“Don’t worry. Be happy!” It’s not that easy! I know. I used to be plagued with anxiety and I’ve been helping anxious people since 1987.
Perhaps you struggle with anxiety or worry. If so then even at night maybe you can’t seem to slow down and relax. Your mind just won’t let you rest. Why did I say that to him? …What will they think about me? …How am I going to pay my bills? …I have to get over this and be stronger.
You don’t have to live with worry like this! You can learn how to trust God to calm your anxious mind.
Many years ago as a young adult I read in the Bible, “Do not be anxious about anything” and immediately I felt more anxious! I thought, What’s the matter with me? I shouldn’t be so anxious all the time. I must not be a good Christian! Maybe you’ve struggled with thoughts like this.
Later, I realized that I had committed what I’ve come to call a “Biblical blunder that bruises and confuses!” I had misinterpreted the Bible and harmed myself in the process. I began to understand what God was really saying to me in His Word when I read the passage more carefully and in context:
The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, 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. (Philippians 4:5b-7)
Oh! I discovered that the Apostle Paul was encouraging me to rely upon God’s care when I start to worry. He wasn’t shaming me or telling me to deny my feelings. The comforting truth in this passage is that God is near me and when I’m anxious He offers me His peace, a peace that will protect my soul and body from the destructive effects of continual anxiety. My part in experiencing God’s peace is to ask God for what I need and to thank Him for the good things He provides.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is not the same thing as stress. We all experience difficulties and challenges everyday — that’s stress. Anxiety is internalized stress. It develops from an anxious mindset and perhaps being overloaded with stress.
To be anxious is to worry or fixate on troubles. You feel restless, agitated, or burdened. If the anxiety is intense then your body is uncomfortable and your mind won’t slow down. So it’s hard for you to relax, sometimes even at bedtime. You may have fears, nightmares, or flashbacks.
There are many other ways that anxiety may manifest. You may have trouble saying “no” to people, feeling like you need to please them. You may feel insecure or have low self-esteem. You may struggle with perfectionism, overworking, or hurry sickness (yes, chronically being in a hurry has been identified as a medical sickness!)
In Your Best Life In Jesus’ Easy Yoke I help you understand these symptoms of anxiety and how you can experience greater peace and power through following Jesus in new and deeper ways. I show you how to de-stress and calm down anxiety by living in Christ’s rhythms of grace
How Anxiety Problems Develop
People who struggle with anxiety perpetuate their problem without realizing it. Let me explain. Anxiety is a “secondary emotion” that is the result of conflicting tensions between “stressors” that elicit emotion and “repressors” that deny that emotion.
Before we feel anxious two things happen. First, we experience stress (could be an emotional injury or any challenging situation). We feel hurt, afraid, angry, sad, guilty, or needy. And then we deny or avoid that feeling, even though it’s a natural and healthy response to the stress. (Perhaps we feel we’re too busy to pause and feel our feelings or the feelings don’t fit our expectations of who we should be.) This combination of the “elicitors” (stressors) and “repressors” (defense mechanisms) is like a chemical reaction that creates anxiety.
If the anxiety is intense or chronic then it will begin to cause problems in our bodies and relationships. We may develop an an anxiety disorder. The key principle to understand is that stress by itself isn’t likely to create an anxiety disorder. Usually denial of the emotions that underly anxiety is also required.
I tell anxious people that they’re fighting themselves. It’s like they’ve got one foot on the gas and the other on the brake and so they’re spinning out of control and damaging their engine. It’s appropriate to feel scared when someone or something threatens your well-being and so your body instinctively gears up into the fight-or-flight response, but the anxious person tries to shut down the fear, creating anxiety that over time can damage their soul and body.
To use another analogy, anxiety occurs when you hold the lid down on your pot of boiling emotions. Eventually, the pressure becomes too great and the lid blows with a panic attack or other anxiety disorder, an angry outburst, or “acting out” with compulsive behavior (e.g., alcohol, overeating, sex). As we’ll discuss later, instead of holding the lid down we need to let off some steam (verbalize our feelings and needs) and turn down the heat (set our limits).
Why do we drive with one foot on the brake? Why do we try to hold the lid down on the pot? Control. Anxiety is a a problem of control. Anxious people are trying to control their emotions. They also try to control situations and what other people think of them because these things may stir up uncomfortable emotions.
I Grew Up With Anxiety
I think every member of my family has had problems with anxiety. In my family people worried. Intense discussions, continually analyzing problems, complaining about what’s wrong, and obsessing about possible solutions to fix things were frequent. Looking back, it seemed like problems were everywhere! Family members, extended family, other people, the church, my dad’s job, politics, and many other issues all seemed to have problems to worry about.
As a child I took in too much stress by listening to and being concerned about the things that upset my parents and others. I took on too much responsibility and expectation and burdened myself. And I didn’t release the pressures and pains because I didn’t talk about my feelings. Usually I didn’t even feel my feelings. Instead I worried and I worked to solve my problems, and everyone else’s too!
By the time I was a young adult I developed what I later learned is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This means I experienced persistent anxiety and worry about stressful situations. I spent a lot of time worrying intensely and my worry was out of proportion to what was realistic for the situation.
It took me a number of years as an adult to learn helpful ways of dealing with anxiety and to experience inner peace. I used psychotherapy, educating myself, relaxation exercises, physical exercise, lifestyle changes, prayer and other things to find some relief. Today I don’t struggle much with anxiety anymore. I have better boundaries to limit the stress I intake. And I’ve learned how to process my feelings with my wife or a caring friend. I thank God for the experience of his peace!
According to the National Institute of Mental health, Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental disorder, affecting one in eight Americans between the ages of 18-54. That’s nearly 20 million anxious people! The most common anxiety disorder is Panic Disorder.
It’s frightening to experience a panic disorder. You feel like you’re being smothered and can hardly breathe. Your heart pounds and hurts and you’re afraid you’re having a heart attack. You tremble or feel tingling or numbness in your hands and feet and you’re afraid you’re going to faint. You start sweating or have hot and cold flashes. You feel like you’re not all there; it all feels so unreal. And worst of all, you’re afraid that you’re going crazy and that you’re going to die!
Once someone has had a panic attack they develop “anticipatory anxiety,” in which they’re afraid of having another attack. Of course, this makes the anxiety worse! Panic Disorder also can become associated with Agoraphobia. People with Agoraphobia restrict themselves to “safe places” because of a fear of having a panic attack in a public place and not being able to escape.
Three Examples of Anxious People
Jon’s Panic Disorder
To Jon it seemed like his panic attacks came out of nowhere. But I helped Jon to see that his panic anxiety had a cycle to it.
Jon’s panic was triggered whenever he would catch a cold, get an infection, or have an allergic reaction. (Initiating circumstance.) The congestion would make breathing a little more difficult. (Unpleasant bodily symptoms.) He’d start worrying that he wouldn’t be able to breathe. Then he’d sniff compulsively. His sniffing and worrying would keep him from falling asleep. (Increased focus on symptoms.) Then he’d tell himself that he’d be up all night, and he wouldn’t be able to function at work the next day. He’d even think that he was going to suffocate. (Catastrophic interpretation.) Then he’d have a panic attack.
Did you follow the progression of Jon’s panic attacks? Here it is:
Initiating Circumstance -> Unpleasant Body Symptoms -> Worry -> Catastrophic Interpretation -> PANIC!
Carrie’s Social Phobia
Carrie was afraid of introducing herself in her church small group. She had Social Phobia, overwhelming anxiety with avoidance of social situations out of fear of embarrassment.
Carrie’s anxiety escalated as people were introducing themselves around the circle. Her heart started racing, her breathing became shallow, and she became sweaty. She was terrified that people would see her blushing or that she’d stutter and that people would laugh at her. Before it was her turn to speak she got up from her chair and went to the bathroom. Then she went back to the group when she knew she wouldn’t have to introduce herself.
Jim was 25 years old on 9-11-2001 when the terrorists attacked the World Trade towers and rocked his world. For three months he busied himself in his work until he found that anxiety was overwhelming him.
Jim couldn’t concentrate. He was exhausted and yet he couldn’t sleep. He was full of fear and felt like he was living outside his body. He worked near an airport and whenever a plane flew overhead he had frightening flashbacks to being a boy in New York City and watching the planes fly over his head. Then the image would morph into the planes crashing into the towers and he’d start crying and shaking. He had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
How Can You Calm Down Your Anxious Mind?
How do people like Jon, Carrie, and Jim get help with anxiety? How can you calm your anxious mind and heart to experience more of God’s peace? Here are some key lessons…
Learn to be Patient
Anxious people like these that I talk to hate the word patience! They want their symptoms – panic attacks, phobias, obsessive-compulsive behavior, trauma reactions, or chronic worry – to go away now.
They’re frustrated with themselves that they can’t make them stop and don’t realize that their attempt to control (deny) their anxiety is part of their problem. Paradoxically, the quickest route to cure (not just eliminating symptoms, but experiencing peace) begins with accepting your problem and being patient with a therapeutic process.
Why patience? The effects of continual stress and denial of feelings is cumulative. Each additional pressure or injury that is not responded to with care exacerbates previous unresolved stress and lodges itself in your body and soul. This is why people are often surprised when they discover they have an anxiety problem. It seems to them like there’s no reason for it! In actuality, they experienced “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and only then did they realize that they needed help!
So undoing the negative effects of chronic build-up of anxiety takes time, not time alone, but time with treatment that includes care from others and yourself, setting boundaries, and using relaxation techniques.
Read the Indicator Lights
You wouldn’t drive your car without checking the gauges. You ask yourself, Do I have enough gas? How fast am I going? Do I need to take my care in for an oil change? Yet, if you struggle with anxiety you probably don’t monitor your soul and respond to it’s needs. Anxious people typically neglect to fill their tanks with care, push themselves beyond reasonable speed limits, and hesitate to ask for help.
For some people, their anxiety gauges are obvious. For Jon it was his obsessive worries about his breathing. Carrie had her fear of groups and Jim had flashbacks. For each of them their challenge was accepting that their symptom wasn’t a problem as much as it was a warning sign of a deeper problem – missing a sense of peace (comfort, self-acceptance, well-being) inside.
For you, reading your soul’s anxiety gauge probably begins with listening to your body. When you’re anxious it’ll show up in your body with shortness of breath, heart palpitations, tightness or pain in the chest, discomfort in your stomach or bowels, twitching, shaky hands, sweaty palms, or tingling. These symptoms are warning signs that you need to slow down, relax, feel, and talk about your feelings. It’s harder to do, but ultimately you want to respond the same way to your feelings. Whenever you feel angry, scared, or sad it means your soul needs caring attention.
How I Faced My Fear of Public Speaking
The first time I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a conference a number of years ago I was afraid. Don’t get me wrong, at first I was excited, but later I started thinking about it. Maybe they don’t really want me. I’m just filling in for someone who had to cancel. The other keynote speaker is Archibald Hart and I’m not in his league.I got more and more scared.
Then I told myself, You can’t be afraid. You’ll make a fool of yourself in front of 2,000 people! If you can’t calm down then you just need to cancel.
Of course, this harsh treatment of myself and denial of my fears only made me more anxious. Eventually, I woke up to what I was doing – I had reverted back to my old, destructive ways of coping with anxiety:
- Put demands on my self
- Deny my emotions
- Try to avoid situation that make me anxious
Instead, I accepted that as a speaker I didn’t have to be perfect, but was a “work in progress.” I started processing my feelings with my wife and a friend to find comfort. And I determined not to avoid my fear of public speaking, but to face it.
What if I had chosen to reduce my anxiety by not giving the keynote address? Unfortunately, it’s easy for anxious people to make choices like this, hiding their gifts and shrinking their worlds. To face your fears, as I learned in this situation, helps you to gain confidence, which over time helps to reduce your anxiety.
Most people with anxiety problems expect themselves to be super strong. They think that they should always be “calm, cool, and collected.” As I said above, control is the operative word with anxiety. Anxious people tend to do too much, take on more responsibility than they can handle, try too hard to please other people, and deny their feelings and needs. Eventually it catches up to them in bouts of anxiety. They need to learn to acknowledge their limits and say no sometimes.
This was a big part of my generalized anxiety disorder. I had to accept that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do, but I need to prioritize more and let some things go. I learned when I needed to say no to someone’s request because I didn’t have time or energy or had another commitment to keep. I spent more time relaxing (I’m still working on that one!) and I gave myself permission to feel, to need, and to struggle. Limits like these were an important part of helping me to feel more peace.
You know you’ve developed strong boundaries when you’re able to be with people that used to agitate you or “make you” anxious and now they don’t. You’re able to be in relationship and to be separate at the same time. What a relief! What a confidence builder!
Use Positive Self Talk
People with anxiety problems typically experience an escalation of fear. Their fear feeds on itself, getting worse and worse. Let’s get inside the mind of the anxious person to see how their negative self-talk is a part of this viscous cycle and then let’s consider how using positive self-talk can help to stabilize and calm the person who is anxious:
Negative Self-Talk Escalates Fear
|Threat||Negative Self-Talk||Body Symptoms||Negative Self-Talk||Panic|
|(1st Fear)||Repression||(2nd Fear)||Catastrophic||(3rd Fear)|
|Hurt||“I’m too sensitive.”||Racing heart||“I can’t stand this!”|
|Conflict||“I can’t have needs.”||Shallow breathing||“I’m losing control.”|
|Stress||“I’ve got to be strong.”||Sweaty||“What will others think?”|
|Demand||“I can’t show feelings.”||Twitches||“I’m going to die!”|
Positive Self-Talk Calms Fear
|Threat||Positive Self-Talk||Body Symptoms||Positive Self-Talk||Coping|
|“It’s normal to feel.”||“I can handle this.”|
|“My needs are ok.”||“Let it pass. Ride it out.”|
|“It’s courageous to admit my struggle “||“My friend accepts my fears.”|
|“I can share with a friend.”||“I’ve survived this before.”|
How Affirming Self-Talk Helps Anxiety
Responding to the fear that may accompany stress or hurt with affirming self-talk (instead of denying your feelings) is calming. Accepting the reality of anxiety symptoms in your body (instead of reacting with catastrophic thinking) is also calming. In other words, rather than fight against your feelings and your bodily symptoms you seek to understand, validate, and comfort your feelings. The way you learn to do this is by internalizing caring messages from people (like a counselor, friend, or support group leader) who listen to your anxiety.
You could get the wrong idea from what I just wrote. I need clarify what I mean when I refer to self-talk because I’m not saying what you normally hear on this subject.
I don’t mean to suggest you need to initiate a self-help project of saying positive things about yourself. You wouldn’t be able to sustain that and it wouldn’t be powerful enough anyway. You need to turn to the Lord Jesus Christ!
What I am suggesting is to agree with what God says about you, to learn and live out your identity in Christ, applying this to your specific needs. Truly affirming self-talk is joining in with what the Father, Son, and Spirit are already saying about you! Of course God reveals his love for us in the Bible. God also communicates through the Body of Christ and nature, always in ways that agree with Scripture.
Let me illustrate by referring back to three of the examples we discussed above:
- Jon learned to cope with his panic by saying to himself, “It’s scary for me when my breathing is more difficult. God has helped me survive this before. I won’t suffocate. I’m just anxious because I have a lot of feelings I need to talk and pray through.”
- Carrie was able to face her fear of introducing herself to groups of people by thinking, “It’s ok for me to be nervous meeting new people. Blushing doesn’t make me a bad person. I know that I am accepted in Christ. I also need to remember that most people like me when they get to know me.”
- Jim went back to his job near the airport with the mindset, “It’s natural for me to be scared and saddened by the terrorist attacks. If I have a flashback I can ride it out until it subsides and then talk about my feelings later with my prayer partner.”
Entrust Your Feelings to God and Others
Trusting the Lord is at the heart of any antidote for anxiety. Earlier I said that anxiety is a secondary emotion. We feel anxious when we deny our fear or hurt or anger. So it makes sense that we feel less anxious when we talk through the underlying feelings with someone we trust.
What’s the power in verbalizing your feelings? What makes this helpful for people who are anxious? Sharing feelings with a listener is cathartic or relieving of tension when you “let go” of what’s troubling you by letting someone else feel what you feel and help to carry your load. The turmoil becomes less intense and more manageable.
Putting words to what you’re feeling gives you perspective on your struggle, helping you to understand your situation more clearly and to think through any decisions. It helps you to realize that your feelings are valid, real, and understandable. Realizing that someone cares enough to listen and to understand and to struggle with you is comfort for your hurt and encouragement for getting through your problem. In time you realize that you feel more peace.
In the Psalms of the Bible, David, the author of most of them, gives us a model for sharing our troubles with God. By writing out or simply praying our own psalms we too can experience more of God’s peace. Like David, we tell God just what we’re feeling, even if it’s anger at Him, and He listens and is concerned and responsive. David also shows us how to receive God’s care by thanking Him for his provisions, starting with the smallest of blessings.
Abandon Outcomes to God
I’ve said that anxiety is a disorder of control — trying to control your emotions, what people think of you, and how situations turn out. So an essential aspect of the treatment is learning to abandon outcomes to God: trust the Lord God to be sovereign and stop trying to make things happen!
Perhaps the first place to work on this is how you view your anxiety. When I talk to anxious people it’s usually because they want their anxiety to go away. They want me to help them remove their symptoms, to control their symptoms! This just feeds into the anxiety. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate their anxiety, perhaps with anti-anxiety medicine, have we dealt with the underlying problem.
Medicine may be an important part of the treatment for anxiety.
Of course, I want to help people get free of anxiety! But what you need to understand that this is accomplished indirectly. We need to move our focus from symptoms to character. We’re anxious because of characteristic ways that we deal with stress, as we’ve been discussing in this article. The true cure is to become the kind person who is already trusting in the Father and walking with Jesus in the Kingdom of God when stress comes.
The best picture of this is Jesus napping in the boat on the Sea of Galilee when a fierce storm rolls in. His words “peace be still” were a reality in his body before he calmed the storm. How could he be so calm in danger? Because he was resting in the arms of his Abba. He was the kind of person who entrusted his life and well-being to the Father.
Train yourself to Relax in God’s Care
There are many helpful relaxation exercises that help to reduce your anxiety and increase your peace. This is important because you need to re-train your body how to be at peace again. Or perhaps for you it’s an all new training because you’ve never enjoyed the peace of God in a deep and enduring way.
Here are a few antidotes to anxiety that can be helpful:
Anxiety gets into your body. So part of the treatment is to get the anxiety out of the body! Physical exercise and progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing different muscle groups) are two approaches that can help you to experience the peace of Christ — especially if you meditate on Scripture or pray while do them.
Pausing to breathe in deep and slowly is actually another form of body work and it is so helpful for dealing with stress. It’s so simple that most people overlook it. But it’s important because when people are anxious they breathe shallow. At any moment you can find immediate help with calming down anxiety by doing just a few repetitions of breathing in deep, holding your breathe in for at least a few seconds seconds, and then slowing exhaling.
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