As I mentioned in my last post, I have suffered from anxiety for a very long time, however, I really did not realize I had generalized anxiety until later in life. Once I was able to identify what was going on and that I did not have to always feel that way, I was full of hope. It has not been the easiest thing to overcome and although I will most likely always struggle with anxiety to some extent, I have learned to better manage it.
I think one of the most important things to initially learn and reflect on is the difference between fear, anxiety and worry. Fear typically involves a real threat. Worry typically involves a potential threat, but we have no idea if it is real or not because it is in the future. Anxiety better relates with worry, but it does not always look like worry for me. My generalized anxiety likes to manifest itself in an anxious feeling. I do not have to be specifically worried about anything for my anxiety to be in full force. Worry, however, always makes my anxiety worse.
Fear happens to be something I struggle with. I could even be a low level hypochondriac (I am partly joking, but could be true). For example, if something happens, say my daughter falls and bumps her head. My initial thought is the worst case scenario (like she has a concussion) when the chances of that is realistically very slim. When faced with fear, the first question I have learned to ask myself is “Is there a real threat?” If the answer is no, I am able to work at putting things into perspective and move on. The perspective part is important because if I am not careful, I can make something a “Life or death” matter when it really isn’t. For example, let’s say I am running late for an important meeting. While, this is something that would surely provoke some anxiety, if I look at the big picture, it is just a meeting. Life will go on. I am human, and it is not worth ruining my whole morning.
My generalized anxiety and worry go hand in hand. I have found that the following list works well in helping me manage them both. I hope this will help someone else. Everything expressed is my opinion and what has worked for me.
Follow your curiosity, natural gifts, and passions
I have always believed that God is a big part of the passions and desires that come into our hearts. Looking back now, I truly believe that each of our individual gifts are purposed for us for a reason. For me, this is art, writing, and running. These are the things that I have naturally found to completely calm my mind and body. I did not begin these things to help my anxiety. I simply discovered that they did in the process. I have found that these three passions need to be a part of my life and I work to make that a priority. I believe this pleases the Lord and I hope to use the gifts he has given me to inspire and encourage others.
Take care of your mind and body
Nutrition– As a nutrition educator, I know the benefits of getting adequate vitamins and minerals as well as protein, fats, and carbohydrates. So eating right has not been much of a problem for me; it’s what I do. However, I am human and love sweets! I have found that high levels of sugar increase my generalized anxiety. I have also found this true with caffeine (more than two cups). Therefore, I try to remember that using sugary items to ease my stress, and caffeine to fuel me, is not the best choice if my anxiety is revved up. In addition, Omega 3 (with DHA and EPA) and a good probiotic have been shown to help with mental health and so I take this daily. You should always check with your doctor before beginning any new supplements.
Sleep– I thought I knew sleep deprivation until I had my daughter.
I had a wonderful post-partum experience and never really felt the “baby blues”, but I did find that my generalized anxiety was worse the first year and a half of her life. Looking back, I really attribute this to lack of sleep, hormones, breastfeeding (exhausting and draining, but awesome), and learning to adjust to our new life as parents. I began to suffer from insomnia as I weaned my daughter from breastfeeding. Our house flooded, my mom was very sick, I was ending our breastfeeding relationship, and to top it all off, I could not sleep. For the first time in my life, I felt a level of anxiety that truly scared me. For the first time, I did not believe it was manageable and I made the decision, after talking with my counselor, to get some medication. I was prescribed Zoloft and some sleep medication and after a couple of weeks, I was waking up refreshed and alive. Four months later, I was able to wean myself off the medication and all was well. Some, however, may need more long term medication. After seeing my mom on so many medications her whole life, I was hesitant to take anything, but I am glad that I did. There is no shame in getting help when it is needed. That, my friends, is called courage. I now know how important sleep is for me and make sure to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
Rest– Yes, rest is different than sleep! Even doing way too much of what you love can set your body on overdrive. Good stress or bad stress, it does not matter. If it is too much, too often, the body will respond by getting “stuck” in a fight-or-flight state. I’ve had to learn this the hard way as resting is something I am just not good at! What has helped me most with this is really listening to my body. If it is asking me to just sit down for (for the love), I try and listen. The dishes will get done and the floor will get vacuumed. A shower will happen. It is not the end of the world. Sit down, enjoy the moment. Just be.
Exercise– It is a fact. Exercise is like a miracle drug. It literally changes the brain and helps relieve stress, anxiety, and even decreases depression. It is an all-around great preventative and treatment for mental health. In fact, the top three recommended treatments for mental illness is talk therapy, medicine, and exercise. It is a no brainer. I just cannot forget about the rest part. Exercise is great, until it’s not. If your body is begging you to rest, that may be exactly what you need. As a distance runner, I have learned to recognize the signs of over training and find a balance that works with my running goals and my life.
Out loud-Tell others that you trust how you are feeling. Doug has been amazing for me in this regard. For a long time, I was scared to express my sometimes irrational fears and worries to him. That was hurting us. Now, I feel comfortable doing so and he helps me to think things through and come to a reasonable conclusion about my thoughts. Sometimes they are very valid worries. Sometimes, they are not.
To God- My mom used to be my “worry journal”. We would talk every day and she would help me through anything on my mind. She is no longer able to do that, but she always told me to give all my worries to God first thing in the morning. So most mornings (being honest here), I have my quiet time and journal my worries and a prayer. I usually do this when I run as well. I let it all go, and I say, “I trust you, Lord.” Does this mean the worries don’t creep back in my brain? Absolutely not, but when they do, I try to let them pass through and move on. I have found just saying the words “Jesus, I trust you” throughout the day to be very beneficial in letting the worries pass through.
To yourself- Positive self-talk is a proven strategy to change our thoughts. It requires mindfulness and acknowledgement of what is going on in our heads. If I find myself thinking negatively, I try to immediately replace it with a positive thought. For example, when my social anxiety kicks in, I may find myself thinking “no one likes me” or “I don’t belong here”. I would then combat those thoughts with more positive ones. Thoughts are not facts unless you make them facts.
Live in the moment!
This is always a work in progress for me, but I am getting better and better. I am a thinker! I like to observe and process and reflect. This often gets in my way of mindfulness as I get lost in thought and a moment will pass me by. This one just takes practice. Soak in the beauty around you, find opportunities to learn in each situation, and most of all be grateful.
and last but not least…
Trust God’s promises to us
I don’t want to give the impression that you can “pray your way” out of all anxiety, or any mental illness for that matter. Anxiety, or anything else, is not a moral failure. It is important to find out if you have a true mental illness (chemical imbalance in the brain), or if you simply just worry a lot. There is a difference. So many people struggle with everyday worries and mild anxiety. I think the promises in the Bible and prayer can certainly help with this. However, it is sometimes necessary to seek medical and professional help. Tommy Nelson, a pastor from Denton Texas, has a great speech on his experience with anxiety and depression here. The Bible mentions fear, worry, and anxiousness multiple times. Clearly, the Lord knew it would be a great struggle of many. I have found that when I let go of control (hard), fully trust God (not matter the outcome), and concentrate on His promises, I have so much more peace. Here are a few of my favorite verses:
“Dear brothers, when trouble comes your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.” James 1:2
“With your help I can advance against a troop; with God I can scale a wall.” Psalm 18:29
“It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.” Psalm 18:32
“You can go to bed without fear; you will lie down and sleep soundly. You need not be afraid of sudden disaster or the destruction that comes upon the wicked, for the Lord is your security.” Proverbs 3:24
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you.” Isaiah 26:3
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.” Proverbs 3:4-6