It began as a feeling that would become dreadfully familiar, but that I had no name for at first. Statistics say that nearly 20% of people will deal with it at some point in their life - many suffering quietly, thinking they’re alone or feeling the shame that something is wrong with them. If you work in ministry, there can be even more of a stigma around it. But it doesn’t need to be this way – so let’s talk about it.
Before I knew the monster had a name, I remember waking up so many nights feeling like I couldn’t take a full breath, sure I was going to suffocate. The me of 10 years ago: an otherwise heathy 21-year-old, newly-married girl just trying to finish her senior year of college…wasn’t sure she’d make it through the night…several times a week. After several months of that, the “anxiety disorder” label came from my doctor.
One particularly rough evening came a few years later, in February 2011. Nathan and I were at home, getting ready to meet some friends for dinner, when all of a sudden, my heart rate shot through the roof. I was literally putting on make-up and petting our dog (not a particularly stressful situation…) when I got hit with 180 bpm out of nowhere. Talk about thinking you’re going to die. Since nothing like this had ever happened before (and we were scared out of our minds), we immediately rushed to the ER. Lots of bloodwork, tests, and scans later, they told me I was physically healthy, and that it must have been a panic attack. I think that was supposed to make me feel relieved. Basically, it was a massive rush of adrenaline similar to what would happen if a bear was chasing you…only, no bear.
My story is probably typical for an anxiety sufferer: it builds to a breaking point when you realize you have to do something about it - acknowledge it – because the rest of your life can’t possibly look like this, right? Reflecting on my own experience with anxiety has actually brought many of those feelings back as I write these words. It isn’t pleasant, and I hate that so many of you can relate to it. But if entering into the hard parts of my story can bring even the smallest relief or step towards healing for one person – it’s worth every bit.
So, here are some things I’ve learned over the last decade. They don’t come from any sort of medical degree or professional training – just years of putting one foot in front of the other and figuring out what’s helped me get to the other side.
Find someone to talk to. Whether it’s a spouse, friend, family member, pastor, or counselor – just the simple act of telling a trusted person that you’re feeling anxious helps lift the burden. Something about anxiety (and depression) tends to make people feel like they are the only ones struggling with it, or that they have to go through it alone, and the reality is that actually exacerbates the problem. You’re way more likely to get stuck in your head and in your fear when it remains an internal conversation – believe me. Try speaking it out loud every time, naming it for what it is, and just watch it begin to loosen its grip on you. If you do choose to talk to a counselor or other professional, they may also be able to help you identify things from your past that could be triggering the anxiety and give you tools for processing through it.
Learn to articulate what you need in those times when it’s the most intense. Early in our marriage, when it became clear that this whole anxiety thing was something that would take time to work through, one of our biggest challenges was the breakdown in communication between someone who regularly experienced overwhelming anxiety and someone who didn’t struggle with it at all.
When you’re in the thick of it, it’s very hard to think rationally about what you need in order to get out of it, mostly because that rational/reasonable thinking doesn’t typically help the feeling go away (this is something non-anxious folks can have a really hard time understanding). Even the most well-intentioned family member or friend probably won’t know what you need in those moments unless you can tell them. In order to figure this out, you’ll need to do the work of assessing your own mental and physical state before, during, and after experiencing anxiety.
What are the things that make you feel more anxious?
These are often the easiest to identify. For me, some of those things are being embraced/touched, feeling trapped, being physically alone, loud noises, and hot spaces. That list may look much different for you, but it’s well worth the investment of time to learn to name them.
Similarly, what often makes you feel less anxious?
Maybe it’s certain music, scents (for me, lavender is very soothing), breathing exercises, praying or meditating on a passage of Scripture (Psalm 116:7 is a go-to for me), having someone to talk to, laughing, being outside.
Whatever those things are, do the work of learning what you need and articulate it to the people closest to you (certainly your spouse or roommate if that applies), preferably initially during a conversation when you’re not feeling overly anxious. That way you can establish some common ground and language for when you do begin to feel anxious, and you can walk through it knowing you have someone on your side.
Don’t think TOO far ahead. Now, I realize I’m talking to a fairly specific type of person on this one, so it may not apply to you. BUT if you’re the kind who looks ahead on the calendar for a whole week or two (or more), mentally listing all the things you have to get done in that time, and it causes the panic to rise because when in the world are you going to do it all – listen up! You don’t have to do it all today. You don’t even have to do it all tomorrow. Try taking things in smaller chunks and setting aside specific times or days to complete each task. Make written or typed lists so you don’t feel like you’re trying to remember everything. Then focus only on what you must do each day. Of course, things will come up along the way because life happens, but it will feel less overwhelming to add those things to your proverbial plate if you’re only holding a day’s worth of food versus an entire week’s.
Exercise. I know, I know…why does every list have to include this one, right? Because it works. Don’t worry I won’t get too science-y here, but exercise (especially aerobic exercise) burns adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and boosts endorphins and serotonin levels. Regular exercise reduces the amount of adrenaline in your body while at rest (so less chance of that fake-out bear attack we talked about earlier) and boosts the brain chemicals that elevate mood and alleviate stress, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness. Who doesn’t want that?
Like any new habit, at first you probably won’t feel like exercising. It’s hard, it takes steady discipline, and there will be times the progress is slower than you want. Go into it knowing that that’s normal and choose to stick with it anyway – the payoff will be so worth it. If you can find an exercise buddy or someone to hold you accountable to a set plan or number of workouts per week, that’s always helpful too.
Do something you love. Many times, the assault of anxiety turns your focus inward, and there can be much shame, anger, fear, and disorientation associated with that. When you feel anxiety creeping up, try taking a break and doing something you enjoy, even if it’s the simplest thing for a few minutes. Take a walk, pet your dog, turn on some music and dance around – whatever it looks like to you – just break the mental cycle by engaging in an activity that brings you joy! Laughter really is great medicine for anxiety.
Practice thanksgiving. I had to come to the realization that (for me at least), anxiety wasn’t just physical, it was spiritual too. On some level, it was based in fear and doubt. Let me pause and say this: I’m NOT saying that if you deal with anxiety it’s because of a general lack of faith. This is not about casting blame. I’m simply acknowledging that the spiritual realm is very real, and that in order to address something like anxiety holistically, I believe we must be willing to talk about all the angles.
Learning to name the things I’m thankful for was a huge step toward my healing and building up that foundational trust in the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. I don’t just mean the obvious/circumstantial type things…I mean learning to see the beautiful, God glory in every day, normal reality in a way that reminds you of His nearness. I’ve learned that it’s impossible to feel truly thankful and anxious at the same time – they just can’t coexist. This is basically putting Philippians 4:4-9 into practice. By paying attention to the gifts all around you, and bringing everything to the Lord with thanksgiving, that peace that passes understanding will guard you from anxiety. Practically, it can look like making a list, taking pictures, talking to someone, or telling the Lord directly through prayer and worship!
Give yourself grace. Resist the urge to feel discouraged if you begin to feel anxious again after a period of feeling good. Like most things in life, the path to growth and wholeness often looks more cyclical than we’d prefer. Sometimes anxiety can rear its head in different ways over time – this is normal. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be stuck in anxiety your whole life, it doesn’t mean that you’re weak, and it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It’s ok, you’re just human like the rest of us. Take a deep breath, process through your life situation, and reflect on what’s changed. Return to the tools that have worked for you in the past.
There may be seasons when more serious or traditional medical intervention is necessary. Over the course of six years, I was on and off several medications for anxiety. There tends to be a lot of shame associated with this in our culture, but sometimes it’s just the only way forward that we can wrap our minds around.
That’s okay – there is grace here too. It does get better.
If you are in a position of ministry leadership and have any history with anxiety in your past or present, my prayer is that you would feel the freedom to talk about it (maybe even write and sing about it!). There is such a temptation for us to feel like we have to have it all together in order to lead well, and while certain marks of maturity and growth do need to there, perfection is not a prerequisite to being a good leader. The shame and doubt that comes from that inner narrative – wondering if there is something wrong with you, thinking you’re not praying enough or somehow lacking in faith – it can be paralyzing. You may find yourself asking how you can help anyone if you’re still on the road to recovery yourself. As long as you’re on the road at all, there will be those behind you who need your testimony and encouragement, even if you’re only a little further ahead. And if you still have a ways to go, allow others who have found breakthrough to be an encouragement to you! This is one of the most beautiful purposes of community, and you will be blown away by the deepening of relationships that come as a result.
Your story is still being written, and it will be beautiful.
The Lord is still working, and He is good.
All is grace, and all will be well.