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What It Feels Like to Be an Anxious Churchgoer

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I grew up going to church multiple times a week and it was one of my favorite things to do. Now I still love church, but it’s one of the places where I feel anxiety the most. It’s a strange thing though because my anxiety usually rears its ugly head in situations that are new to me and make me very uncomfortable, but I’ve been in churches all my life.

To some degree, it doesn’t make sense that it is affecting me here, but once again, this is what happens when you have an anxiety disorder. You’re not sure when anxiety is going to creep up and suddenly there you are, sitting in a church pew trying to fight off a panic attack. I want church to be like it was when I was a kid and anxiety-free, but lately that doesn’t seem like it is ever going to happen.

The two things about church that cause me the most anxiety are the activities in church and the people. I would like to say these things make going to church easier for me, but unfortunately it’s the exact opposite.

The many activities that go on during a church service can bring a lot of joy, but they tend to stress me out. From the beginning of the service when I walk in the church and go to sit down, I feel so anxious that my heart starts racing and my hands shake. My mind always worries about where I am going to sit even though I usually sit in the same place every Sunday. What if someone is sitting where I usually sit? What if I get trapped and can’t get out of the pew? Yes, this is a legitimate fear of mine. I fear I will be trapped somewhere, so I try to sit in the back of the church at the end of a pew in case I have to make a quick escape, even though I never do.

I get anxious when it comes to singing in church because I think everyone around me is judging how I sing. I don’t think I have a bad voice, but for me, social anxiety is feeling like everyone is talking about or judging me.

My least favorite part of church is always the sharing of the peace. If you don’t know what that is, it’s where everyone gets up and shakes hand or hug to share the peace of Christ and say hello. It can last anywhere from five to 15 minutes and it feels like the longest couple of minutes in my life. I’m not a fan of hugs or handshakes and I always find it hard to greet people — even people I have known for a long time. I have to psych myself up for it and it takes a lot of energy out of me.

When communion time comes around, I’m still just as nervous and on edge. It’s hard for me to walk up to the altar in front of the whole church even though everyone else is also doing it. I’m always really concerned about what I’m wearing and what everyone thinks of me. I try to pray during that time or focus on something else, but it takes everything in me to breathe while walking up there.

Like I mentioned, the second thing causing me anxiety at church is the people. Pretty much all the people I have ever gone to church with are wonderful and not judgmental, but for some reason they make me restless. Maybe it’s the fact I see them every week, but I always feel like I have to be the “perfect Christian girl” around them. I’m not talking about just one church body in particular either. I have 24 years of experience with this in different churches in different parts of the country. I feel I have to put on a front with church people and not show I’m anxious or nervous to be around them.

You may wonder why even go to church if it’s so hard for me. The answer is pretty simple. It’s because I love God and He loves me. I wouldn’t go if I didn’t believe. It’s what keeps me coming back. Even when I feel anxious at church, I also feel God’s presence and this is enough for me to keep going. He accepts me as I am, anxious mind and all. Because after all, He made me. I just wish people at church could also see not everyone is comfortable at church and try to be more loving towards people who are struggling.

I also think mental health should be talked about more amongst church goers because having anxiety or depression or any other mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Church will probably never be an easy experience for me, but I will continue to be there every Sunday because anxiety will not win this fight. So that’s where you’ll find me. Sitting in a church pew praying with an anxious mind and an open heart.

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Thinkstock photo via northwoodsphoto.

Originally published: March 15, 2017
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