Aug 29, 2016

7 Strategies That Have Helped Me Battle Anxiety




Anxiety looks different for everyone who struggles with it. Months ago, I shared my anxiety story and how I am fighting against it. Since then, I have been so humbled by the response from friends and bloggers who have shared their own anxiety stories with me and asked for strategies to fight anxiety.

For so many years, I hid behind a shame that I had anxiety and thought others would think I was a "bad" Christian because I struggled with anxiety. But in the past several years of being open and honest about my anxiety -- and the amazing healing work God has been doing in helping me work through anxiety -- I have seen the beauty in transparency and vulnerability for the sake of encouraging and being a comfort to others. I have learned it is ok (and very important!) to admit I don't have it all together and that I can not attain perfection and that I can never please every single person. The freedom and rest from working through my anxiety was well worth the pain and tears of digging deep to reveal root issues behind my anxiety. I pray that anything I share about my anxiety will point to the Healer God who is faithful even when circumstances seem impossible and fear seems to overtake every crevice.

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
2 Corinthians 1: 3-5

I love that verse. I hope that I can comfort, encourage, and point others to the God who has comforted me through seasons of anxiety. That's why I want to share some of the things that have helped me in the years of working through anxiety. Let me clarify that this is not a how-to and this list is not exhaustive. There are many things that others may recommend that are extremely useful and wise. But these are things that have helped me and my prayer is that they'd encourage anyone who is going through anxious or depressed seasons. They are a combination of mainstream psychology and Biblical counseling.
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7 Strategies That Have Helped Me Battle Anxiety

1. Replace negative thoughts with positive, realistic thoughts
Our thought process plays a big part in our emotional and mental health. From a psychological standpoint, I believe that when we get consumed with the negative thoughts, they cripple us in fear so that we cannot change our mindset unless we are intentionally replacing them with rational and positive thoughts. From a Christian standpoint, I believe the enemy Satan wants to keep us feeling discouraged and doubtful, so unveiling his lies is an important first step, followed by replacing those lies with truth.
It's been helpful for me to write down negative thoughts, positive thoughts, and Biblical truths. I draw 3 columns on paper and write out all the negative thoughts in one column, then prayerfully think and write down what positive/ truth-filled thoughts can replace those negative thoughts in the second column, and if there is a Bible verse that will help cement that truth in my heart, I add it in the 3rd column. I would carry that paper with me while work was really tough and read through it at times to help me replace my self-defeating thoughts with truth-filled ones. I try to be as specific as I can in the positive/truth-filled thought. For example, a negative thought can be "What if I make a mistake and prescribe a higher dose of medicine than is ok for this child?" I can replace it with a truth-filled thought like "I have done my math, checked my dose again, and am confident in my training and skills to accurately prescribe this medicine." Being aware of the negative thinking patterns is a big step in battling anxiety because you are unveiling the negative thoughts that are causing a lot of the anxious thoughts.  These negative thoughts lose their strong hold on your mind once you reveal them as untrue and replace them with realistic, rational, positive thoughts. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is one way of working through this because it connects the ways we think to the ways we behave.

Resources: MindTools video on Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking and Positive Thinking,  CBT Thought Record


2. Talk about it
From a psychological as well as spiritual perspective, it is crucial to talk through some of these emotions with trusted people. Otherwise, it is easy to think that you're the only one going through these thoughts, which is isolating and simply not true. The God of the Bible is a God who speaks. He spoke the world into creation (Genesis 1), calmed a raging sea with His words (Mark 4), and is called the Word (John 1) for a reason. I strongly believe He wants us to be free of fears and wants us to talk through them within trusted community, whereas the enemy Satan wants to silence and isolate us from trusted community. Who can you trust with the anxious feelings you are experiencing?  For me, it has helped to talk through all of my anxiety with my husband Greg from early on in our dating until now as a married couple. He's the best listener and helps me work through specific anxieties --- plus he gives good hugs, which is sometimes the best medicine.

 I also have seen Christian counselors during three different seasons of increased stress (2012, 2014, and the past 5 months). It's been so great to get Biblical wisdom as well as good psychological resources/skills to help me combat anxious thoughts.  While living in Vancouver, I went to A New Life Christian Counseling and worked with a counselor-in-training who was in her last year of school and interning at ANLCC. It was a lower-cost approach to counseling because I was worried about the expense of counseling. I was paying less than $30 per session since my counselor was a student and she was very knowledgeable and followed up with her preceptor to make sure she was giving the best care.  Now,  I see an awesome woman from our church here in Texas who gives free counseling to women from church. She is a retired counselor and has been exceptional in her knowledge of anxiety as well as Biblical wisdom. Is there anyone in your church you can reach out to, who has experience in counseling? Are there resources in your community for faith-based counseling and/or low-cost options? 

Also, I found it helpful to know who I don't share details about my anxiety with. This is as important as who you do share with because certain people, even with the best intentions, can make things worse by giving platitudes like "you just need to pray more about it!" or "You just don't have enough faith!" or other nice-sounding Christianese things to say that end up just being more frustrating or cause shame and guilt over dealing with anxiety. Yes, prayer and faith in God's ability to conquer your anxiety are important, but in the moments that people with anxiety are opening up and sharing such a vulnerable thing about themselves, it is better to listen rather than immediately advise what they're supposedly not doing right.

3. Evaluate if there are root issues lying beneath the anxiety, worries, fears
Just like a weed has deep roots that need to be dug out or else the weed just keeps growing and multiplying, anxiety is often rooted by deep issues that are often difficult to work through because they unearth past hurt, shame, guilt, fear, or pain. My counselors have helped me work through root issues that have led to anxious thoughts. Greg is great at helping me pinpoint root issues too. For example, I am a recovering people-pleaser and a perfectionist.  A lot of my anxiety comes from fearing failure because I feel like I'd be letting people down. That can grow into a lot of different negative, anxious thoughts that affect my work, married life,  social life, etc.

 I would recommend taking time to think about root issues that may be causing some anxious thoughts. It has helped me to pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal any root issues to work through that are causing me to be anxious that I may not be seeing on my own.

Just a few questions to think/pray about:
--Was there something that happened to you that triggered a specific fear? 
-- Did someone say something that made you unsure of yourself or where you bullied?
-- Are these new worries or have they been there at a lower level and now are becoming a lot more common? 
-- Is there abuse or neglect in your past? If so, have you talked to anyone about it?
-- How do you view your self-worth? What do you find your identity in? If you are a Christian, do you feel you grasp God's grace and the fact you are His beloved child or do you struggle with this? (This was a big one for me).


4. Try to be alert to your body when anxious
When you're in the middle of having  anxious thoughts, it can be easy to descend on a downward spiral of negative thoughts that worsens the anxiety that is brewing. I have found it helpful to pay attention to my body when I am starting to feel anxious so that I can be aware of the anxiety and prevent it from worsening.

1) Some early signs that occur when I am anxious include an increase in my breathing and heart rate, I get a bit sweaty and dizzy, and eventually I would pass out if I don't listen to my body's earlier signs and go sit down. So, as soon as I start to feel the first symptoms of anxiety, I pay attention and do something about it.
2) Paying attention to what my body needs (Am I hungry? Did I sleep poorly last night? Is there stress in other areas of my life that I haven't been working through?) 
3) Deep-breathing helps me pause my negative thoughts to focus on my breathing (distraction), plus it helps return my breathing and heart rate to a slower pace since the sympathetic nervous system is typically triggered by anxiety and causes breathing and heart rate to increase.  I slowly breathe in for 4 seconds, pause for 2-4 seconds, then breathe out for 4-6 seconds, wait a few seconds a then restart x 4. When my breathing calms down, my heartrate follows and the flight-or-fight reactions decreases, which further helps me calm down. 
4) Taking a break. Walking around for a few minutes to clear my mind or just taking a bathroom break can help. There are Bible verses I try to recite while walking such as Isaiah 26:3 ("You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You because he trusts in You"). I'll say quick prayers, asking for God to calm my anxious hear and deep-breathe while walking. It helps to get away for a few minutes, get fresh air, and just change the scenery to clear the mind of anxious thoughts.


5. Focus on the attributes of God as well as who He says I am
 I can battle some of the lies and negative thought patterns with Biblical truth when I focus on who God says He is in the Bible and who He says I am. Meditating on God's sovereignty and omnipotence helps because it reminds me that God is more powerful than any fear or worry I have.  Focusing on who I am in Christ helps me battle lies that I am not smart enough, that I am not capable enough, that I am not qualified enough. I am loved. I am capable. I am worthy. I have a Heavenly Father who doesn't see me as a burden but who loves me with an everlasting love.

Resources:  reminder of who we are in Christ . Jen Wilkin's book on 10 of God's attributes, None Like Him is  great!  I blogged about some of the attributes (see HERE)


6. Paying attention to overall health
Everything is connected in our bodies. Physical, mental, emotional, and social health are all interconnected, so when we don't take care of one aspect of our health, the others soon are affected. Stress affects our physical health and vice versa.  Not getting enough sleep, not exercising, eating junk food, and avoiding trusted friendships and vulnerability for me is a recipe for disaster when it comes to anxiety. The more I take care of other areas of my health, the better able I can address the anxiety. For example, caffeine will worsen my anxiety because it increases my heart rate to the point I feel like I have palpitations, get sweaty, and sometimes end up with a panic attack. So I know I can't have soda, green/black tea, or coffee very often (and when I do, it needs to be with a meal rather than an empty stomach). Are there areas of your overall health that you can work on such as increasing physical activity, eating more whole foods rather than processed foods, and sleeping more?

7. Journal things out 
I have a journal for my anxiety that I have used to process emotions and jot down important things that come up during counseling sessions or while I have worked through certain books on anxiety. It is so great to see the journey God has taken me on when I look back at the pages of this journal. I still have anxiety at times, but I am much more able to combat it now and  I have seen God's faithfulness over and over and over again when it comes to battling anxiety. Writing things down helps me in the moment because sometimes just seeing that negative thought on paper helps me to see how ridiculous it sounds, but it also helps because then I can refer to the positive/truth-filled messages, re-read and meditate on Bible verses that give me peace, and I can look back months or years later and see God's hand and His strength over the anxiety.

Resources: Two books that I have read and journaled through are Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow (a 12-week Bible study on anxiety that helped me a lot a few years ago) and The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (read this last month and it had a lot of great things that helped me see how my anxiety was often a catalyst for mental and spiritual growth).

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These are a few of the strategies that have helped me work through root issues, focus on my overall health, and process some of those thoughts that lead to anxiety. Through it all, I have been drawn close to God and have understood His love is deeper than my deepest hurts and stronger than my biggest fears. I pray that this would be a helpful launching pad for anyone struggling with anxiety to find hope and courage in battling anxiety rather than letting it continually win. The hope, freedom, and peace that results from conquering anxiety is too precious for words. I still battle anxiety from time to time, but I feel better equipped to fight against it now compared to several years ago. Over and over, I see God's faithfulness and help in the midst of anxiety and I know that He is bigger and stronger than anxious thoughts, fears of the unknown, and any other anxiety that comes my way. 

2 comments:

  1. Oh my, Elle ... I just wrote about my own life-threatening struggle with anxiety today ... and shared the same 2 Corinthians verse. We are on the same wave length, friend ... and we're in good company.

    Bless you, girl ...

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  2. such good, good advice! :) <3
    being aware of our bodies when the anxiety hits (those triggers) - and then seeing what is underneath the anxiety thoughts.

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