According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States every year. And research shows that anxiety among Americans is increasing every day. Whether you or a loved one is dealing with anxiety, we have a few ways that can help all of us cope with anxiety.
What Is Anxiety?
We hear about anxiety being a mental health disorder, but don’t many of us suffer from anxiety? Is it really an illness? Or is it something everyone has?
Although it can be hard to differentiate everyday anxiety from anxiety disorders, what I do know is anxiety is something I’ve experienced for over 15 years. Growing up, the word anxiety wasn’t used as frequently as today. I recall experiencing sensations of panic, feeling an urge to complete things (not even knowing what needed to be done at times—more a sense of I should be doing something), and trying to always please others. Although I couldn’t put a label on these uncomfortable feelings, I knew something was different.
A climax in my life was when my parents divorced during my junior year of high school, or should I say when the divorce started (it lasted over two years). In this season, I had no freedom, no choice, no control.
I depended on my parents financially and emotionally. My father could not live with us during the divorce. My older siblings were in college, so I was left alone with my mother. I felt my life was spiraling out of control.
I felt like I needed to somehow get my feelings and life under control myself. But what could I use to make these uncomfortable feelings go away? I would turn to food to help cope with my anxiety.
During my junior year of high school, I developed an eating disorder. After five years of using food as a way to cope with anxiety, I experienced recovery when discovering a power higher than myself during inpatient treatment. Eventually, I relapsed, entered outpatient therapy, and achieved three years of sober living (without the eating disorder). In 2016, I relapsed again and the journey to healing began again, but this time, with more tools in my toolbox and more confidence.
We all have struggles, and many are ongoing battles we are never healed of completely until heaven. Perhaps, these struggles and battles are the thorns in our sides.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. — 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NIV)
While living free of the eating disorder, I now no longer had my “go-to” coping mechanism, leaving me with no way to self-soothe when panic and anxiety threatened to overpower me. Sometimes, I’d be so overwhelmed, I would freeze; my mind never stopped. This is where my years of therapy and my coping toolbox came into play.
How Can I Cope with Anxiety?
So, how do I cope with anxiety? What tools can I have ready to go when my emotions attack me unexpectedly? Having a healthy repertoire of tools can make or break your response in stressful situations.
Turn to God’s Word.
On earth, there is a real battle of good versus evil that you and I face each day. The Bible says we are the Bride of Christ, and therefore, I like to think of myself as a “Warrior Princess”! My weapon of choice: the Word of God.
Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. — Ephesians 6:17 (NIV)
Have you practiced using it lately? Do you know it well? I, for one, can always spend more time memorizing Scripture. Like any skill, memorizing Scripture takes practice as will the other tools in our toolbox. With practice, the right verse will come to mind just at the right time. Reading and understanding God’s Word can ease your anxiety and encourage you to move forward with a healthier mindset.
Do breathing exercises.
Every time I feel a tightness in my chest, there is a great saying that replays in my mind: “One of the few things we can control on this earth is our breathing.” I am not exactly sure who said it, but I know it has helped me in some of my most anxious moments.
When my shoulders are tight and arched, I know I need to take a deep breath (or four) to help me cope with anxiety. Since I carry much of my stress in my shoulders, a few breaths, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly and counting to four, can make a world of difference.
A perk with breathing exercises is you can do it anywhere and anytime. It is a great tool when you are at work, at home, or on the go.
Step away from the stress.
What I mean by stepping away is changing the scenery. During the work day, I try to keep up a constant pace from 9-5. But I normally only make it to 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. At this time, I can become almost frantic and start snacking, or I can choose to escape and change my scenery.
Some people like to walk, but I prefer sitting in my car. I process very slowly. So, when forced to be still in my parked car, I enjoy a beautiful stillness with God. Sometimes, I take a quick 15-20 minute power nap, and the rest of the day I’m a different (and improved) person to work with.
Seek help through medicine and therapy.
First off, notice how I included medicine and therapy. There is no magic pill alone that can change your behavioral responses. However, for some individuals, there is medicine that can alleviate the anxiety to a point where you can respond more rationally with therapy.
Medication is not for everyone, and that’s ok. It is a personal decision. For me, if a daily pill can allow me to focus better and grow my relationship with Jesus in a healthier way, I’m going to take it. Also, medication may be better for those who continually experience anxiety, not only during atypical circumstances in life.
As for therapy, it is not an easy journey. It takes courage and a leap of faith to start. Additionally, finding the right therapist (one you can connect with) can take months. The best advice I have is to start. Ask friends for recommendations, talk with your doctor, and make that initial appointment.
Journal your thoughts and feelings.
Another tool, more so after the anxiety calms a bit, is journaling. As mentioned above, I process very slowly. So, writing allows me to work through issues that I haven’t even acknowledged yet.
Additionally, it’s wonderful to reflect on lessons I’ve learned or reasons why I responded a certain way. Sometimes, journaling clarifies my thoughts.
For example, a great litmus test I give myself daily is “Am I feeling shame or guilt”? Shout out to Dr. Brené Brown on her research on shame and guilt. Shame says, “You are a bad person,” and guilt says, “You did a bad thing.” Shame is always counterproductive.
Lastly, journaling helps with fact checking. If my journaling involves another individual 9 times out of 10, I must confront that person. Oftentimes, anxiety creates irrational stories.
For example, I became anxious when taking time off because I thought my supervisor was mad at me for doing so. I confronted him, and he practically giggled and assured me there was no anger/madness/frustration with taking time off. In fact, he encouraged it. Without journaling and reflecting on my anxiety, I might not have realized my anxiety was causing me to have a distorted view of reality and of other people.
Learn your triggers.
In my life, I like routine. Controlling or the illusion of controlling gives me comfort. Being in a routine, I have noticed times when I become more anxious than others. These situations are my triggers.
For example, when I am given multiple tasks to do at once, I become overwhelmed and irritable. I snap at co-workers. I know this is a trigger, meaning I need to step away and change my scenery as well as breathe.
Also, my genetics ooze with anxiety. My mother is bipolar type 2, my sister has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and my grandpa did as well. So, I know it is important for me to find healthy ways to cope with anxiety.
Below are more triggers you might relate to:
- Being at a stressful job or in a difficult work environment
- Driving or traveling
- Withdrawing from drugs or certain medications
- Experiencing side effects of medications
- Going through trauma
- Having phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of crowds or open spaces) and claustrophobia (fear of small spaces)
- Facing a chronic illness such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma
- Suffering with chronic pain
- Being diagnosed with another mental illness such as depression
- Drinking too much caffeine
I have already shared how I cope with anxiety. But not the same coping mechanisms work for everyone because we are all created uniquely.
Below are additional tools that could fit into your toolbox:
- Practice aromatherapy.
- Do 15 minutes of yoga (or other forms of exercise).
- Make healthy changes to your diet. Consider adding healthy choices and supplements such as lemon balm, omega-3 fatty acids, green tea, and dark chocolate (in moderation).
- Get enough sleep.
- Accept that you cannot control everything. Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
- Welcome humor. A good laugh goes a long way.
- Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, which creates a support network and gives you a break from everyday stress.
- Distract yourself by listening to music, cleaning your house (one of my personal favorites), coloring (get an adult coloring book).
- Meditate on Scripture and pray to God.
- Call a friend.
Coping with anxiety requires continually submitting to God and using healthy coping tools. When you experience anxiety, I can assure you that you’re not alone. I’ve had therapy for over 15 years, and I am humbled and honored to share the wisdom I have. I pray these tools to cope with anxiety comforts you in the journey of life.
Join us this weekend for our sermon series, “Things That Keep Us Up At Night,” to learn more about how to cope with anxiety and to find peace and joy despite the circumstances we face.