According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the reasons the book of that title was so popular was that it had the words “DON’T PANIC” in big friendly letters on the cover. If you had the Guide, and if you knew where your towel was, you were well prepared to face whatever galactic disasters might come your way.
The sermon this week at Smoky Row Brethren Church was about the Christian and fear. Rich talked about worry, fear, anxiety, and panic. These feelings can be caused by many things, from brain chemistry to poor choices. To deal with all of them, however, we need to have a deep sense of God’s love for us and God’s faithfulness to us, as well as an awareness of the resources we have in Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the church.
I’m no stranger to this topic. Worry runs in my family, generally on the female side. My mother worries about a lot of things, which usually leads to a phone call to me. I worry about my mother. I try to keep on top of my worries and do what I can about them, before they escalate into nastier forms—anxiety and panic. I’ve had experience with those, too.
Sometimes we need that flood of adrenaline—to get out of a burning house or to grab the toddler who strays into the street. But for some of us, our “crisis meter” is broken, and we get a flood of adrenaline at inappropriate times—or we just can’t shut if off.
I’m pretty sure that I inherited a tendency toward anxiety from my mother (and hers). Add to that the perfectionism I absorbed while growing up, along with seasons of hormonal changes, and you get a recipe for nail-biting, floor-pacing stress. We perfectionists tend to take on responsibility for things we can’t control, which is a no-win situation. (Not to mention that our sense of being in control is mostly an illusion anyway!)
For me, anxiety starts as an elevated worry about something in particular. If I don’t attend to it—think it through, find an appropriate response, and commit it to God—it can escalate to anxiety about everything. It’s as if the anxiety is a virus trying to replicate itself; it starts looking around for more things to attach itself to. At this point, thinking no longer helps, because I just keep thinking obsessively about all the things I’m anxious about. If I get to the point of feeling trapped and overwhelmed, I’m susceptible to panic. Now it’s a fight-or-flight situation, but there’s nothing concrete to fight and nowhere to run. Breakdown! Fortunately for me, I haven’t had any panic attacks in a long time. I’m usually able to manage an anxiety outbreak before it gets to that point.
Everybody’s situation is different, but here are ten things I’ve learned that might help somebody else.
- If you’re having severe anxiety, don’t try to “gut it out” and handle it on your own. God has given us the church for a reason, and we don’t get extra points for machismo.
- Examine your circumstances. See if you can change something that would reduce your stress. Maybe you should start looking for a new job. Maybe that relationship isn’t worth it. Maybe you just need a vacation!
- Go to your doctor. Find out if there are physiological factors causing or contributing to the anxiety. Medical intervention may help you manage the anxiety or at least calm you down long enough to figure out what’s going on.
- Get wise counsel. Find out what personal, interpersonal, social, and spiritual factors cause or contribute to your anxiety. Maybe your friends or your pastor can supply this counsel, but if anxiety is a frequent problem for you, you probably need to talk to a professional counselor.
- Go back to basics. Remind yourself that God loves you, is for you, and is with you. Go to Scripture to remind yourself of God’s character and promises. Whenever you find something that’s especially helpful, write it down and look at it if you find yourself getting anxious again. Keep a journal of the things you learn.
- Learn how to pray. Prayer isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, praying desperately for God to remove the anxiety may only make you more anxious. Knowing where the anxiety is coming from will help you to pray more specifically. Praying through Scripture, such as the Psalms, can be helpful. The Psalms help us cry out to God within a framework of trust. I have sometimes been led to pray against spiritual attack, although I don’t believe that all anxiety has a spiritual cause.
- Identify your resources. See point 1, above. One of the most damaging effects of anxiety is the self-fulfilling fear that it will happen again. It helps to have your resources set up beforehand. Your pastor, doctor, counselor, and friends can be an important source of support. Even knowing they’re there can help, because you know you’re not alone.
- Get enough sleep. You can’t deal with anything if you’re exhausted. If you’re having trouble with this, talk to your doctor.
- Get some exercise. Work off some of the tension; it does help. Going outdoors gives you the extra bonus of sunlight, which helps with mood.
- Eat right. Remember to eat, even if you don’t feel like it. Try to eliminate stimulants, like caffeine, and cut down on carbs. This makes a big difference for some people.
These are just suggestions. There’s no shame in having anxiety, and there’s no easy formula for dealing with it. But God is still there, and help is available. I hope Smoky Row will be a place where we can be honest about our struggles and help one another with them.
What about you? Are you ever troubled by anxiety? Have you found anything that helps?