar titled, ‘How Should Christians Deal with Anxiety?’ along with Dr Carolyn Russell, a Brisbane-based counsellor and Christian GP. Hosted by The Gospel Coalition, the webinar will address anxiety from both a theological and a medical perspective.
If I’m Anxious, Have I Failed as a Christian?
Sadly, Paul’s experience of anxiety is not an uncommon one. For starters, pastoral care workers are at a higher risk of burnout, because of the draining nature of their work – so much so that Moore College now teaches students about emotional awareness, to try and help prevent burnout from occurring.
But it’s not just pastors who struggle; everyday Christians suffer from anxiety too, just like the rest of the population (1 in 4 Australians). And yet many Christians struggle to come to terms with it, because of a belief that it is somehow a failure, or even sinful, says Paul.
“When a person has anxiety, just telling the person to not be anxious isn’t helpful…you need a more Biblical foundation.”
This can come from an oversimplification of Bible verses like Philippians 4:6-7, which says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
A simplistic, out-of-context reading of this verse, can lead some Christians with anxiety to feel like they’ve failed – because they’ve done all the praying, petitioning and thanking under the sun, yet they still don’t have peace. Paul is keen to help people let go of the unnecessary guilt.
“When a person has anxiety, just telling the person to not be anxious isn’t helpful,” he said. “You need a more Biblical foundation.”
He believes the Bible and the gospel message in fact offer great compassion and hope for those suffering. In the TGC webinar he’ll cover theological issues such as God’s grace, and the place of anxiety in a fallen world.
“The webinar is for people struggling with anxiety, as well as people in ministry, and anybody with friends or family members who wants to understand more clearly about the condition,” he said.
Paul also encourages people of faith that seeking professional answers, such as counselling and medication, is not in opposition with their beliefs. In fact he believes medication is “God’s gracious provision”, and helps many people to get the physical relief they need to work on the cognitive solutions.
Find Out More
- The Gospel Coalition’s webinar, “How Should Christians Deal With Anxiety?” is on Thursday, April 4, from 8pm to 9:30pm AEDT. Tickets are $12. Register here to attend.
- Read more of Paul Grimmond’s thoughts about anxiety and faith on his blog post, “Don’t be anxious about anything! Is that all God’s got to say?”
If you’re struggling or need someone to talk to, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.