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What is Anxiety and What Can I Do About It?

By Michelle Garrett, MS, LMFT

We have all experienced anxiety and fear. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to learn many life lessons without it. As a baby grows and develops, they need the ability to sense fear so that they will be able to learn about themselves, others, and the world. From fear, they will learn what to avoid. Fear is necessary for survival—anxiety, not so much.

Living busy, over-committed lives can keep us living in chronic anxiety, which can signal a need for help and some life changes. How can you tell if you’re experiencing anxiety or fear?

According to Anxiety.org, anxiety is defined as “a physiological and emotional response to a threat that the brain perceives. Fear, on the other hand, is a response to real danger.” Differentiating necessary and realistic fear from chronic, problematic anxiety is often difficult because anxiety and fear both send messages to the brain that are then interpreted as a potential threat, triggering the fight-or-flight response.

Think about it like this—healthy fear is in response to a specific event. For example, the fear of a hot stove keeps you from touching it. But unhealthy fear that triggers anxiety is about something general—an overwhelming sense of worry or fear that you can’t stop thinking about.

So, what happens when anxiety becomes an all too familiar companion, interrupting our sleep, thoughts, relationships, health, and well-being? Many people experience anxiety from time to time, but repeated, continued bouts of anxiety may indicate an anxiety disorder. Mayo Clinic offers a general list of symptoms that are common to people dealing with chronic, diagnosable anxiety disorders:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense

  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom

  • Having an increased heart rate

  • Breathing rapidly / hyperventilating

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Feeling weak or tired

  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry

  • Having trouble sleeping

  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

  • Having difficulty controlling worry

  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety

Experiencing a couple of these symptoms from time to time is probably not a concern. But if you or someone you love is experiencing multiple symptoms, experiencing severe symptoms, or experiencing one or more symptoms on a regular basis, you might have a specific disorder.

There’s often a stigma about mental health disorders, but having anxiety doesn’t mean that you’re weak, less than, or not faithful enough. The same way that someone might have a cold or physical illness, someone might have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is often a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain or something on the physiological level, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.

Please note: If symptoms are getting in the way of daily functioning in the areas of work, sleep, health, relationships or emotional well-being, it is best to talk to your doctor or a professional counselor.

Anxiety is one of the most common and treatable issues that brings people into therapy. The good news is that anxiety disorders respond well to many types of counseling including cognitive and behavioral therapy, meditation, lifestyle changes, and medication, to name a few.

If you were coming into my office, we would first look at your health, current medications, sleep, and lifestyle. Many people suffer from stressful, over-packed lives. Inadequate sleep is also an issue, contributing to a vicious cycle. We would then work on developing self-awareness and healthy coping strategies. Sometimes medication might be necessary as well to treat any chemical imbalances and decrease symptoms.

Next, let’s look at what you can do to reduce anxiety and stress:

  • Make some physical well-being and lifestyle changes.

  1. Get healthy sleep. Healthy REM sleep is associated with better emotional regulation and boosts memory, learning, and creativity. Sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders.

  2. Change your diet. Maybe it’s drinking more water or less caffeine. Maybe it’s increasing protein, healthy fats, or complex carbs. Or, maybe it’s decreasing simple carbs, unhealthy fats, and alcohol.

  3. Are you low in vitamins or minerals? Is your thyroid regulated? A doctor and/or nutritionist can help if you’re experiencing medical issues that might be interfering with your mental health.

  4. Integrate exercise into your life. What’s your passion? Do it. Yoga and walking are excellent for anxiety reduction, improving sleep, and reducing stress and depression.

  5. Try mindfulness meditation. Benefits of meditation include reducing stress by slowing your breathing while fully attuning yourself to present awareness and experience. Try researching Christian mindfulness meditations.

  6. Breathe. Deep breathing reduces anxiety by sending more oxygen to your brain. The more oxygen you get to the brain, the more brain function you can receive. P.S. Exercise, meditation, yoga and guided relaxation also increase oxygen levels.

  7. Reduce stress. Look at your priorities and your schedule. Does your schedule reflect the important things in your life, or does it reflect your overcommitment?

  8. Stop overcommitting! The sun is going to rise and set with or without the treadmill of busy lives and shallow living.

  • Develop self-awareness.

  1. Do an energy audit on your time. On a scale of 1-10, where are your stress and anxiety currently? Where are they on an average day? What habits can you start to give you more energy? What things can you stop that might give you more time to take care of yourself?

  2. Identify what helps you reduce anxiety. Is it music? Spending time with friends? Laughter? Getting outdoors? A workout? Google relaxation techniques and implement some into your daily routines.

  3. Invest in your emotional well-being: Find support. Call a friend, family member, mentor, pastor, counselor, or join a LifeGroup or support group. Don’t carry anxiety alone.

  4. Jesus is with you. He loves you. He tells us that we can cast all our anxiety on Him (1 Peter 5:7). So spend time with Him. Vent your worries and shape them into prayers (Philippians 4:7).

  5. Reading God’s Word is a great resource for dealing with anxiety. Scriptures like Philippians 4:6-7, John 14:27, Psalm 23, Psalm 46:10, and many others are great to meditate on when dealing with anxiety. Say it, memorize it, write it down, and pray it.

  6. Start small but start today. Anxiety overwhelms us. Don’t overwhelm yourself further by changing everything at once, but make each step count. Choose one action step from this list to focus on for a week. Small changes over time add up to the big results we all want.

What lens you are viewing life through? Is it the lens of stress and anxiety? Or is it a lens that sees all things from the eyes of the Lord? This is something I am constantly working on in my life.

Try this: Think about your life through the eyes of stress and anxiety and deadlines. How does that feel? Stressed out yet? Sorry—but you’re welcome. What we focus on matters.

Now try this: Imagine seeing things through God’s eyes. Marvel at His creation for a moment. When I do this, my life feels different, and I make decisions and experience life from a place of peace, wonder, and gratitude.

Remember, you are important. You are a vessel for the Holy Spirit. If you’re carrying too much anxiety and stress, you won’t be as effective in the most important things in your life. If you need help, there is so much hope and support out there. Don’t let anxiety get in the way of seeking help.

What if you could be anxious for nothing—even though there are still things to be anxious about? Maybe you can. We asked a few people who have firsthand experience battling anxious thoughts or helping those who do to share a few things they’ve learned along the way. Read More…