You might be wondering how I know enough about anxiety to write about it. Well, the truth is, I’ve suffered from it for years. Maybe even my whole life if I’m looking back with real honesty. I know firsthand the crippling effects of anxiety so if I can share some insight and helpful tools with you, and you take something from this, then it was well worth me opening up about it.
1. Have a plan for anxiety attacks, well before their onset.
They usually feel as though they come on without warning and anxiety attacks could feel different for everyone but here’s my experience. An attack has very real, physical symptoms and for me, they feel like what I imagine a heart attack feels like. And though I’ve had several anxiety attacks over the years, the symptoms are so physical in nature, that every single time I question whether it’s a heart attack or an anxiety attack. My left arm will hurt and sometimes go numb. Then I will experience pain in my chest and around my heart. My breathing becomes rapid and shallow. My mind begins to race. My heart races. My blood pressure sky rockets. My throat feels as though it’s closing and I lose the ability to swallow normally. This last part causes a fight or flight response and I believe I’m going to die. Attacks tend to hit when I’m not getting enough sleep, when I’m sick or when I’m dealing with a stressful situation but sometimes they just come out of nowhere. I usually think to myself, “why is this happening? I’m not stressed!” but sometimes our body knows better than we do.
It’s important to have a plan in place to help you work through the attack, BEFORE you find yourself in medical crisis. Here are my best tips;
- Designate someone you trust to be your person through an attack. Your spouse, your roommate or another adult you live with. If you live alone, have someone you can call. Have a conversation with them asap, asking if they can be your support through future attacks. Whether they are sitting beside you during the next attack or speaking calmly to you on the other end of the phone, you don’t want to go through an attack alone. This person will be the one to initiate your coping skills and walk you through them.
- Practice easy grounding tools and be ready to put them into use during an attack. (This is also something that should be gone over in advance with your entrusted person.) Playing the alphabet game (“Hi my name is Annie and I come from Alabama and I like apples” and so on) is a great tool. Maybe it seems silly but it can be a funny game and laughing can relax your tight muscles. It’s useful because anything that is distracting and takes your attention away from the symptoms you’re feeling, forcing you to think about something specific and outside of yourself-in this instance letters, names and food-the sooner those symptoms will disappear. Sometimes my husband will even just look up random information on the internet, like useless things you never knew you needed to know, and read it off to me. It usually makes me laugh and this has a calming effect on my body. We’ve all heard the old saying, laughter is the best medicine, well it’s true! Look it up if you’re into all that brain science. It’s actually pretty cool! Another idea is looking around the room and finding an object to focus all your attention on. Settle your eyes on the clock for instance, and watch as the hands spin around. Describe the clock. Say aloud to yourself the time, then the date, then where you are in the house. Repeat simple mantras such as, “I’m safe. I’m loved. I’m going to be okay.” Even better, have your person repeat these things to you too.
- Lay on your left side. I learned this technique when I was pregnant and experiencing high blood pressure and tachycardia. The doctor would have me lay on my left side either in the office or while resting at home, to slow things down and bring my vitals back within normal range.
- Drink something warm, preferably caffeine free. I keep chamomile tea on hand for just such an occasion. It’s naturally relaxing and calming and will usually make me sleepy. My husband will make me a cup and have me drink it slowly as we talk and he attempts to take my mind off things.
2. Write things down.
When you’re anxious, the last thing you need to be doing is trying to weed through the mess in your head. Good luck trying to remember everything you need to accomplish in a day or week much less anything else. Most things feel too overwhelming so one of my very best tips is to write it all down. Yes, everything!
- Make lists. When you’re anxious, it’s hard to keep straight everything that needs to be done throughout the day. It might seem silly, but write it all down and include everything, even little things you think you might remember like “take a shower”, “make dinner”, “call the pediatrician”. When you put it on paper, you instantly quiet the noise in your head. Then comes the best part…crossing off each item as you work through the list. Is there any better satisfaction than crossing things off a list? Heck, sometimes I include things that I’ve already done during the day just to see them crossed off!! It’s an easy way to feel good about what you’ve accomplished and seeing it on paper goes a long way to boost your mood.
- Keep a journal. There’s so many ways to keep a journal but the most important thing to know is this; it does not need to be fancy or thorough! In fact, it doesn’t even need to be beautiful. What do you already have in your house that you can use? Put some lined paper in a binder. Use an old notebook. Maybe you even have a journal collecting dust that you received long ago as a gift. The point is not how it looks but to be able to write down your thoughts. You can record what the day was like or what you did. You can keep a prayer journal so you can look back and see how God worked in your life and the life of those you pray for. You can keep a gratitude journal. You can write down your worries and fears. Just get it out of your head and down on paper.
- Brain dump. Remember back in grade school when you learned to do a story map? Now apply that to something that is causing you anxiety today. Whatever that thing is, write it down in the center of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it. Now draw as many lines as you need to, branching out from that circle and write down the issues connected to that stressor. Circle those and branch off as many more times as needed, writing down the fears, the worries, the stresses but just get it on the paper. Now you’ve taken that anxious thought and given it a name. You’ve acknowledged it. You can see it with your own eyes. Now take it further. My favorite way to tackle this exercise is with this free tool from Christian author and speaker, Jennie Allen. She gives you a quick and simple way to weigh the anxious thought against what God says is true and the free templates she provides are just simply awesome. I highly suggest this tool! The point is, silence the noise. End the chatter. Untangle the mess. And decide if what’s weighing you down is even true. When you put it onto paper you will instantly feel some relief!
- Write down you’re grateful for. Whether you keep a gratitude journal or write 1 thing you’re grateful for every single day on a sticky note and attach it to your kitchen cabinets or your bathroom mirror or somewhere else where you’ll be reminded of the good in your life regularly, the key is to surround yourself with good when everything in your head feels overwhelming and dark.
- Write out scripture. What Bible verses are encouraging to you? Write them down in a notebook, on a chalkboard, on a sticky note, or an index card and look at them often. Surrounding yourself with the word of God helps you focus on what is good and true and writing down these verses is a way to memorize them and write them on your heart. Scripture is a tool for life, drawing you closer to God, helping you to understand who He is, what His plan is for you and helping you get through the hard stuff.
What you create isn’t as important as how you feel when you’re creating it. So whether you like to color, write, cook, bake, knit, crochet, make music, make jewelry, sew, quilt, make pottery, draw, paint, etc….creating is a form of release. When you create something you’re expressing yourself, engaging in a healthy distraction, being productive and well, it’s just good for the soul. This is a wonderful way to ease anxiety, process things and perhaps even work through your feelings.
Worship God. Worship not only brings Glory to the King of Heaven but it’s also a tool. Have you ever turned on Cristian radio when you were having a bad day and noticed how quickly you felt at peace as you sang along? We can worship God in many different ways; with our voices, instruments and art. Praise him, turning your focus toward his goodness, his faithfulness and his trustworthiness and he will ease your anxiety and fill you with peace.
5. Go to therapy.
There is no shame in getting help. There’s something I really need you to know about therapy. Are you listening? Do not EVER let anyone tell you that if you were a true Christian or if you had enough faith, or you must be sinning if you’re struggling, or if x-y-z were happening-then you wouldn’t need therapy. Don’t listen. That bologna is from the enemy and it’s not true. Needing help doesn’t make you weak or more of a sinner than the person who doesn’t need therapy. Therapy doesn’t make you anything BUT stronger. I highly suggest finding a Christian, certified therapist, to help you work through whatever is keeping you stuck. And then, feel good about doing what is right for you and don’t worry about what is or isn’t right for someone else.
6. Focus on what is true.
In Philippians 3:4-9, Paul tells the people at Philippi this;
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again; Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God; which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, 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. Whatever you have learned from me, or seen in me- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
In my opinion, this is the toolbox that God gives us for anxiety. If we do these things, we’re told that we will have a peace that transcends all understanding. I don’t know about you, but when I’m anxious, it’s hard to see a way out. It’s hard to imagine whatever issue is stressing me out, being a non-issue. Anxiety makes it impossible to see 2 steps ahead. But a peace that transcends all understanding? Sign me up!
Another part of this practice takes great discipline and intention; turn off the bad content. In the habit of scrolling through news apps as you’re laying in bed at night? Stop it now! Suffering from anxiety and binge watching dateline or murder shows? Now might be a good time to take a break and examine what you’re consuming and when. As someone whose very sensitive, with a bend towards anxiety, I have to be very conscience of what I take in, often leaning towards more light hearted and positive content. especially before bed.
7. Pray and read your Bible.
Life might seem out of control. Worry might have you feeling lost and afraid. The very best thing you can do is to be in relationship with God and to fill your mind and your heart with His word. If you never open up your Bible, you’ll never know the treasures he put in there for you. When you pray, he listens. If you’re too anxious to find the words, just say, “Jesus.” He knows your heart.
8. Care for yourself.
Us women, moms especially, often have a hard enough time taking care of ourselves and when we’re struggling with anxiety, this only makes things worse. It’s vital that you’re putting self-care at the top of your priorities if you have anxiety. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking more water than you think you need, getting some exercise and make a point to spend some time everyday outside, even if you’re just sitting in the sun. Have a favorite lotion? Just taking a couple of minutes to massage it into your hands and arms can be very grounding. Get into a routine that involves putting yourself first down for a designated time each day or night. Another important part of self care is getting time alone. Make this last one happen even if it’s hiding in the laundry room for a few minutes or locking yourself in the bathroom and taking an extra long shower or bath.
9. Give to others.
Often times when we’re struggling with something, giving to others is a great way to gain perspective, make a difference and be the hands of God. Whether you give back to a cause that’s important to you through donations or your time, or if you’re helping someone in your circle, giving is a great way to step outside of yourself, to be distracted from whatever is weighing you down and will likely be a boost in mood, helping to ease your anxiety.
10. Set yourself free.
Talk about your anxiety, don’t keep it in. Did you know there’s power in naming aloud what the enemy meant to hurt you with? Put it out there and it suddenly loses power over you. Bring it into the light as soon as possible knowing that Satan wants it to silently torment you. Find someone to confess this fear, worry or endless cycle of anxious thoughts and watch it lose it’s grip on you. Now it’s no longer a secret. Now you have someone to support you through it. Now the shackles have been unlocked. Sure, sometimes anxiety is caused by problems that don’t simply go away by talking about them but whatever it is, it’s going to carry much less weight once you can stop living with it alone and invite someone in. What’s more? When you open up about your anxiety, you’ll be encouraging another woman to open up about hers. Instant community, trust, camaraderie and understanding. Neither of you will feel alone in your anxiety again. Also, if there was ever a time to feel comfortable talking with others about being anxious, now, as we walk through a global pandemic, is the perfect time. I promise everyone you know has been experiencing it too. So speak up!
You can do all of these things and do them right, and still get anxious. Paul, gave his life to Christ and went on to live a tumultuous life here on earth. He was hunted down, imprisoned, beaten, mocked and shipwrecked but he kept his hope on Heaven. In Philippians 3:13-14 he says, “Brothers, I do not yet consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do; Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” The fact that he says “straining” really stands out to me. He doesn’t say the journey towards peace is easy. He says he strains toward, implying resistance and an upward battle. He faces hardship after hardship but he gets knocked down and then gets right back up again. He continuously redirects his attention to the direction God gives us and puts his hope in God, not in this broken world.
My hope for you, as you fight through anxiety like so many of us do, is that you would know you’re not alone. That you would keep your eyes fixed on truth and remember what Jesus said;
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
You can do this because he already did. You
are not alone. You are loved. And you are going to be okay.