Anxiety comes in many shapes and sizes. In the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5(DSM 5) there is generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder and various different phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of wide -open spaces, crowds, and travel).Almost everybody experiences anxiety in some form or other but the intensity varies. People who have panic attacks liken it to feeling as if one can’t breathe and note that it may include sweating, shaking, and a fear that one is having a heart attack. Panic attacks can be debilitating especially when they happen multiple times in a short period.
When I ask a client if they have had a panic attack, usually if they are unsure, they probably never have had one. A person tends to know when they have a panic attack. People who have panic attacks will also try to avoid the triggers at all costs. Of course, the triggers vary as much as the individuals do.
People trigger from bad experiences like sexual abuse, trauma episodes, and chemical dependence. Triggers can happen around too many people, too few people, or anything that might remind them of a bad experience. Triggers may also be internal, like a memory, and not based on anything that is tangible at the moment.
Perceived threat in the mind can trigger a reaction as much as a real threat. The trigger is a catalyst that a person’s amygdala (part of the brain) responds to and puts a person in to fight or flight mode. This is a survival response that is in every living creature. The brain starts to send out adrenaline (epinephrine) to give quick energy to either fighting or escaping.
Bodily processes speed up. Blood sugar is released which becomes quick energy for the body in fight or flight mode. Shaking, pounding heart, flushing in the extremities, faster breathing rate, and aching chest cause heart and lungs to work harder and help a person survive.
The above description sounds just like a panic attack. People do not often consider a panic attack a good thing. Yet it may have been what kept the person safe. The problem comes when anxiety reaction is chronic, panic attacks are multiple, and the body can’t keep supplying adrenaline. The person may have what is called in the common vernacular a “nervous breakdown.”
Anxiety often accompanies other mental illness. It is a common companion of depression, Bi-polar, and Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder. People with chemical dependence issues may also develop anxiety problems. It is believed there is sometimes a genetic link to anxiety and worry.
I personally watched my mom worry over minor things most of my life. The worry got worse as she aged. I determined I would never worry the way she did. Now as I am growing older, I find myself worrying at times in much the same way as my mother did. Not about the same things but I find myself fretting over my issues and having difficulty letting go of some of them.
I am convinced this is at least in part a genetic inheritance. Of course, the other argument is I watched my mother cope in a certain way, albeit unhealthy, and it is learned behavior. Either way, I have picked up some bad habits from her in how I cope with worry.
If you have anxiety issues, take a moment and check your family tree. Do you have parents, siblings, and other relatives with similar anxiety issues? If so, this could explain part of the reason you struggle with anxiety and cope with worry the way that you do. Is there anything you can do about this fact?
I believe you can retrain the brain from old patterns of worry. This is the hard work of changing your mind. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy attempts to identify your cognitive thinking that is incorrect (bad coping habits, methods) and challenges them with new thoughts.
The best way to change an old habit of thinking is to challenge it and then replace it with a new habit of thinking (behavioral change). This is the hard work of therapy. A new habit has to be repeated often for it to become a new habit. It takes a lot of practice.
This brings us to ways that one can learn to cope with anxiety. How can I stop worrying? People tell me they worry at work and then worry at home about going to work. They worry about getting sick and dying. They worry about finances and family. There is no end to worry.
One strategy that works well is the mind’s ability to remain in the present. Some say the present is a present. Most worry happens in two areas. People will worry about the past, things they could have or should have done but can do nothing about now.
The other area is the future. By definition, the future is not here yet so it is another area that can’t be controlled. An interesting and significant fact is that 90% of what the mind worries about is in the two places that can’t be controlled. Therefore, a lot of worry ends up being wasted energy because there is no ability to control the past or the future.
This is where your brain comes in and can learn to save the day. The brain can only think of one thing at a time. If you can teach your brain to stay in the present (or moment) more often then it can’t think about the past or future at the same time.
It takes practice and repetition but a person can teach their brain to think in the present (usually a better calmer place with control) and at least have breaks from the anxiety. When I have taught clients how to do this skill (grounding) a person with severe anxiety will usually appreciate a break from the constant anxiety. Just a few minutes of no anxiety feels like a vacation to them.
Other coping skills that help anxiety/worry are mindfulness, bi-lateral stimulation, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises. There are literally dozens of coping skills that can help a person cope with anxiety and learn to worry less.
There is a caution when using coping skills for anxiety that should be mentioned. Be careful that when learning coping strategies, you do not just learn to avoid anxiety at all cost. If all you do is avoid the anxiety you never really learn to cope with it. You never conquer your fear.
For example, if you are in a work situation where you have to go to meetings with many people and this causes you anxiety the solution is not avoidance. In fact, part of the solution is to keep doing what bothers you. This is called exposure therapy. The brain needs coping skills to help it be calm in the midst of anxiety that cannot be avoided.
Often, repetition of the anxiety teaches the brain to get used to the situation and eventually have less stress. Of course, exposure therapy, which especially helps social phobias, has to include coping skills you can use during the anxiety trigger, as well as an exit strategy should the anxiety become too overwhelming.
Exposure therapy should be talked about and practiced in therapy first and then applied to the actual anxiety situation. The goal is to get used to the anxiety a little at a time. For example, I once had a client who had PTSD. His trauma was real, he triggered often, and he could not leave his trailer except once a week to go to my office for therapy.
Eventually, I had him practice going to the store with his wife on the way home from therapy. At first, he could only sit in the car and wait for her to come out. Then I challenged him to walk into the store and immediately go back to the car. After doing that for a while I challenged him to walk to the back of the store and then back to the car. The client was able to do that on a regular basis and it really amazed him.
Eventually, he went on a fishing expedition, for a whole day with four other people. He enjoyed it and had minimal anxiety. It is important to note that his anxiety was not gone but he had found a way to cope with it that gave him options besides just sitting in his trailer all day.
Again, if you have severe anxiety disorder, go to see a counselor and make sure the coping skills they teach you are a healthy balance of relaxation and exposure therapy. Don’t do this on your own.
Strategies for Overcoming Generalized Anxiety Disorder
In my life as a pastor and counselor, I have helped many people with generalized anxiety disorder. Some of the skills I have learned along the way can be used by anyone to help them cope with anxiety.
For your edification, I have listed three spiritual strategies that often help people deal with anxiety/worry:
Three Spiritual Coping Strategies
Use the Bible to calm your fears and lessen your anxiety
For example, turn to passages like the following:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.
Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.
If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? “
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:25-34
A favorite exercise I like to do with clients is to have them find verses (like the one above) that apply to them. Print the verses out, make them colorful, be creative, and put them up around the house where they can read them all the time. This is a lot like using positive affirmations about yourself, except it includes the promises of God which are always sure.
I believe Scripture promises are the best positive affirmations available. If you struggle with worry it is important to remind yourself of what God says. Another verse I like is don’t be angry and don’t fret because fretting leads to evil (Ps. 37:8). There are numerous internet sites that share scripture verses about anxiety. Look them up and get busy.
Have someone pray for you on a regular basis
Find a pastor, a counselor, a mentor, or a spouse to pray with you and for you on a regular basis. Ask them to claim the promises of God that apply to the specific situation that is causing you to worry. Ask your spouse to pray for you when you are asleep, give him/her permission.
Your natural defenses are down when sleeping and the Holy Spirit can minister to you while asleep through those prayers. Get involved with a small home group and spend time in prayer with them once you feel part of the group and safe. If your church has a prayer list get yourself put on it. It does not have to be specific share as much as you are comfortable with. Prayer changes things. God, through prayer, can soothe our troubled minds as no one else can.
Get involved in worship and praise
Sing in church, do something bold like lifting your hands, play praise music around the house, sing a-long with it, have it come in through ear buds (use Spotify) while you do chores. This helps you keep your mind on God and his word and it also shields you from attacks of the enemy. The enemy wants you to worry. He does not want you to praise God. Personally, I have found praise music to help me more with anxiety than almost anything else. It helps me stay in the moment and worry less.
I hope these ideas help you. If you worry or have a severe anxiety disorder you need to talk to someone about it. Anxiety carried alone is a heavy burden. Don’t wait for another second, call and make an appointment. Begin the journey of losing the burden of worry. His yoke is easy His burden is light. There is relief for your anxiety. Jesus cares for you! I look forward to hearing from you!
“Stressed Out”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Anxiety”, Courtesy of Fernando@cferdo, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “A Drop of Sunshine”, Courtesy of Radu Florin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Boating”, Courtesy of Nick Karvounis, Unsplash.com, CC0 License