How to deal with anxiety, worry and fear
Many people struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, worry and fear. They often talk about being trapped by these feelings. They just can’t think of anything else or don’t know what to do to make them not so overwhelming. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, as of 2018, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.”
To assist those with anxiety related concerns, the information below is provided. These suggestions are only a few of the many things people can do to help themselves with anxiety related concerns, including panic attacks, and all should be personalized and adapted by those who use them to provide the best fit and usefulness for each individual. The suggestions below are not in any particular order. They include the best research and practice from both psychology and Christian counseling.
One caution: many of those with severe and persistent anxiety, worry and fear may need to see a psychiatrist or family doctor to be placed on medication. Some anxiety disorders are the result of a genetic predisposition to anxiety and are best treated by medical professionals. Additionally, many individuals suffering with anxiety, worry and fear in essence learned to have these feelings from very traumatic and frightening events, often many events, in their past, or from parents or caretakers who modeled this way of thinking and feeling. Often experiencing these events when they were very young, they made sense of the events using the mental abilities they had at the time, but often these reflect very young minds. Anxiety related to traumatic events and/or modeling by others is often best aided by a trained therapist or counselor. If you have a strong faith or religious belief it is often helpful to find a counselor who also shares those beliefs and can bring in faith-based perspectives into the counseling. A final point, obviously many people can be helped by BOTH medication and counseling, as well as the resources below. You can feel better!
- See if you can identify what is driving your anxiety, fear or worry. This means identifying the underlying beliefs or thoughts that your emotions are based on. Do not just react to the emotions, the part of the iceberg above the water, but see what is underneath it. These may have been events that occurred in childhood you actually forgot about, or things you try and NOT remember. If you don’t pull the weed out by the roots, it will just grow back. Dealing with the feelings only is seldom successful.
- Come to believe the feelings are not TRUTH; they are symptoms of your deeply held beliefs, or learning we described above. Our feelings are often the result of the ways we tried to understand, or make sense of the behavior of those around us or the experiences we have had. If you were very young when these things happened, then give yourself grace since you were basically using a very young mind to try and figure things out. It may be time to update your beliefs.
- Evaluate whether or not your feelings are based on beliefs that make sense or are realistic when you say them out loud. What real evidence is there for them? Even if they are based on real events from your experience, don’t conclude that your beliefs are helpful or factual for all situations, people and time. If you grew up in an abusive household, what was true for you at that time in your life may have been true, but is not something that applies to all people in all situations at all times. Learn to bracket your beliefs. A good exercise is for those of you who instantly say, but it might happen again to see if you can challenge that belief. For example, are the people in your life now really the same? Are you really the same? Haven’t you grown in understanding, wisdom and strength since the events from the past happened?
- Can you really trust your feelings are from you? Are you just parroting what your parents, an ex-lover, or someone else modeled or told you (probably over and over). If you have a Christian worldview, how do you know your thoughts and feelings are not being manipulated by your enemy – Satan, the world and your own desires (sin)?
- It is often helpful to write out the lies you have been believing and then put in the truth – even if you are not completely convinced but you do know the truth deep inside. For Christians, a great resource is the ministry, Freedom in Christ. They have a bookmark and online list of the lies of Satan and God’s truth, followed by a collection of verses on how we are fully Accepted, Secure and Significant in Christ.
- Can you recall times in the past, even one, when what you feared would happen didn’t happen? Can you use this information to help yourself calm down and see your feelings as just feelings, transient, short lasting experiences that will only get worse if you treat them as true and dwell on them. If you answer, “but I can’t get my mind off them,” just keep reading.
- A common psychological truth is you can’t have nothing in your mind, except if you actually practice Buddhism regularly. For most of us we can’t just get rid of our bad or unwanted thoughts without replacing them with something else. Otherwise, we return to them. One technique is to count your blessings. This is not just for religious people, but is actually critical if you want to retrain your brain. If you grew up around people who were both anxious and depressed, you really need to do some mental spring cleaning on your thoughts and beliefs. So, what are some things you can feel thankful, grateful for, or appreciative of? Write them all down, and expand on them, don’t shortchange their power or effectiveness by being too abbreviated in your list. Many people during the COVID-19 lockdown became only too aware of all the people, things and experiences they took for granted every day and missed so much. For Christians, two obvious truths from the Bible are Romans 12:2 “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and Philippians 4:6-8, “6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 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. 9 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.”
- Christian or not, you may find it helpful to Google all the Bible verses on anxiety, peace and fearlessness. Write them all out, don’t just copy and paste them. Then read the verses as God speaking directly to you, not as if they are just words on a page. Read them as Jesus would speak them, patiently, lovingly, gently. You can also hear many of these spoken in a presentation found at: fathersloveletter.org. This is based on their love letter from God format, which is very powerful.
- Learn to sit with your emotions and thoughts, as an observer would watch a play in front of them. No need to react to them; you are just observing. See them as random thoughts, impressions, passing feelings. If these were actually narratives in a play or movie, what would the author be telling the audience? What can you learn from them? Instead of internally saying something like, “Oh, no, I can’t stand this,” try “This is really fascinating, I wonder why this theme always emerges, or these people are always in the play?”
- As a Christian, don’t fight or wrestle with your fears, hand them over to Jesus, moment by moment. Take time to read through Romans 5:1-6, and 1 Peter 1:1-7. Take the opportunity to challenge yourself to grow deeper in your faith. Some people say, “I know all this, even believe it, but am still afraid.” We all become fearful or anxious at times. Face it – life is tough, and people can be unkind. However, can you grow in your humility, trust and dependence on God through this circumstance? Don’t avoid the feelings, learn from them. External challenges and internal distress can both lead us to a closer relationship with Christ, the ongoing goal of all Christ followers. You can really learn to “count it all joy” as you bury your face in your Father’s embrace and let his comfort encircle you.
- Learn the skills of relaxation. No one can just turn off their feelings, and it is always not as simple as “throwing your cares on God because he cares for you.” Many people need time, practice, support from others, and knowledge on how to truly do this. So here are some relaxation skills:
- Take a warm bath or shower. Play music that you find relaxing – some people like loud, some soft, some with vocals or only instrumental. Scented candles of lavender are very helpful. Exercise, exercise, exercise. Walk, jog or go bicycling and enjoy the scenery. Strength training, high intensity aerobics is also helpful if you are able. Getting up from where you are when upset and changing rooms, going to a friend’s house or local park, anything that can get you out of your rut and head is helpful.
- Natural supplements and vitamins are helpful. Common ones cited include: Vitamin B Complex, Calcium-Magnesium, and Kava-kava. Ashawanda and Melatonin are also helpful for sleep.
- Many people feel all alone, and when upset tend to have more negativistic thinking assuming an even darker picture of their life. When NOT in distress, sit and make out a list of all the people you COULD reach out to. Include friends, family, pastors, church friends, people in hobby or sports groups, both those you know well and those you think you might want to know better. Fight off the stinking thinking of “No one really cares,” “I don’t want to bother anyone, they have their own problems,” “I don’t want people to think I’m crazy,” or “I’m just a private person.” Many behavioral scientists are now saying we are suffering a pandemic of loneliness. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Since most people are feeling exactly like you are, almost everyone wants someone to connect to, share life with, or feel needed by. That is the way we are built. When you reach out to someone else you are likely helping them as much as yourself!
- Lastly, read through the handout below, “How to Relax” and learn seven specific skills that research has shown to be very helpful in dealing with all kinds of emotional distress.
Feelings of anxiety, fear and worry can be extremely distressing, even disabling at times. Just remember they are feelings that come and go. They are often based on a combination of traumatic or distressing events, have been modeled by others important to you growing up, may be genetically inherited and treatable medically, and can be greatly improved with the tools listed above. Know the truth and the truth will set you free.