Coping With Anxiety

Anxiety. I am always amazed by how quickly it creeps in whenever I experience an unwanted change or something that I perceive to be negative. Before the death of my daughter and parents I was not really prone to anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I worried about things. At times even lost sleep over them. However, for the most part, whatever anxiety I experienced the issue was relatively rational. Nowadays, rationality does not always accompany my bouts of anxiety. There is always a trigger of some sort but sometimes it’s hard to even pinpoint because the issue never warrants the level of fear and worry I experience. Thankfully the frequency and intensity of the anxiety I experience has decreased significantly over the past 5 years but when it does come up it can still be debilitating if not handled well.

Just days after returning from Haiti a dear friend helped me find a psychologist that specializes in grief and trauma. When I look back at all the ways God cared and provided for me, this is one of the most significant examples! I have been in therapy since and it has made a world of difference. I honestly cannot imagine how my life would be today had I not received the professional help I needed. For many months I experienced severe panic attacks, fear, nightmares, and probably all other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t start working again for 12 months and even after that on multiple occasions I experienced symptoms debilitating enough to have to walk out of a meeting, shut myself in the bathroom, or call out of work altogether. Again, by God’s grace I had exactly what I needed at the time. The support of family and friends that allowed me to take the time I needed before going back to work and then the opportunity to work as children’s ministry director at my church. A job opportunity that both nurtured me but also stretched me in ways that fostered healing.

As healing took place and I learned better self-care, the symptoms slowly started to subside. The panic attacks were less frequent. I was better able to foresee triggers and give myself the space I needed to cope. Another significant change was that I started to learn to make decisions again. That was huge because for so long the anxiety was severely immobilizing. Every decision required painstaking effort that usually involved prayer but also conversations with multiple people…in addition to processing things in therapy. I simply did not trust my ability to make decisions and life was exhausting because of it! Again, I look back amazed by God’s provision and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for my family and friends who walked with me all those arduous months. There were countless Sundays of crying on their shoulders during church service; many middle-of-the-night phones calls to talk through panic attacks; and hundreds of hours of conversations to process whatever major (or minor) issue I was dealing with that was causing anxiety.

I often have to remember these things in order to appreciate how much healing God has allowed to take place. Today I find that it is so easy for me to become extremely discouraged with myself when I struggle with anxiety. Whether it is anxiety over an existing issue or an issue I am preemptively worrying about, I feel like I have somehow regressed. It is so tempting to beat myself up over it or try to ignore it until it blows up in my face making the situation worse. Now that symptoms are no longer acute, I’m having to learn different ways to cope with anxiety. Most importantly, I have to remind myself that the worthwhile and God-honoring response to the anxiety is to turn to God Himself.

I have to admit that my current struggle with handling anxiety is rooted in my natural desire to feel self-reliant and self-sufficient. Although I know that God is the one who sustains me it is easy to go through life not feeling like I am dependent. In fact, my flesh desires to feel independent and in control. So when anxiety creeps in and I feel despondent because of it, it is at least in part due to vestigial self-righteousness. As I repent, my prayer is that God would help me seize the opportunity to draw closer to Him during moments of anxiety.

Everyone’s experience with anxiety is different but I wanted to share mine because it is a common issue. Based on my experiences I recommend the following:

God’s Word  

The Bible overflows with encouragement and guidance for those of us who experience anxiety. I always recommend listening to sermons because I find them helpful in addressing whatever issue I am grappling with. Sermons help me learn to apply the truth of God’s Word to my life. I found Tim Keller’s sermon Peace – Overcoming Anxiety  extremely helpful! It’s also critical to meditate on God’s Word itself. A simple google search gives us many verses that we can meditate on to help calm our fears during moments of distress. I strongly suggest noting the verses and actually looking up the passages so that you can get the full context. Just being in God’s Word will often uplift us as the Holy Spirit ministers to our hearts. My go-to passage is Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Prayer 

As verses 6 and 7 above state, responding to anxiety with prayer leads to God’s inexplicable peace which will in turn guard our hearts and our minds. I find that this is true every time, whether the anxiety producing issue is already a problem I am dealing with, the possibility of a problem I am anticipating, or an issue I can’t even identify.

Existing problem – coming before the Lord with petitions regarding a particular problem moves me from a place of fear to one of faith. It reminds me that I serve a mighty God who is able to intervene in all circumstances according to His goodness and perfect will.

Foreseeable problem – I’m learning that by going to The Lord in prayer when I’m anxious about the future helps me remember that I serve a sovereign God and that ultimately my life and all circumstances are in His hands. It is an act of faith that reminds me that I can trust Him to provide everything I need.

Unidentifiable – there are times when I can’t pinpoint to an exact problem and yet I find myself unable to sleep, feeling restless, racing thoughts that are of no particular importance, etc. I don’t know if it is hormone related, some kind of spiritual attack, or triggered by something else. I’ve noticed that I resist praying when I am struggling with this because it’s almost impossible to concentrate during prayer and Bible reading. At times it is accompanied with profound sadness. What I have found to be most helpful is to listen to worship music even if in silence, giving myself the space to just cry if that’s all that I can do.  I am always amazed by how free I feel, literally like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

Turning to God in prayer when I’m anxious doesn’t necessarily mean that all the symptoms are suddenly gone when I pray. However, in prayer I am strengthened and I experience a peace that goes beyond anything a simple alleviation of symptoms would bring me. Most importantly praying helps me to honor God even while struggling with anxiety. It helps me not overreact by making rash decisions or saying things I will regret.

Check My Heart

I’m finding that at the root of most of my bouts of anxiety there is a fear that is caused by a misplaced affection. I have to check my heart for idolatry. If I ask myself, “what am I afraid of losing here?” It will usually point to something to which I am ascribing disproportionate value – “disproportionate” being the operative word. These things are usually good things that our hearts are treating as ultimate things. Common examples are family, relationship, career, reputation, beauty, money, comfort, security, etc. The anxiety comes in when we feel like we can’t live without that thing and we are afraid to lose it. This takes me back to prayer where I repent of the sin of idolatry and ask God to help me see Him as my ultimate treasure. Counterfeit Gods is a sermon that helped me understand this. 

Counseling 

As I mentioned above, therapy has been instrumental in helping me cope. I personally believe that everyone can benefit from counseling. Just like any other form of preventative measure, speaking to a counselor can promote health and wellness. Additionally, studies show that 1 in 5 adults in the US suffer from a mental illness in a given year. A lot more people than we realize need treatment. Unfortunately, even people who need treatment are reluctant to go to counseling because there is still so much stigma associated with receiving mental health services,

Paying attention to physical needs

Very often anxiety is a reaction to stress. We compromise our ability to cope with stress in a healthy way when our sleep, diet, and level of physical activity are off.  Unfortunately, this is my current situation. I vividly remember experiencing a significant decrease in stress and anxiety when I was active. I would suggest seeing a doctor if you experience severe and debilitating anxiety. Hormonal or chemical imbalance may be the root cause of anxiety and proper treatment would make a significant difference.

For anyone who struggles with anxiety and is reading this, I pray that we would experience our Heavenly Father’s comfort, peace, and guidance. I pray that He would help us draw closer to Him as we seek in Him all that our soul needs.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
—1 Peter 5:5-7