Has Anxiety Become the Latest “Cool” Thing?

    It’s no secret that in the four years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, rates of anxiety have skyrocketed, particularly among young people. However, along with that has come an accompanying trend that’s not so quantifiable with surveys and statistics, but is no less concerning: anxiety has become “cool” and even expected among teens. 

    Rather than a medical problem to be overcome or a sin problem to be put to death, anxiety seems to have become so common that it’s now a trend to take part in. In truth, anxiety is a real problem, but we must not glorify it. We must see it for what it is and put it to death.

    A Real Problem

    Before I go any further, I want to be clear about a few things. First, I recognize the difference between clinically diagnosed anxiety and less severe self-diagnosed anxiety. I believe the epidemic we’re seeing right now is chiefly of the second type, though clinical anxiety has risen steadily as well. 

    Many conversations I hear about anxiety fit the category of a self-diagnosed problem, rather than a medically-diagnosed condition. It’s primarily about this more common (though often still crippling) type of anxiety to which I will refer in this article. My aim is not to approach this real problem with a “just stop it!” kind of attitude. I don’t believe that’s helpful at all. Instead, let’s reach for the real hope offered by Scripture.

    Second, I recognize that open discussions about a personal problem are good. I’m not suggesting that we just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and pretend that we’re not struggling. The fact that conversations are happening is not the problem. Openness and vulnerability are a great thing! The problem comes in how we talk about it. 

    Finally, a single blog article will not answer all your questions. It cannot replace a biblical counselor or an entire book on the subject.1 So, if you get to the end and feel that you’ve got more questions than answers, don’t be surprised. My goal today is not to supply every answer, but rather to discuss the unfortunate trend of glorifying anxiety. 

    Another Real Problem

    Anxiety is real. And it’s a problem. It was not meant to be a part of God’s good creation. Paul connects the two in Romans 8 as he gives hope of freedom from fear granted to those who have been made alive by the Spirit of God: 

    For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15)

    Just a few verses later, Paul talks about the groaning of creation under the curse of sin: 

    For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. (Romans 8:22)

    Anxiety—enslavement to fear—is part of the “labor pains” all of God’s creation suffers as a result of sin’s presence in the world. In short, it’s not a good thing.

    So why has it become so cool? 

    I recently overheard a group of middle school and high school students talking about social situations in which they felt anxious. From the counter at Starbucks to answering a difficult question in class to ordering at a restaurant, they took turns revealing their own anxiety-inducing circumstances. But that wasn’t the problem—not exactly. After all, we all have those situations where we don’t know what to say and we feel awkward. The fear of man is common to us all. 

    The problem was the way in which these students were discussing the issue. It was almost like a bragging session. The concept of anxiety as a sin issue never seemed to cross their minds. 

    I use the term anxiety here because it’s the modern parlance and the way the students were categorizing how they feel. However, Scripture calls it something else: fear of man. Simply put, much of the “anxiety” teens are grappling with today—at least in my experience—is a manifestation of making people big and God small (as Ed Welch would put it). And I say this as a chronic and severe man-fearer. 

    Proverbs warns that this type of fear brings a “snare,” a deceptive trap that we don’t see coming (Prov. 29:25). Our kids, grandkids, students, and younger brothers and sisters in Christ are caught in a trap, but they don’t realize it. Instead, they’re wearing it proudly as a badge of honor, dropping it into their conversations as if it increases their credibility among the in-crowd.

    Friends, we must not glorify this sin. We must recognize it for the snare that it is so that we can help those who have been trapped by it and avoid the trap ourselves. 

    A Real Solution

    So, this type of anxiety is a problem. And so is glorifying it. But what about a solution? What can we do? 

    First, let’s call it what it is. If Scripture calls it fear of man, so should we. A crippling paralysis of fear in the presence of other people because of a perceived threat that they somehow wield—that’s a textbook definition of “fear of man.” So, start there. Start by giving it the same name God does. 

    Though Scripture also addresses anxiety (worry), our modern use of the word anxiety almost alwayshas a clinical connotation—which leads us to believe that it’s never our fault. That there’s nothing to be done. While clinical anxiety is a real condition and is a physiological reality, that doesn’t mean it has no spiritual component. But most of the time what we’re talking about isn’t even that. It’s just plain old, garden-variety fear of man. Call it that.

    Next, repent. Don’t glorify the fear of man. Repent of it. At its core, this sin is idolatry. Attributing to humans divine power and fearing them more than the true and living God is nothing less than idolatry. So bring your sin to God and seek His forgiveness. Call it what He calls it and ask Him for help to hate it as He hates it. 

    A third step to take is to overwhelm yourself with who God is. Admittedly this is a lifelong endeavor. You won’t be able to master it in an afternoon or a weekend getaway (though some concentrated time like that could certainly help you on your way). But if, as Dr. Welch says, the heart of the problem in the fear of man is that our view of God is too small, we must start recognizing Him for just how big He is. 

    Read Scripture while simply looking for God’s character. No matter where you’re reading on a given day, look for the attributes of God. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to His infinite splendor and glory. If you want to be blown away by God, read the last five chapters of Job or Isaiah 40. Or, go for a walk and allow yourself to really look at the world around you. Consider God’s creation. Watch a documentary on an aspect of God’s creation—space, the human body, the water cycle, sharks. The topic really doesn’t matter. By the end you will stand in awe of the majesty and intricacy of His sovereign design. Next, tell someone about it. 

    Finally, look for ways to love others. Instead of elevating them and giving them a god-like position in your life, take them down and find ways to demonstrate gospel love to them. Pray for the person you fear. Pray for opportunities to share the gospel or to be Christ’s hands and feet to them. Ask a neighbor over for dinner. If motives are a problem (as they so often are), perhaps look for a way to show them kindness anonymously. 

    The point is we need to fear God and love people.

    Sound hard? Take hope in the gospel. Look again at Romans 8:15: 

    For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15)

    Because we have been made sons and daughters of God, we need not remain enslaved or ensnared to fear. We have access to the Father, to the throne of the King where we will find grace and receive mercy to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). 

    Don’t fall into the trap of glorifying anxiety. Kill it instead.

    For more on fear, anxiety, and emotions, check out the Revive Our Hearts resource library and let the tools you find there refocus your thoughts on Him. 

    1 While I’m talking about books, I might as well give a plug for the best book I know of on the topic of the fear of man: When People Are Big and God Is Small by Ed Welch. If you’ve read it, you’ll recognize the influence Welch’s work has had on my thoughts.

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