In my previous blog post (Part 1), I shared some considerations about how anxiety works. Now, let’s focus on some practical advice for facing it.
Dealing with anxiety is no easy task. If it were, anxiety would not be so common. It is a process that takes time, reflection, prayer, and persistent effort. It is also a road that we cannot walk alone. We need to share our burdens with trusted friends, family, and potentially a pastor or mental health professional. With this in mind, let me suggest some steps we can take.
The first concerns how we view anxiety. Think of your worries and anxiety as an alarm, warning you that something may be wrong. You need to figure out what it is. There are many different reasons people struggle with anxiety, and getting a clear sense of the problem is the first step to finding the correct remedy.
When you find yourself worrying or feeling anxious, stop what you are doing, take a few deep breaths, and then take a moment to reflect. Consider what is going on within and around you and ponder questions such as: What prompted your worrying? What were you doing? What were you thinking about? What did you do (or feel like doing) in response to your worry?
Then, think through what your worries might be telling you, by reflecting on questions such as: Could your worry be prompting you to take a specific action? Do you lack the resources or skills to handle something? Do you need support from someone? Is there something you need to let go of? Does something need to change? Is there a loss that needs to be grieved? Have you done something wrong or been wronged? Could a bad mental state (e.g., overtiredness) be making things seem worse than they are? What makes some days better or worse than others?
I strongly recommend writing these down and keeping a journal or log about your worries. This can be a helpful way to pray through your worries, but I’m also suggesting it as a process to bring clarity. Anxiety can be a very powerful emotion that short-circuits our ability to think clearly and problem solve effectively. Writing down our worries (as well as talking them through with others) can make them concrete and easier to evaluate. It facilitates processing and problem solving. If you do so over time, you will likely notice triggers and patterns to your anxiety and begin to see ways to address these.
We also need to consider our sphere of influence as it relates to our worries. To do so, I suggest making two columns on a page with the titles: (a) God gives me control over and (b) God does not give me control over. Then, make a detailed list of the factors related to your worries and place them in the appropriate columns. These two categories will clarify what we need to take responsibility for and what we need to let go of.
Many of the things we worry about tend to be the outcomes we desire that are ultimately outside of our control. When we worry about these, it is like running on a treadmill—the effort and sweat are real, but in the end we get nowhere. God does not give us control over this list nor does he expect us to bear it. We need to prayerfully give it to the Lord and trust Him. We also need to share these burdens with others and, where relevant, grieve the losses we endure. We can take heart in the promise that one day He will wipe away every tear and there will be no more pain or sorrow (Revelation 21:4). While we need to regularly remind ourselves of this, there is also more to do.
We need to turn our attention to the other list, to take stock of what is in our control. This can be difficult because in our anxiety we become consumed with that which is beyond our reach. However, the list of factors in our control is often much bigger than we think it is, so we need to brainstorm and think strategically. Then we need to craft a plan with specific goals and execute it, while asking for God’s guidance and blessing. Even though we do not have ultimate control over the outcomes of our lives, we often have the means to greatly influence them. For instance, we cannot guarantee our health or financial stability, but good habits and planning can make a significant difference.
While this list is meant to highlight opportunity and spark energy, for some of us it may only feel increasingly burdensome. When we feel anxious, even the smallest task can seem insurmountable. If this is the case, we need to set smaller goals that we know we can achieve. Anxiety makes us withdraw and avoid. To counter it, we need to push ourselves to move forward, even if only in baby steps. As we do, we will find our capacity and courage grows. When we focus on what we can control — and have responsibility for — we are being both faithful and wise. In so doing, we emulate the Proverbs 31 woman who is diligent with the time, resources, and opportunities available to her.
One area for which we have responsibility is taking care of our health—mind, body, and soul. We need to think through how our habits are helping or harming us in domains such as the physical (e.g., sleep—below I’ve posted a link with specific tips on this; exercise—even short walks help; and eating—consistent and balanced meals), the mental (e.g., monitoring what we feed our mind, such as setting wise limits on news and social media), the spiritual (e.g., prayer, scripture, reflecting on God’s promises, cultivating gratitude, online church gatherings), and the social (e.g., initiating conversations, sharing our burdens, encouraging others). In this unique time, we also need to make specific COVID-19-related adaptations (e.g., having routines even if working or doing school from home; making specific goals for free time; looking for new opportunities).
All of these affect our mental health and ability to deal with the challenges we face. For instance, when we are sleep deprived even a small problem can feel overwhelming. Conversely, exercise, prayer, or a chat with a supportive person can be quite empowering. While difficult circumstances will bring anxiety, it is when we neglect these self-care habits that our mental health will spiral downward even further. For many of us this can be an ongoing struggle, but small steps taken consistently can have a profound impact on our mental, physical and spiritual health.
Further suggestions for those struggling with severe anxiety or distress:
For some of us, anxiety can hit a point when it becomes overwhelming and paralyzing. The most extreme form of this is panic attacks and hyperventilation. In such cases, breathing becomes very rapid and shallow and people feel like they are having a heart attack, dying, or losing control of their body. This is very scary and often sends people to the emergency room. People experiencing such high levels of anxiety or distress often also struggle with suicidal thoughts or behaviours (or an unhealthy obsession with dying or heaven), self-harm (e.g., cutting), or addiction. If you (or someone you know) is experiencing any of these, it is vital to get help from a physician and mental health professional.
The Vancouver General Hospital Access and Assessment Centre offers treatment for mental health difficulties and the Crisis Centre website offers 24/7 telephone and web messaging support for anyone in distress (I’ve listed these websites below). In a moment of intense anxiety or pain, we are vulnerable to impulsively doing things we never thought possible, potentially with devastating consequences. If you are struggling, tell someone. There are people who can and want to help.
Here are some other tips for dealing with moments of significant anxiety and distress. You need to remember that regardless of how intense or scary strong emotions feel, they are not dangerous in and of themselves. Panic attacks do not cause physical harm. The anxiety, however, can feel as real and intense as if you were dying or were at gunpoint. That’s because it is the same physiological reaction that would occur with a serious threat even though there isn’t one; it is like a false alarm.
When anxiety or panic attacks come, you need to calm down your nervous system by taking slow and deep breaths (the opposite of hyperventilation, which increases anxiety). Bring your focus to the present moment by grabbing onto something physical, drink water, and wait until the worst of it passes; panic attacks usually peak within a few minutes and then taper off, although some level of anxiety will remain. It is important to sit with the emotion, notice the physiological sensations behind it, and remind yourself that it will pass rather than trying to avoid it through distraction. This is how you learn that you do not need to be afraid of strong emotions and that gradually reduces their power.
It can be useful to prepare a list of healthy activities that help you calm down in times of distress. Often physical activities (e.g., walking or other exercise, cleaning, shower, cooking, arts) are helpful to release the tension caused by anxiety’s strong physiological effects. Unhealthy coping behaviours (e.g., substance use, binge eating, and excessive gaming or internet use) can momentarily relieve anxiety but they will only make things worse in the long-term. I also suggest planning who you can call for support in moments of distress. These burdens are too great to bear alone.
Crisis Centre offers 24/7 availability to talk over phone or online for people in distress:
Vancouver General Hospital Access and Assessment Centre offers treatment for mental health and substance use difficulties:
Information and resources on anxiety:
Tips for improving sleep: