Small steps that can help you begin the process of managing anxiety
As a ministry leader, you have likely heard someone say to you recently:
“I don’t sleep at night, because I can’t turn off my racing brain.”
“I constantly worry about the future. Where will I end up?”
“My anxiety is like a bag of bricks I drag around every day. I’m weighed down by so many worries!”
Sound familiar? A church member, friend or acquaintance has probably uttered such words to you. Or maybe you’ve said things like this yourself or had similar thoughts slither around in your mind like a venomous snake.
There’s certainly a long list of things to feel anxious about: job security, tight finances, health concerns, political unrest and relationship discord—and feeling anxious in stressful situations is normal and hard to avoid.
Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. The crisis has introduced new terminology, including the word coronasomnia—the inability to sleep because of pandemic-induced fears.
As inhabitants of a troubled world, we cannot escape anxiety for any length of time. Stressors come in and out of our lives often. But for increasing numbers of people, anxiety is a persistent, chronic burden, a debilitating presence that erodes their spiritual, emotional and physical health on a daily basis.
A recent article in Medical News Today began by saying:
“For many, anxiety is an ever-present uninvited guest; in our circle of friends, among family members and in communities at large. It seems to be rampaging through society like a noncontagious cognitive plague, forming a low-level hum that hides in the corners of our collective minds.”
No one is immune to the havoc and hardship caused by unrelenting anxiety—and that includes people we consider to be successful, accomplished and highly regarded. Anxiety does not just affect people struggling with unemployment, financial troubles, serious illness or legal problems. Anxiety is an equal-opportunity troublemaker, laying siege to people all across the economic, professional, religious and age spectrums.
Living with anxiety, panic disorders or phobias makes people feel that their lives are spiraling downward, robbing them of joy and contentment. It doesn’t need to be this way! When I work with clients at the mental health clinic I direct, or when I speak on achieving wellness, I hasten to say:
• Anxiety may not be avoidable, but it is manageable.
• Anxiety may be present in your life, but it does not have to dominate your life.
• Anxiety may temporarily cause you distress, but it does not have to constantly cause you despair.
Overcoming anxiety is a process that takes focus and intentional effort. As I detail in my book The Anxiety Reset, there are no magic formulas or quick fixes. But lasting peace is possible. In this spirit, let me offer several small steps that can help you begin the process of managing anxiety.
1. Consciously Limit Your Information Intake.
Every day, we are bombarded with stats and stories, research and reports—most of which are totally useless and even disturbing. It’s good to be informed about the world around us, but enough is enough. If you want to calm your anxious mind, filter out some of the negative noise.
Make a decision to take a break from the news. The 24-hour news cycle is almost totally focused on gloom-and-doom reports—crime, corruption, and catastrophe. Try going on a “news fast” for two or three days. That is long enough to begin enjoying less negative input—and less anxiety.
Also make the decision to unplug for a while. Lots of people in our connected society would panic at the thought having no access to their smartphone, Wi-Fi or a computer. But a little discomfort can be instructive and helpful. Set aside a day to disconnect from electronic devices and enjoy hiking, riding a bike or reading a book.
2. Make Your Health and Well-Being a Priority.
Eat nourishing meals and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement, while limiting your consumption of coffee, sugar and processed foods.
Get outdoor exercise: Walk, run, bike or hike at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, breathing deeply and enjoying the sun’s natural vitamin D. Add some weight-bearing exercises such as pushups, crunches, squats and bicep curls to keep your muscles toned.
Some days your situation may make you feel so weary and discouraged that self-care is the last thing you want to think about. But here’s the secret: Such downtimes are when focused self-care is most needed and will do you the most good.
3. Maintain Activities That Replenish You.
If you’re not careful, experiencing anxiety can preoccupy you to the extent that you forget the activities that used to bring you relaxation and joy. A big part of healthy self-care is keeping your own life going, continuing the endeavors that invigorate you and make you smile.
Take a moment to identify and write down at least five activities that bring you joy. Going to a movie? Lunch with friends? It could be a day at the museum or the zoo, a picnic at the park or a weekly round of golf. Then begin scheduling these activities and following through. Maintaining your enjoyments is not selfish; it is vital to your well-being.
4. Enlist Support.
Living with persistent anxiety can make you feel isolated and alone. But all around you are other people who are going through what you’re facing—and studies have shown that social support can help you build resilience against stress and provide you with practical ideas for dealing with anxiety.
Do not hesitate to reach out to a close friend, counselor, a fellow pastor or mentor for ongoing help and mutual support. People like this can also refer you to relevant resources and groups that allow others to voice their concerns and encourage one another. Supportive relationships give you a healthy outlet to process your emotions and strengthen you for the challenges ahead.
5. Be Your Own Best Travel Companion.
There is wisdom in the common saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” How sad, then, that so many of us go through life with a harsh and unforgiving attitude toward the one person we’re closest to—ourself! The road ahead is long. How about lightening the load by easing up on yourself?
For one day, carry a pad of paper and pen with you and pay attention to your inner dialogue. What are you saying to yourself throughout the day that could be adding to your anxiety? Examples of negative self-talk that increase anxiety include mind reading (She didn’t say hello when I walked in, so she must be upset with me for something), labeling (I’m just not good enough) and overgeneralization (I’ll never get it right. This always happens to me).
Would you plant these kinds of self-defeating thoughts in the mind of your best friend? Of course not. Be a better friend to yourself. And while you’re carrying around that pad of paper, make a list of your best qualities. Every day for the next 30 days, pick one quality every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and compliment yourself on that quality. Out loud.
6. Envision Your Best Possible Self and Life.
For the next two weeks, spend 15 minutes a day thinking and writing about what it would be like to enjoy the best possible circumstances in your future. Ponder your goals and dreams—and envision that everything works out to be the very best situation. Then spend another five minutes visualizing this best future life as vividly as you can, with lots of details.
This exercise is more than just a feel-good pep talk for yourself; you will be retraining your mind redirecting your thoughts. A study published in the Psychiatry Research demonstrated that this exercise boosted the participants’ levels of optimism.
7. Hold On to Hope.
In your teaching and counseling ministry, you have surely talked about the importance of hope in dealing with life’s difficulties. I also emphasize this topic frequently, knowing that the hope emerging from our faith in God is more than a theoretical concept.
Then I realized something vitally important: many of the hurting people I counseled over the years were eager—or desperate—to overcome their troubles but lacked the key ingredient of hope. Distress and anxiety, usually caused by a variety of factors, were compounded by a fundamental lack of hopefulness and confidence that anything would ever change.
This led me to make hope a cornerstone of all the therapy, speaking, writing, research and treatment planning I do. My team and I also adopted Jeremiah 29:11–14 as our clinic’s guiding Scripture passage:
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back from captivity.’”
I encourage you to reflect on these life-changing words and embrace them as your touchstone as you pursue your own emotional, spiritual and physical wellness. After all, anxious individuals often feel that they are in captivity of sorts—trapped and immobilized by a force bigger than themselves. But God does set people free. Anxiety-ridden people often do not feel enthused about the future—if they can envision one at all. But God will help you renew your dreams and refresh your energy to achieve them. Even longtime followers of God need to be reminded that he is indeed firmly in control, and he does have a hopeful future for each of his children.