At age 24 I suffered a nervous breakdown.

At the time I was serving full-time as minister of a church. Simultaneously I was taking 19 college hours and conducting evangelistic campaigns. Conscientious, determined, and energetic, I drove myself into the ground.

Everyone felt sorry for me --- my wife, my congregation, my doctor. But believe me, no one felt as sorry as I felt for myself. I was miserable. Finally the doctor ordered me to get away for several weeks of rest and diversion --- a break that my church graciously made possible.

During those weeks of convalescence I arrived at a liberating conclusion. I came to understand that my condition did not arise from any mental or physical disorder. Nor was it the result of my heavy workload. The problem lay in my attitude. I'd been doing something wrong. I'd been worrying.

With gratitude to God, I can say that since the fall of 1948 I have not lost five minutes' sleep over any problem, difficulty, tension, or adverse circumstance. I've faced the same challenges in life as any other person. Probably more. But nothing makes me anxious. In a matter of a few days I learned to win over worry. That lesson has lasted me a lifetime.

Worry is the number 1 disorder

Worry is eating the vitality of America. Anxiety disorders --- more serious mental problems that spring out of worry --- are the nation's most common psychiatric condition. About 25 million Americans experience anxiety disorders. The risk of developing an anxiety disorder is about 25 percent—and double that if you're a woman.

According to the National Mental Health Association, anxiety disorders cost the United States an astonishing $46.6 billion each year --- nearly one-third of the nation's total mental health bill. Thanks to worry and related mental problems, the U.S. economy loses an estimated $79 billion every year in lost productivity. Globally, according to the World Health Organization, mental disorders in the developed world account for more than 15 percent of the economic burden of disease.

Not every mental disorder has a simple solution. On the other hand, it's striking how often serious mental illness has its roots in everyday stress situations. It's also striking how much worry and unhappiness these same situations cause to people who do not think of themselves as mentally ill.

Life throws worries at us from every direction:
  1. Growing up is worrying. Growing up is hard enough by itself --- with Worries ranging from imagined bears in the bedroom to terrifying bullies at school. Increases in divorce and single parenting have only increased the stress. A1996 study by MECA (Methodology for Epidemiology of Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents) estimated that almost 21 percent of U.S. children ages 9 to 17 had a clear mental or addictive disorder. The Center for Mental Health Services reports that "at any given time, as many as one in every 33 children may have clinical depression. The rate of depression among adolescents may be as high as one in eight."

  2. Work is worrying. Worries at work plague many people. Most people have worries at work. Some professions have achieved notoriety for producing stress. Air-traffic controllers have more stomach ulcers than any other professionals. Company directors suffer the highest incidence of death from heart disease, duodenal ulcers, suicide, and strokes. Other high-stress occupations include commodity brokers, emergency services, local government, social services, all kinds of shift work, sales and marketing, teaching, tele-sales, and medical care. As one leading medical doctor put it, "Business people who don't know how to fight worry die young."

  3. Being a woman is worrying. A recent national survey of 1,044 American women showed that 56 percent reported experiencing anxiety symptoms and worry for a period of more than six months. More than one in four of the women reported muscle aches and pains, muscle tension, irritability, and being easily fatigued. One in five said they have trouble sleeping at night because they "worry about things." Twenty-nine percent reported that worry and anxiety symptoms caused trouble in their relationships with their spouse, friends, parents, or co-workers.

  4. Having a home and family is worrying. All kinds of domestic responsibilities bring stress. Parents routinely worry about children experimenting with drugs or getting into bad company. And domestic worry seems to be getting worse. In 1999, 6 in 10 Americans said they worried more about the safety of children than they had a year before. Within this group, 37 percent (74 million adults) said they worried "a lot more." One in eight Americans (about 26 million people) felt more fearful of walking in their neighborhoods than they had a year earlier.

  5. Past experiences are worrying. People commonly look back on some past event and worry about it. Something they could have said better. Something they wish they hadn't done. In addition, America seems to be seeing a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nineteen years after combat exposure, 15 percent of Vietnam veterans were found to be suffering from PTSD—a figure that may rise as they get older.

  6. Getting older is worrying. Older people easily turn into worriers. They feel less in control, and more uncertain about the future. Studies show that in any one year over 11 percent of those age 55 and over will suffer some form of anxiety disorder, including phobias and feelings of panic. More general feelings of worry are reported in up to 17 percent of older men and 21 percent of older women.

Like smoking, worry attacks your health

A friend in the ministry, Eddie Lieberman, once had to help a young woman who'd become paralyzed. He went to see her. She told him she was sick, that she didn't love her husband anymore (he was overseas in the Armed Forces at the time), and that she wanted a divorce. Her physical state was deteriorating badly.

Eddie Lieberman had trained in psychology, and his instincts as a psychologist told him something was drastically wrong with this girl. He requested permission to admit her to Duke University Hospital. There the true story came out.

Her problems had begun with a letter from her husband. He said he'd fallen in love with another girl. It was he, not she, who wanted to initiate divorce proceedings. Her severe, untreated anxiety had produced the physical symptoms of paralysis.

Eddie Lieberman tried to help her, but she was so deeply mired in the breakdown of her marriage that she had no will to be helped. She should have been a lively, vivacious woman in her mid-thirties. Instead she was a morose paralytic bound for a premature grave. The culprit: worry.

Research has long shown the link between worry and ill health. The April 1998 Harvard Mental Health Letter says that "research on the relationship between health and emotion indicates that stress affects the body at the cellular level in ways that increase risk of disease. Stress is linked to heart disease and hypertension and may play a role in cancer."

Susan Barr and Jerilynn Prior of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, recently questioned 51 healthy pre-teen girls about weight worries. They also measured the mineral content of the girls' bones using low-dose X-rays. They were surprised to find that worry about weight linked directly to bone density. The more worried the girl, the more likely it was that her bone density would be low—putting her at a significantly higher risk of osteoporosis.

Where to find the answer to worry

Modern psychiatry has studied anxiety for over 100 years. But it has not, on the whole, found any reliable treatment for it. When I needed answers to anxiety, therefore, I did not look to the medical profession. I went to the New Testament. In the Bible you find a completely different analysis of worry—and a completely different solution to it.

New Testament Greek scholars correctly translate the Greek verb "to worry" with the words, "to take thought," "to be anxious," and "to be careful." That Greek verb—mer-imnao—fuses two other words—merizo, meaning "to divide," and nous, meaning "mind" (a term which includes the faculties of perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and determining).

In the thinking of the New Testament, then, worry implies "a divided mind." There is no unity of thought or action. Part of you tugs in one direction; another part of you strains to move in another direction. You are like a trailer with a car pulling from each end. No wonder the apostle James concludes, "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways" (James 1:8).

When you worry, you express a conflict of purpose. Consequently you become unstable. James goes further. He says you become unstable in all your ways. Every part of your mind—that part of you that is supposed to coordinate your being and keep you "together"—is in danger of becoming unstable. You become unstable in your emotions. Unstable in your thought processes. Unstable in your decisions. Unstable in your judgments.

• Worry divides your FEELINGS— causing your emotions to become uneven and volatile.

• Worry divides your UNDERSTANDING --- making your convictions lose their grounding, sapping you of confidence.

• Worry divides your PERCEPTION --- meaning you are distracted and often fail to see the whole situation confronting you.

• Worry divides your JUDGMENT --- making your decisions ill-informed and unreliable.

• Worry divides your WILL --- producing lethargy and dulling your ability to pursue your goals with determination.

Worry causes heartbreak, failure, misunderstanding, suspicion, and much unhappiness. And left long enough, this division of the mind can be so severe that you can no longer muster the energy to struggle against your problems. Then your mind will do something computers sometimes do—crash. The system gets overloaded. There's no room left to sort anything out. So it freezes. It shuts down. You go through a nervous breakdown or develop symptoms of a severer mental disorder.

The divided mind is the source of the problem

Look at the kinds of personal problems that cause people to worry. It's not long before you can see the divided mind behind it.

For example, marital breakdown directly expresses the loss of "single-minded" devotion to a relationship. The husband's affections may become divided between his wife and another woman. It may be that the wife's loyalty is divided between her husband and her mother. A parent's will and attention can be divided between responsibilities to children and responsibilities to the spouse. A wage earner may divide his --- or her --- mind between the needs of family and the driving ambition to succeed in a career.

The divided mind can afflict children. Who can determine the percentage of school failures caused by a divided mind? I grew up in a preacher's home, and I know how intense the pressures can be. If you are a "model child," you get held up by other parents as a pattern for their own kids to emulate—with the result that your friends detest you. On the other hand, if you give in to your natural bent for mischief, you win the respect of your friends --- but the wrath of your parents.

I have a brother who was so sensitive about being a preacher's son that he deliberately made poor grades so his friends wouldn't think of him as a "goody-goody." He had an excellent mind --- a fact later proved by his collegiate scholastic records. In the end he graduated with honors in electrical engineering at one of the nation's leading universities. In 1971, he was given the L. A. Hyland award for scientific achievement. He led the group that produced and launched Syncom Satellite. Much of the work done to produce the detection and communications components of the AWACS planes took place in his department under his leadership. But during high school, he let worry ruin his performance.

In many cases the outcomes reveal far greater damage. Barely a day goes by when we don't hear about children failing at school because their minds are on discord at home. Neglect distracts them. Sometimes they are actually forced to choose between parents. Consequently they soon feel unwanted, and express this by creating havoc at school. They are seeking the attention and affection their family denies them.

Or look at the business world. Only the Lord knows how many businesses have been torpedoed by the divided mind. In the late 1920s, an uneducated European immigrant opened a hot-dog stand. His business grew. He expanded. Soon he owned a chain of stands. His income oared at a time when unemployment hit 25 percent. He sent his son to the university where he graduated with a major in Business Administration. The father proudly brought him into the business.

The son said, "You know, Dad, there's a depression on. Business is bad everywhere. Many businesses have gone into bankruptcy. We must be careful. Let's cut down our inventory, reduce our advertising budget, lay off some of the help, and tighten our belts."

Against his better judgment, the father listened to his "learned" son and followed the advice. Yes, you've guessed it. The son succeeded in dividing his father's mind between the principles of success that had made him wealthy during the Great Depression and the possibility of bankruptcy. Soon their business folded. Worse yet, depressed by the financial reverses, the father lost his sparkle, his "drive," his optimistic outlook, and began to deteriorate physically.

One of the most bitter and cynical men I have ever known was a man loaded with talent. He had more ability than any six of his peers. He could have been a leading cartoonist, a top-notch photographer, a highly paid after-dinner speaker, a humorist, a prosperous realtor, a topflight hotel executive, or a celebrated writer. But he failed to achieve any worthwhile accomplishment or even earn a decent living. He became an embarrassment to family and friends.

He saw men without a fraction of his ability soar to the heights of success while he groveled in the "Slough of Despond." Those who knew him and loved him knew the reason: a divided mind. He never came to the point of determining what he was going to do. He could not say with Paul the apostle, "This one thing I do." He would never throw all of his energies into a single project. He aimed at nothing, hit a bull's-eye, and then brooded over the result.

What a waste. He became critical of others who did achieve. He would rationalize his failure and deal out misery to his associates. Worry, born of indecision, stripped him of his influence, and soon his health.

So what are you going to do about it?

The refrain of a famous blues number tells us:

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.
I'm worried now—but I won't be worried long.

Well, that's a pious hope. Worry is endemic. It infiltrates businesses and brings them crashing down. It roars through homes like a tornado, leaving in its wake smashed family relationships — bitter and frustrated parents, and insecure, emotionally damaged children. It drives some to spend fortunes on psychotherapy and others into psychiatric care. In America, at least, worry has virtually become part of the national culture. You could write on countless gravestones in nations all over the world this epitaph:


Everyone would like to say, "I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long." But what's going to change? One definition of insanity is, "Expecting a different result while doing the same thing."

Problems don't go away. It's naive to think that the world around you will suddenly resolve into serene bliss. It's equally naive to think that a new job or a new relationship will lift you safely above your troubles. They won't. If you're worried now, I can guarantee you that you'll be worried in five or ten years' time—even if you've won the lottery or married a world-class celebrity. At best all you'll do is swap one set of problems for another.

I know from my own experience that there is one, and only one, sure solution to worry. God delineates the solution in the Bible. I'll start to unpack it in chapter 3. First of all, though, let's see why other remedies for worry simply don't work.