How to Fight the Pull of Anxiety

Anxiety is a pulling experience. How much it is pulling often goes unnoticed. Although much of what you feel, when dealing with anxiety, is felt in the present moment it is doesn’t have its strongest hold on the present. Instead anxiety is about the future and the past.

The Pull to the Future

Anxiety pulls you into the future and throws a millions “what ifs” at you. What if this happens or what if that doesn’t happen? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I will be alone? What if my loved ones get hurt? What if get hurt? What if I panic? What if things go wrong? These questions and so many others are what anxiety asks persistently. They are all thoughts about the future. They say to you that you must prepare for the war ahead. Anxiety is the forecast of harm and danger that awaits you. Thoughts of the impending harm begins to feel very present by their continual tormenting.

The Pull to the Past

Anxiety also pulls to the past. Perhaps you have had a troubling experience that replays when situations seem similar. Maybe you have known intimately the feeling of being alone or rejected. The thoughts quickly pull you into the past and another set of “what ifs” invade. What if I fail once more? Maybe the money is going to run out again? What if my illness returns? He/she might leave me a second time? What if my family hurts me again? These thoughts flood your mind and say that life went bad before and it will probably go bad again. Anxiety causes you to look at the present situation through the shadow of past hurts and tells you things are not safe. <–Click to Tweet.

Your Body’s Response

In both of these situations your body begins to respond to future and past struggles in the present. I heard someone once explain the physiological effects of anxiety as your mind telling your body that the war is not over. Despite the fact that often, in the present moment, none of the doom imagined is actually happening the body begins to react as if it is.

Your “fight or flight response” has been triggered by the pull of anxiety. In reaction your brain begins to produce adrenaline to aid you against the perceived harmful attack. You may begin to feel your heart rate increasing. Your breathing may become rapid and shallow. You will likely experience trouble concentrating on anything other than the worry. Normal tasks you used to be able to do are much more difficult. You sense you have a shorter tolerance for frustrating moments. You may find sleep is very difficult and so you often feel tired. You might even notice occasionally trembling, numbness in hands and feet, and sweating.

Your body responds even when you aren’t thinking about the anxious thoughts. The anxious buildup from the many thoughts that have flooded your thinking are having their effect on the body. Much like a teacup that is filled to the brim, you don’t notice it is a problem until one more little drop is placed in and then the spillover comes. These physical symptoms can actually cause even more anxiety.

Stay in the Present

So what can be done with these strong pulls to the future and past? The key is to stay in the present. This can be hard for someone who is feeling the physical effects of anxiety. Staying in the present is the way out of the anxious moment. Respond to the physical symptoms of built up anxiety with physical activity in the present moment. Taking slow deep breaths is one of the best ways to fight the physical symptoms of anxiety. Deep breathing actually triggers the “rest and digest response” in your brain. By taking a couple slow deep breaths your body begins to respond to the rich oxygenated blood that is going throughout your body all the way to your fingers and toes. In contrast to the rapid shallow breathing that tells your brain something is wrong.

In the present you can begin to counter the anxious thoughts with what is true. Calling to mind helpful truths will give less space in your brain for the anxious pulls of replaying the past or the frenetic thoughts of preparing for the future. Tell yourself that you have gotten through anxious moments before and this moment will likewise pass. Think of the people who have been helpful to you and remind yourself in the moment of how they have helped.

Allow God to be your comfort and hold on tightly to his truth. You do not suffer alone. He promises to help you. It is no coincidence that in Psalm 46:1 it says that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The present is where your help is. He will not leave you or forsake you. Cling to that truth and stay present with it. The Scripture is full of promises from God to be with you in trouble and that he will faithfully help you. The opposite of anxiety is peace. Peace comes from knowing that God is in control when you feel your life is out of control.  (<-lCick to tweet.) Take your struggles to the Lord. Cast your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).

*Mindfulness activities can help calm anxiety and give your brain a rest from the flooding happening in your body. In addition to deep breathing, here is a simple mindfulness activity to try the next time you are struggling with the physical symptoms of anxiety.

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Caring Starts with Prayer

Prepare for the session

As a counselor I want to be prepared for each one of my sessions. I can look over past notes, consider resources, or maybe consider homework to suggest. Preparation may mean I do some reading on what the person is struggling with and learn ways others have helped people in similar situations. Preparing for a session can be very helpful both for me and the person I am seeing.

Prayer for the session

But as a biblical counselor I am convinced that as important as being prepared is, it is not the most important thing. In order to care for people well I have to have spent time in prayer with God for them. Prayer centers my mind and heart and takes the focus and pressure off me. Prayer reminds me that the people who are coming in for counseling need the same thing I need. I am not what people need. My words are not what people need. What people need is the comfort and care of the Lord. In order for me to care well for people I need to hear from the Lord, I need to be with the Lord.

Diane Langberg in her book, In Our Lives First, Meditations for Counselors, states so wisely…

“How quickly our eyes become riveted on the task and not the Master! We think somehow that our primary task is the work we do. It is a good work. It is an important work. It is even a work that God himself has called us to do. It is, however, never to become our main work. Our first task, the one that is to govern all else, is that of maintaining relationship with the only One who is needful.”

The Reminders of Prayer

Prayer also reminds me that I am not alone in counseling. God is present and ready to help those who I am seeking to care for. God is invested in their good and their needed healing more than anyone else in the room. Prayer reorients my agenda so that I can get out of the way and yield to what God wants to do in each situation.

For me, this means I must commit to praying for each person I am caring for. Most of the time this comes in a daily review of my calendar. I look at the names I have on my schedule and I take time to pray for each person. I know very intimately the struggle and suffering they face so my prayers can be very focused. I pray for help in their situations. I pray for wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s work as I walk with them. I also pray that they would know God’s love in very specific ways as we meet. I pray that I would be able to love them well and speak the words God has for them rather than what I think they should hear.

The Reorientation of Prayer

It has been my experience that the sessions where I confess my total dependence through prayer and I seek the Lord for help are far more helpful meetings than if I took a good amount of time to prepare, read, or study up on things. This isn’t to say I don’t prepare. I do. But it is not the most important thing. Prayer reorients me to the One who is able to bring healing and change to people’s lives.

Scripture gives examples of those called to ministry being called to a life of prayer. Samuel saw it as potential sin to not pray for the people who were under his direction and care. Consider what this means regarding the place of prayer in ministry.

“Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.” 1 Samuel 12:23

All in all prayer centers my heart and positions me to give better care and counsel when I have spent time with the Wonderful Counselor.

Incarnating in Conflict

(This post first appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition)
Incarnating means putting something into flesh. Jesus was God incarnate. God put on human flesh or, another way to say it, he was clothed in humanity. In a similar way, as believers, we are called to incarnate Jesus. We are to be clothed in Christ (Romans 13:14). And indeed we are (Galatians 3:27). As believers our lives become testimonies of this truth. Jesus clothes us in His righteousness. This truth means we are called to resist putting back on the filthy rags of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Being filled with the Spirit of Christ means we give great attention to the commands the Lord left for us regarding how to interact with people. As we seek to fulfill the first and greatest commandment to love God (Matthew 22:38-39), we are simultaneously called to love others like Jesus loved (John 15:12).

So how do we do this, especially when things are particularly challenging in our relationships? When things heat up how can we incarnate Christ in our conflict?

Show Instead of Tell

Inside each of us is a little lawyer’s voice. Sometimes the voice is small, just little whispers or tiny thoughts. There might be thoughts of how you have done far more diaper changes than your spouse. Reminders that you are always the one initiating the phone call or text message in a particular friendship. Little whispers of how you always apologize first and how you folded the laundry without being asked last week. Often the little lawyer voice gets louder in conflict.

Jon’s wife was upset because she felt he cared more about his golf swing than about her. Jon’s little lawyer voice began flooding him with reminders of how much he has sacrificed for her. Bob and Jane listened to their teenaged son complain that he can never please them and that they never encourage him. Simultaneously Bob and Jane’s little lawyers brought out evidence as recent as that very week proving they had encouraged him. Paul Tripp speaks of this little lawyer voice and how harmful it is in marriage relationships, “I tell husbands and wives around the world that if they want to experience lasting change in their marriage, they first need to fire their inner defense lawyer.”1The truth is no matter what relationship you are in, the little lawyer voice needs to go.

Incarnating Christ means you avoid defending your love and instead demonstrate it. The moment your love is challenged don’t defend it—display it. (John 11:32), or the question from the disciples, “Lord don’t you care that we are perishing” (Mark 4:38), he did not defend himself, but instead he displayed it by raising Lazarus back to life and calming the sea. He showed his love; he did not defend it.

Ask Instead of State

Asking questions is probably one of the best ways we can incarnate Jesus. Jesus was the master questioner. His questions were explorations of the heart of a person. Asking questions opens conversations; making statements closes them. (Avoiding Assumacide”2 says that honoring others with questions rather than assumptions allows intimacy to have a chance.

When Jeff’s roommate shared with him that he had once again fallen to the temptation of pornography, Jeff stated, “If you wanted to stop you would stop.” The statement not only led his friend to feel even deeper shame, but also made him less inclined to share with Jeff again. Asking a question in this situation would have allowed Jeff to learn more about his friend and his struggle and perhaps open the opportunity for Jeff to walk with him.

Hope Instead of Despair

In order to incarnate Christ in conflict, we must lean fully on him. Demonstrating love and asking questions are just two ways to incarnate Christ. Conflicts are full of challenges, and even when we seek to incarnate Jesus there may still be difficulties.  We fail in our attempts and can become discouraged. Yet, the Lord is merciful and forgiving and often provides more opportunity to incarnate His grace and love. He is committed to the good work He started in us.

Join the Conversations

Each one of us has had difficult times in relationships. Perhaps even now you are facing a challenge. What are some other ways you have found we can incarnate Jesus in your relationships?

Notes

  1. This quote came from: http://www.paultripp.com/articles/posts/were-not-independent.
  2. See http://biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2016/06/22/avoiding-assumicide/