Let’s Talk About Anxiety, Shall We?
by Lisa Green, LPC-MHSP, Executive Director
Let’s be honest, shall we?
Anxiety is extremely prevalent in society today- and not just “out there” society, but among “us” as well. Globally, anxiety disorders are the mostly commonly diagnosed mental health problem, and the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 13 people suffer from anxiety. And though I don’t have the numbers, experience would suggest that those stats would accurately reflect the global worker population as well. If not you, then perhaps someone in your family deals with anxiety. Someone on your team. Someone in your close community. Perhaps several someones.
And though Paul exhorted us in Philippians 4:6 to, “not be anxious about anything…” the reality is, many of us find ourselves in the struggle. As believers aspiring to “not be anxious,” this can also lead to feeling some shame about the experience of anxiety- especially when we try to do exactly what’s outlined by Paul and “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” and look for the peace of God to guard our hearts and minds. What I share below in no way negates this wisdom about prayer, and faith that God offers us peace through prayer. It will, however, also encompass the understanding of how our brains and bodies were created to work, and give us some faithful and practical tools to fold in with our prayer practice- and even some specific ways to engage in prayer to deal well with anxiety.
Let’s define anxiety, shall we?
Anxiety is a many-headed beast, and there is a range of intensity experienced. What causes anxiety in one person might not cause it in another. The general feeling of anxiety is one that closely resembles worry- tense, uncomfortable, nervous, and often often accompanied by negative thoughts about what has gone or will go wrong. Anxiety can range from a generalized, all-the-time discomfort and preoccupation with what’s wrong, to an experience specific to a situation- a racing heart/ sweaty palms/ frozen feeling when called to speak in front of people (or get on a plane, or you think that someone is upset with you). It can also be a full-on panic attack, with those symptoms magnified to point that people experiencing panic attacks for the first time sometimes believe they are having a heart attack, and end up in the emergency department.
This highlights something that is important to understand about anxiety: it most often includes both a mental/thought component, and a physiological component- as in a response of the brain and body. Most of us have heard of the fight, flight or freeze response our brains are prepared to pull out to respond to danger (Thanks, brain!). Anxiety is our brain and body’s application of that response when it’s not necessarily needed, or a continued response long after it was helpful (Not so good, brain…). Oftentimes, the physiological response is triggered by a specific negative thought, an encounter with a stressful situation, or a difficult memory, but sometimes is just “turned on” for people as a part of their genetic make-up, life experiences, or personality. Among other things, common physiological responses of anxiety include increased heart rate, sweaty palms/ body, shallow breathing, feeling frozen or jittery, and butterflies (or maybe dragons!) in your stomach.
Let’s address this, shall we?
In order to deal with anxiety effectively, we need to address both our bodies and our thoughts. I’ll outline some helpful practices below for doing this, often with an attached resource for further exploration. Many of them seem quite simple, but if practiced faithfully can have a significant effect on mitigating anxiety. I’ll also note now that these practices are certainly helpful for dealing with anxiety, but can be useful for anyone, anxious or not! If you have an anxious person in your life that you are supporting, trying practicing some of these along with them. If you are dealing with anxiety yourself, you can similarly ask someone to partner with you in engaging in any of these practices.
I find the most helpful place to start addressing any area of growth, including dealing with anxiety, is in noticing the attitude with which you approach yourself- and holding space for yourself with compassionate curiosity is profoundly helpful. This means being compassionate (holding an empathetic, non-judgemental attitude) and curious (being willing to investigate what’s really going on, rather than make assumptions or draw unfounded conclusions) towards your body, your thoughts, and your experiences. To try this, I often coach people to say to self: “Huh…. I wonder what’s going on here?” when they notice feeling anxious. Figuring out what is causing the anxiety, and how to deal with it effectively happens so much more easily if we’re able to be curious and compassionate.
Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing your non-judgemental attention to the present moment. In her book, Right Here, Right Now, Amy Odin describes Christian mindfulness as, “The practice of paying prayerful attention in the present moment to God’s abundant life.” Using mindfulness activities to address anxiety is well-researched, and has the benefit of addressing both the mental and physiological components of anxiety. Because anxiety is so often rooted in negative thinking around what has already happened, or could happen in the future, attention to the present is a powerful tool in grounding ourselves in reality, and allowing our thoughts and bodies to calm as a result. Great resources for learning mindfulness include the book mentioned above, and workbooks like this.
In similar ways, relaxation techniques can allow us to calm our body and mind, bringing our awareness to present and reminding ourselves that we have more control than anxiety would have us think, in the here and now. The best place to start is with deep breathing, also called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, and should be practiced daily for 5-10 minutes. The goal is to breath deeply, and slowly, expanding your belly more than your chest, and to breath out for slightly longer than you breath in. For a great explanation on the benefits of deep breathing as well as a description of how to do it, go here. Other relaxation exercises included guided imagery here and progressive muscle relaxation here .
Thought monitoring for cognitive distortions
This is where we delve a little more deeply into noticing the actual thoughts running through our minds when experiencing anxiety, and evaluate them for truth. Many times when we’re anxious, it’s because we’re paying too much attention to the negative, or making assumptions that aren’t based in reality or certainty. In fact, anxiety skews hard towards the negative! To use this resource, familiarize yourself with the list of cognitive distortions – the ways we most often distort our thinking around a negative bias or assumption, and look for it in your anxious moments. Notice if you have a tendency towards certain types of cognitive distortions and set an alarm for it in your brain, or ask a loved one to help you notice when you’re using it. This is a helpful resource for both identifying cognitive distortions, and knowing how to address them HERE.
The practice of faithfully turning our attention to the things we are truly grateful for is a powerful way to deal with anxiety. In fact, there’s evidence of a gratitude practice enhancing our self control, improving physical health, increasing general happiness, and more! (But I digress.) As we’ve discussed, anxious thinking skews your brain towards noticing what’s wrong- or even what could go wrong, often to the extreme. Daily turning our attention to what is going right, what we are truly enjoying, or feel connected to, or are so happy to have in our life and then expressing gratitude for it shifts our focus to the positive and away from a more constant negative perspective. This is a profound way to practice the “with thanksgiving” part of Paul’s exhortation in Phillipians 4. For a deeper delve, check out Ann VosKamp’s One Thousand Gifts.
Contemplative prayer (resource)
Continuing to look at Paul’s exhortation to the Phillipians (and other Scripture) we can understand that prayer is a powerful way to address anxious feelings. The goal of contemplative prayer, like many forms of prayer and worship, is attention to and attunement with the presence of God- an “adoring gaze” focused on the Father, with the added component of stillness and silence. It is similar to mindfulness activities, but with specific focus on bringing awareness to the presence of God, or a specific aspect of God’s character. This allows for an experience of safety and peace in God’s presence, and a connection with the Source of our abundant life. I recommend beginning with Centering Prayer, and Breath Prayer. All of these are well outlined in the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun, or try an app like this one.
You knew I’d get to this one, didn’t you? While all of these practices can be helpful and even very powerful in dealing with anxiety, at times anxiety can be difficult or debilitating enough that having the help of a professional makes all the difference. A counselor can come alongside you to help pinpoint the causes and factors contributing to anxiety, then work with with you to develop and implement a personalized plan for dealing with both the causes and the anxiety itself. As always, experienced Olive Tree counselors are available, and ready to help you address anxiety.
Need to know how to help a child in your life deal with anxiety? Tune in on October 4th for Dr Pam Davis’s webinar on “Helping Anxious Children.” Register here.