4 steps to stop anxiety

Ah, the one question I get asked more than any other, in all of its variations.

“What do I do with my anxiety?”

“How do I overcome my cyclical thoughts?”

“How do I stop worrying?”

Because America is sick with anxiety. There’s nowhere else in the world where people run themselves quite as ragged chasing after the hope of finally being happy someday.
New job. New house. New spouse.

Bigger. Better. More, more, more.

It feels like anxiety is in our water. (Side note: drinking tap water is probably not helping you out in this area.)

We constantly strive and struggle and set up new obstacles for ourselves to overcome. It’s no wonder so many of us wake up with paralyzing anxiety on more days than not.

So what do you do about it?

I mean right now, what is it you do about it? Think for a minute: how do you normally respond to anxiety?

Do you lie in bed and worry? Do you stop eating until your hair falls out?
Maybe you work harder, run faster, stop sleeping and push yourself (until your hair falls out.)
Do you over-eat, over-drink, over-exercise?
Do you have a consistent coping mechanism? Maybe there’s something that you can do to bring you enough peace to keep going.

I used to wake up almost every day with a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that I was going to be found out as a fraud. I never felt I was quite enough to be in the position of leadership that I found myself in. Not old enough, experienced enough, sure enough, disciplined enough, thin enough…

My response was to bury myself in Scripture and prayer until I got myself to a place where I felt I had overcome my fear. The lurking anxiety had, once again, been kept at bay, and I could go on with my day and my roles — all the things other people expected me to do and be.

The problem with this approach is that I was essentially wrestling the anxiety(/worry/fear) until I won. I’d talk myself down until I could make logical sense of the world again. But as I’m sure you know, since anxiety is a worthy opponent, sometimes you just don’t win the fight. Sometimes all the prayer in the world can’t silence your fears.

Or, when I left the church, I replaced it with a few other coping strategies. But sometimes all the hedonism or positive self-talk in the world can’t silence your fears, either. Through all of this, I never actually listened to my fear — I bet if I had, I’d have learned a lot about myself, and probably left religion behind a lot sooner.

I might have seen that I feared being “found out” because I wasn’t actually being honest with myself, and that meant I wasn’t really living in my integrity — true to who I really am. 
I might have discovered that my fear of being alone kept me in community, and my fear of not having what I need kept me in a job that was no longer healthy for me.

By avoiding my fears until they led to a breakdown, I missed the chance to grow from them before they became paralyzing and all-consuming. Eventually they got loud enough that they just couldn’t be ignored.

So now let’s talk about you. We’ve all got some pretty excellent tricks up our sleeves to distract us from the worries and fears in the back of our minds. They may be incredibly different for each of us, but each of them has one thing in common: they’re all reactive.

When you decide to react to anxiety instead of listening to it, you’re fighting fear with fear. You get so afraid of your own anxiety(/worry/fear) that you will do anything to fight it off.

You plan until you feel in control again.
You pray until you feel comforted that you’re not.
You play until you forget about your worries.
You rehearse scenarios in your mind, you replay so you can find some understanding, you avoid so you can be someone, anyone else.

But even if you win this time, it just hangs around until the next chance it gets to battle again.

Okay, so, if battling isn’t the answer — if reacting doesn’t actually stop anxiety — what in the world do I do instead?

Receive.

Receive what your anxiety has to offer you.
Listen to your fear.

If your emotions have something to say, they will not go anywhere until you listen to them.

When you attempt to fend off your worries, you’re really just talking over them until you can’t hear them anymore. But they never really stop talking, do they?

And the more you react and fight them, the louder and fiercer they’re going to get.
They won’t stop until they’ve been heard.

Stop reacting, and start receiving.

Yes, it means that you’re going to have some feelings. You might feel more deeply than you’re comfortable with, and you might feel crazy.
Don’t judge them; acknowledge them.
Don’t try to fix them; allow them.

Your anxiety has something to offer you.

When you allow emotions, acknowledge them, and express them, you can receive something from them. You can grow from them. Most importantly, you won’t have the pressure of beating them at all anymore.

So what do I do with my anxiety? Here are four quick steps to start:

1. Notice it.

First, just acknowledge that you’re experiencing some emotional feedback.

Instead of steamrolling over it, make space in your day to notice what you’re feeling, sit with it, and take 5 deep breaths.

2. Name it.

Call it what it is. It’s very helpful to simply say it out loud:
“I’m feeling afraid/anxious/worried.”

3. Nurture it.

Allow it to be there. Remind yourself, “It’s okay to feel afraid.”
Again, very helpful to say these words out loud to yourself. Look in the mirror, place a hand on your heart or on your face. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be afraid of your own fear.

4. Know it.

Start to ask it questions.

What are you anxious about? What might happen that has a hold on you?
What is it that makes you feel this way?
Do you have other places in your life where you feel this anxiety impacting you?

Listen to it. Learn from it. At the very least, realize that it isn’t a threat to be fought off.

Receive your anxiety. It is yours, after all.

It just might have something valuable to teach you about yourself.

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