How to Write Characters Who Struggle with Anxiety

December 11, 2023

Anxiety has become increasingly common with all of the turmoil in the world today, affecting a wide variety of people regardless of age, gender, or lifestyle. Since identifying the problems readers are facing is essential to creating relatable characters, anxiety needs to be represented in fiction—and Christian authors have a unique ability to provide comfort.


But how? If you’ve never experienced anxiety personally, how do you accurately portray the negative thoughts and emotions it stirs up? And if you know the battle because you’re in it daily, how do you balance the severity of a character’s suffering with the hope believers have in Christ? The answers begin with understanding the clinical traits of this mental illness.


The Definition: What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is not the sporadic worry every human being feels over the course of an average month. If that’s how you treat it in your story, readers will disengage. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Secondary disorders include depression, the crippling of a person’s spirit to the point that they lose all motivation and purpose.


Learning how triggers work is another critical part of the process. Triggers usually originate from trauma and can be anything that provokes or worsens symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate and an overwhelming sense of danger. If a child’s father abused her during fits of rage, as an adult, expressions of anger will remind her of pain. While others may shrug off an outburst, this woman cannot. Her mind and body will reflexively activate self-defense mode, whether that means retaliating or retreating.


The challenge of depicting anxiety is that it can manifest in countless ways: panic attacks, insecurity, people pleasing, and losing touch with reality. No singular formula, memory, or tic can typify it. Although you might be able to pinpoint a few similarities between cases, every individual will be different because of personality and background.


The Theory: A Biblical View of Anxiety

Once you’ve researched the physical aspects of anxiety, you can explore the spiritual side. If you hope to help readers cope and seek healing, you can’t water down the situation nor the solution, so focus on exemplifying three truths.


1. Anxiety Is a Result of the Fall

Be careful not to misinterpret that statement. Anxiety is not a punishment for sin, but it is a widespread consequence of it. No person chooses or incurs anxiety, and you must make this clear through how your characters display and discuss the condition. Because the world is broken and constantly groaning to regain wholeness (Romans 8:22), disasters happen and people hurt each other, which leaves scars that lead to anxiety.


2. Anxiety Is Ongoing

Although prayer and therapy can offer relief, not even the transformation from sinner to saved by grace will immediately cure anxiety. Some people are blessed with healing. Others, however, will continue to bear the burden, perhaps for their entire lives. Charles Spurgeon, the renowned preacher of the 1800s, is a testimony of that. To the shock of many, he spoke liberally about his bouts of anxiety and depression because he knew that members of his congregation were suffering too. Spurgeon’s Sorrows by Zack Eswine highlights his profoundest teachings on the subject and is an exceptional resource for anyone who has questions about how Christians should approach mental illness.


Like the thorn that the Apostle Paul begged God to take away, victory doesn’t come from the removal of a trial but from enduring it through faith-given strength. Anxiety usually needs to be defeated again and again, and characters who keep trying (especially after they’ve failed!) will inspire readers.


3. Anxiety Is Subject to God’s Sovereignty

Nature walks and breathing exercises can make anxiety more manageable, but no distraction or activity can combat dark flashbacks and fears. Only a relationship with Christ has that power. Salvation isn’t an insta-remedy—it’s a balm infused with God’s promises for the future. One day He will destroy all evil and wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4). In the interim, he hears His children’s cries (1 John 5:15), and fellowship with other believers serves as a conduit for receiving His love on earth (1 Corinthians 12). Regardless of your genre and plot, your anxiety-ridden character must find peace within her ordeal or you’ll be casting a false reflection.


The Practice: Writing Anxious Characters Authentically

Now that you’ve equipped yourself for the task ahead, you can move on to the application. Anxious characters are comprised of three components (all of which I touched on above) that you’ll need to flesh out before and during your story.


1. Triggers and Trauma

For a character to be realistic, her behavioral patterns must be consistent and traceable to an underlying why. Although her anxiety may not cause her to react the same way in every circumstance, it will cause her to react for the same reason. What ghosts are haunting her and whispering lies? When are they most likely to emerge? Her response to stress can and should change as she grows. The trigger, however, should never fluctuate, because it’s rooted in the past.


2. Coping Mechanisms

Most individuals with anxiety are aware of it and have developed strategies to mitigate it. When a character keeps resorting to a particular habit, readers will more quickly recognize her struggle and empathize with her. For example, the onset of a panic attack might prompt a character to ground herself, which involves fixating on small, concrete details like the colors in a painting or the texture of fabric. Alternatively, maybe she’ll recite a favorite poem or clutch an item that has sentimental value. Whatever action she takes (and whether she succeeds or not), it will demonstrate that she’s fighting and encourage readers.


3. The Path to Triumph

For a character who is dealing with anxiety, the conclusion of her inner journey will be as significant as the final scene of the climax. She needs to progress through stages. At the beginning of the story, she’ll be conscious of her anxiety but unsure how to conquer it. By the midpoint, she may have started using coping mechanisms and met new friends who are offering her support. And in the end, she’ll have gained perseverance. If the story directly mentions or alludes to a God-figure, He’ll be the rock she leans on. And if it doesn’t, her stamina will need to come from an external source that represents truth or goodness.


Writing with Compassion

Whether anxiety plays into the plot, accentuates the theme, or humanizes a character, it must serve a purpose and be handled with care. Oftentimes, authors become disconnected from how serious their content is in reality compared to their stories. But your responsibility as a Christian writer is to communicate with a tone of gentleness and grace, like Jesus did when healing the sick and speaking to sinners. The goal is not to condemn or judge readers but to show them they’re not alone. If you can shed even a single ray of light, then you’ve accomplished what you were designed for.


  1. E. C.

    This article has been helpful, but I do have a question. I have a character who is anxious and worries a lot, in fact it plays a big role in her character arc and the theme of the whole story, which is trusting God in the dark. But her anxiety isn’t caused by something in her past, so she doesn’t exactly have triggers. She’s just naturally a worrier. I’ve been struggling with portraying her accurately though, since I’m not really like her. Do you have any tips on how I can better write her character and portray her worries and anxiety realistically?

    • Joshua Barrera

      Hey E. C.! Thanks for your comment and thoughtful question! It’s a good one, and I’ll try to be brief in my response.

      Firstly, I love the theme for your story. It is an increasingly important message that we as Christians can be providing to others, the hope and comfort and peace that we have in Christ despite our struggles.

      Secondly, this article was really geared a bit more towards clinical anxiety (in other words, there is something going on in a person’s body/brain that affects their ability to process stressful situations). If your character is dealing with worry only, then we are talking about slightly different things.

      Thirdly, my biggest recommendation for you would be to dig deep into your protagonist’s past if you haven’t already. People don’t tend to worry for no reason. In MOST cases, something about their past or childhood influenced them in such a way that worry becomes their norm. It doesn’t have to be a traumatic instance or even anything abusive. For example, it could be that your protagonist’s father was anxious and worried while she was growing up. Perhaps he had a traumatic experience. As a result, he as a parent worries about everything – is their home safe, does his family have enough food, what if he fails to provide, or what if he becomes as cruel as his own parents. He worries constantly.

      Your protagonist, since she was a little child, grows up with a parent who was always worrying. Kids learn and adopt lifestyles and beliefs of their parents despite how hard a parent may try to shield them from it. Perhaps she bore the anxiety of her parents. Or maybe her parents were never outright abusive, but instead made remarks to her growing up that shattered her confidence. Destroying the confidence and security of a child, whether it be intentional or not, can have drastic results – like anxiety.

      That was a long explanation to say: your protagonist needs to have a reason that she struggles with worry and anxiety. Maybe she doesn’t know what’s causing it at the beginning of the story. But the path to healing includes identifying the root cause. Did she feel safe as a child? Did her parents always worry? Why is she so anxious? Why?

      I’m sorry for the lengthy response! I hope this is at least a little helpful! Good luck in your writing, and don’t give up!

    • E. C.

      Thank you so much!! (: I’ll definitely be thinking through that as I develop her more.

  2. Owen H

    If the events of the story are going to spark trauma in a later story, how would those symptoms begin to form now?


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