Facing fears and dealing with anxiety were the focus of my life for many years. I won’t say that I’m always free from fear or anxiety. But I’ve come to handle these emotions in ways that aren’t paralyzing.
Last week, someone told me that my confidence in a difficult situation made her feel less anxious. Ideally, I want people to feel calmer when I am around. But I also hope that they feel safe to express fears.
In this situation, I was participating in a charity bike ride that covered 200+ miles in three days. The last stretch was on a state highway, where cars zip by at 55+ mph on their way to the coast. I had become accustomed to these riding conditions but still understood her concerns. On the upside, she prompted measures that improved safety for all of us.
Fear can alert me to danger and encourage me to take steps to protect myself. Anxiety, on the other hand, seems like a conglomeration of small and big fears that descend on my psyche and cause uncertainty and angst. Though excessive anxiety is considered pathological (and may require professional treatment), the root of anxious thoughts shouldn’t be ignored.
Here are techniques for dealing with anxiety that have helped me:
Peel off the layers of anxiety
As I mentioned earlier, anxiety happens when my fears accumulate. To a certain extent, I lose track of what is causing the fear and I’m simply afraid and anxious.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus cautions us to “be careful, or your hearts will be loaded down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day will come on you suddenly.” (Luke 21:34, World English Bible). This statement depicts how edging away from truth and letting worries weigh me down can change me to the point that one day I find I’m unable to live at peace.
To remove those layers of anxiety, I’ve pinpointed something, one at a time, causing me to feel anxious. I’ve dealt with that problem. Then, I’ve move to the next concern, and so on. Eventually, anxiousness eases.
In the case of cycling, I learned to segment various fears and develop a plan to deal with each one separately. For example, I may be intimidated by large crowds of cyclists and scared of not being fast enough to keep up with the group. To deal with anxiety, I might decide to start in the front or back to avoid being in the middle of the pack or crowd. I also join rides with people who are interested in riding at a pace that I can maintain.
In a work-related or similar setting, this approach may mean identifying and attacking anxiety triggers one at a time. I may need to view a problem from another person’s perspective, communicate differently, or learn a new skill to become more effective and less anxious. Ironically, doing something new can lead to anxiety. However, taking action tends to ease worry much more effectively than refusing to change.
Stop doing too many things
Being overwhelmed can cause anxiety. When I’ve got too much going on, I remove items from my to-do list.
Using this technique, I might 1) stop participating in certain activities on a temporary basis (that is, skip a meeting or workout); 2) resign from an obligation altogether; or 3) delegate a task.
Focus on one thing
This technique involves putting anxiety aside, no matter how much it grabs my attention. Then, I focus on whatever needs to be done immediately.
The object of my concentration may be a project that requires deep thought, free of distractions. Often, the project itself is a source of anxiety and getting finished or moving to the next step lifts nervous feelings.
Or, I might focus on an activity that doesn’t require complex thinking, such as preparing my favorite meal or getting supplies ready for my next workout. In these situations, being able to block out anxiety may help me realize that the feeling of impending doom is a passing emotion, not a certainty that something bad is imminent.
Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6 to show appreciation as a way of dealing with anxiety. He writes: “In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” (World English Bible)
Being thankful takes my mind off worry and restlessness, and refocuses me God’s faithfulness. When I pause to be grateful, I see that good things are happening in my life because of God’s grace.
Also embedded in Philippians is Paul’s statement that praying leads to peace that passes all understanding. He writes in Philippians 4:7 (World English Bible): “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”
Circumstances may not warrant inner peace but I can receive it anyway.
Anxiety has prompted me to pursue better communications with God. For example, I might pray something like, “I’m anxious, I’m listening.” As a result, I can often better understand his direction and make specific changes in my life that cause me to be less anxious. In many cases, these changes are difficult, but none more overpowering than the paralysis of anxiety.
Note: Don’t hesitate to seek professional counseling for anxiety.