Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Managing Anxiety

            We’ve all been there – that crushing fear of things going bad, of health scares, of dying, of losing people we love.  Being human means that we face real, imagined, and potential tragedies all the time.  So what do we do about it?  How can we handle it in a godly way?
            I’ve been through my fair share of scares and fears and freak-outs.  Financial concerns, health fears, parenting issues, relationship problems, losses, self-esteem issues, etc.  And I have done it wrong in so many ways.  Typically finding myself plunged into depression and anxiety for months at a time.
            But as I grow older, I am learning to manage my anxieties in healthier ways.  Doesn't mean I always do it right.  And it doesn’t mean I don’t still freak out and get consumed by irrational fears before I manage to calm down and think clearly.  (Just read some of my other posts.)  But it does mean that I am learning . . . slowly.  And what I’d like to share here are some of the general ways that I have learned to manage anxiety and fear.  I touched on it a lot in the “Staying on Guard” post (among others).  But I wanted to boil it all down here into a “simple” list.
            Usually, when a new fear or concern comes up, I begin to feel it in my stomach.  My stomach drops or turns as I think of all that I am worried about.  The fears consume my thinking for hours, and then I get a tension headache.  I lose my appetite and get irritable.  I spend a lot of time on-line frantically looking up things (if it’s a health concern), and we all know that makes it so much worse.  And I don’t want to do anything else until I get this fear sorted out or under control.  And then I get really tired from being under stress.  And I don’t want to do anything but crawl in a hole and get away from everything.  And all the while, I am just praying, “Lord, please come back soon.  Please get us out of this place.  It sucks being human sometimes.” 
            Depending on the concern or fear, it could take me anywhere from an hour to many months to finally feel free from the all-consuming anxiety and distress.  So I don’t claim to be an expert at handling anxiety.  I am not someone who can easily “Let Go and Let God.”  I’ve gone through many times of doing it wrong, and it’s been a journey to find better ways of handling stress.  But here they are, some of the lessons I have taken years to learn.
            Now, I’m not necessarily talking here about generalized anxiety, anxiety attacks, or major tragedies, because those are on a different level.  (And it may take a good counselor to help work through those.)  But I’m talking more about our everyday, general concerns over everything that can go wrong, the kind of fears that can consume our thinking and emotions for days.  Is this lump cancer?  Will I fail my kids?  Can we pay all our bills?  Why can’t I keep this house clean?  What do I do about feeling so lonely?  Etc.  Those kinds of discouraging things.  When this kind of stress threatens to swallow you whole, remember these tips:

            1.  Pray your concern over to God, as soon as possible! 
            Too many times, we leave prayer as a last resort.  We try to handle things in our own power and wisdom, or we try to overcome a negative feeling or thought on our own.  We feel like it’s our responsibility to work through it.  And only when that fails or when the problem becomes too big for us do we ask God to help us.  But this should be our first step.  As soon as some fear or concern or negative feeling pops in our head, we should bring it honestly to God.    Tell Him honestly about your concerns.  Ask Him to take the fear or depression or anxiety from you and to replace them with His wisdom and peace and comfort.  He will not necessarily take them from us if we choose to handle our situation on our own.  If we want to try to handle it on our own, He will let us.  So we have to willingly invite Him into that area of our heart and mind.  We have to open that door to Him and humbly acknowledge that we cannot handle it on our own.  We need His help!  (And of course, don’t just meet Him in prayer.  Stay in the Word.  We need to meet Him in those pages daily.)

            2.  Trade your fears for His peace and wisdom!
            I mentioned this above, but it helps me to actually say, “Lord, please take my fear about such-and-such and replace it with Your peace and Your wisdom.”  For some reason, this has really helped calm me down through fears I have had.  And it took me a long time to realize that I could actually boldly and clearly ask for something like this.  I’ve learned not to beat around the bush in prayer, but to be clear and bold, asking for what I need and handing over to God the things I shouldn’t be holding onto anyway.  I do not have the control or wisdom or strength that I like to think I do, so I run to the One who has enough for all of us.  Knowing that God will handle the things I can’t handle calms me down and helps clean my mind out enough that I can think more clearly and hear His guidance more clearly.  It may take a little while, but the peace eventually replaces the anxiety and things seem more manageable.
            And as part of your prayers, ask God what you can do about a certain fear or concern.  Sometimes, there isn’t anything to be done but wait.  But sometimes, there are little things that we can do.  And it may help during the trial to find out what little bit you can do and do it!  So don’t forget to ask God His advice on what little step you can take while you wait on Him for the answer to your prayer.

            3.  As you pray, make sure to be honest and transparent with the Lord!
            For some reason, many of us try to hide the “unacceptable” parts of ourselves from the Lord.  We are afraid to admit our fears, weaknesses, sins, and shortcomings.  We are afraid to be displeasing to the Lord or to “pray wrong.”  And this leads us to polish and sterilize our prayers, removing the less-than-pleasing true thoughts and feelings that we have and the “ugly” parts of ourselves. 
            But I think that one of the things that God wants more than anything is our transparency.  He wants us to be humbly, completely honest about ourselves with Him.  He wants full access to our hearts and minds, and He wants us to come to Him as we really are.  Ugly parts and all.  He already knows it all anyway.  He’s just waiting for us to admit to it all and to be who we really are with Him.   
            The thing is, He died for closeness.  He died so that we could have a genuine, close relationship with Him.  He died so that we could find healing and wholeness and hope in Him.  And yet here we are, polishing ourselves up so that we can impress Him or be more acceptable to Him.  But by polishing up the ugliness, we are actually trying to hide parts of ourselves.  We are closing off certain doors of our hearts to Him.  And this prevents His love, healing, and truth from entering those parts of us.  It prevents us from fully experiencing His love and healing. 
            Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, poured His anguish out to the Father.  He admitted that He didn’t want to go to the cross.  He didn’t want to die.  He cried with tears and He sweated blood in His distress.  He didn’t hold back these “ugly, displeasing” feelings.  He didn’t polish His prayer up like, “Father, You know I don’t want to do this but I will obey.  Whatever You want is fine with Me.”  He pleaded and prayed and poured His true feelings out.  He knew that to make it through the trials, it was critical to be open and transparent with the Father.  And so He held nothing back. 
            And yet, we keep trying to pray “pleasing-sounding” prayers, devoid of real emotion and real feelings.  (This is not the case for everybody, I know.  But it often is for those of us who struggle with perfectionism, self-esteem problems, and the fear of being rejected, abandoned, or “not good enough.”) 
            But you know what?  It’s okay to be human.  It’s okay to have human feelings.  So do not be ashamed of human feelings.  Don’t be afraid that your humanness might repel God or disgust Him.  He made us to be . . . human.  So let your humanness pull God closer to you.  Let a humble, open, transparent heart draw Him near.  Jesus Himself gave us an example about the kind of prayers that honor God – honest, heart-felt, humble prayers.  Fully open and exposed hearts.  Do not hide anything from Him.  Be honest.  Be transparent.  This is what will draw Him and His love and healing closer to you than any “perfect, presentable, pleasing disguise” ever could.  Transparency is crucial to humility and a genuine relationship with Him.

            4.  Share your fears with a trusted, godly friend! 
            Jesus Himself took three friends with Him into the garden to pray.  He knew that He needed the support.  He needed someone to just sit with Him while He was struggling through His anguish.  This is probably the one thing that I don’t do enough.  I will talk and talk about my fears to myself and to God (and occasionally to my husband), but I rarely ever go to anyone else about them until I have a handle on them.  I do not go to them in the midst of the pain and confusion.  So don’t do as I do in this case.  Do as Jesus did. 
            Seek out a trusted friend who will share your burden with you and who will lift you up in prayer.  We need this kind of support.  And some of us need to talk our fears out.  We need to feel heard and understood.  We don’t necessarily want others to try to fix it for us or to give us a “band-aid” solution to our problem, but we do want someone to listen and give us a shoulder to cry on.  At least one person who will listen to us and care.  So if you have this resource, don’t waste it!  And if you do not have a person like this, always remember that God is more than enough for us.  He alone can fully meet our needs, if we let Him.
            As you try to explore the things you are thinking and feeling, it might be worth it to write a letter to God or yourself.  I think that it is very important to identify exactly what fears or negative thoughts or concerns that we have.  A vague, fuzzy notion of what is bothering you is very hard to tackle, but clarity makes things better.  So if you have only a general sense of what’s going on inside of you and why you feel the way you do, take the time to explore the feelings and thoughts.  Identify them and where they came from and what’s feeding them.  And then talk them over with the Lord and with a trusted friend.  This helps tremendously in managing our anxieties.

            5.  Praise God and fill your house with the sounds of praise!
            When I went through the worst several years of my life (full of many trials such as financial trouble, demonic harassment, my parents’ divorce, a new baby, Baby Bottle Tooth Decay in another child, and a long time of God’s silence as I desperately called out to Him), I found that praise was critical in getting through that time. 
            Philippians 4:6-7:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” 
            It took me a long time to see the connection between “thanksgiving” and “the peace of God which transcends all understanding.”  I used to wonder if God instructed us to be thankful because it made Him feel good to be thanked.  And I’m sure it does.  But now I realize that it’s mostly for our benefit.  When I am anxious about something and only focus on my concerns, I fall deeper and deeper into my fears.  Why don’t I feel better?  Where is that peace that God said I would have if I prayed? 
            Oh, that’s right!  God says that I would have peace if I prayed with thanksgiving.  I don’t think we can really experience the peace of God until we learn to praise Him, even when we are in pain and in the midst of trials.  It doesn’t mean we have to thank Him for the tragedy or the pain, but there is always something there to praise Him for.  There is always a silver lining on the storm clouds.  And if we look for those hidden blessings and thank Him for it, we will begin to feel His peace because we are reminding ourselves that He is indeed good and loving and watching out for us.  It really helped me to start of list of all the blessings God has given me over the years, even if they came to me because of hard times.  And I highly recommend keeping your own running list of blessings.    
            And ultimately, if there is nothing else we can find to praise Him for, we can thank Him that He is walking with us through the trial and that He promises to eventually make all things right and work all things for good for those who love Him.
            “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  (Romans 8:28).
            I do think, though, that some of us have a hard time finding the silver linings or finding anything to thank Him for because we have not yet learned to trust in His love and His goodness.  I was a Christian for a long time before I really let His love past my defenses.  I had so many fears of relying on someone else (even on Him) - of trusting in someone only to be let down or abandoned - that I couldn’t seem to accept that He truly did love me for me.  This is not an easy thing to work through.  These kinds of deep-seated fears take time and thought to work through.  But it is possible. 
            (Find a good Christian counselor or friend to talk about this with, or look up the workbook I wrote called “Through the Refining Fire: Your Sweetly Broken Journey.”  There is a shorter version in the 2013 posts, or a longer one on my other website.  It’s to help you find any hindrances that may be blocking God’s love and healing from getting fully into your heart.  I’ve been there, too.  I understand!  And that’s why I wrote that workbook, to help pass on anything I learned so that it may help someone else.) 
            Along with praising Him throughout the day and in my prayers, it was important to me to have Christian music on all the time while I went through those hard years.  It’s not “magic” or anything, but the sounds of praise and worship are repulsive to demons.  And since I knew that I was already vulnerable to spiritual attacks because of the distress and anxiety, I wanted to surround myself in Christian music to repel as many demons as possible from my house. 
            I really do believe that some of the things we say, do, fill our houses and minds with, and the way we behave can roll out welcome mats to demons.  They are attracted to any ways that we invite them into our lives, whether it’s through outbursts of anger, ruminating on negative thoughts about ourselves, excessive fears, watching ungodly filth, gossiping, flirting with temptation, etc. 
            And so we need to carefully guard our hearts and minds and eyes and homes against anything that may attract them.  And we do this by maintaining our spiritual armor, remaining connected to God through His Word and prayer, being sensitive to the Holy Spirit, obeying as God calls, seeking righteousness, and (relating to this post in particular) praising God in any and every way we can.  And for me, that meant not only practicing thanksgiving in prayer but also listening to Christian music daily.  It really does make a positive difference.          

            6.  Speaking of demonic harassment, learn to call on the name of Jesus, if need be!
            We are in the midst of a spiritual battle all the time.  And yet we keep trying to fight it in our own power.  But as followers of Jesus, He gave us the right to use His name to bind demons.  I have had to learn to do this myself as I began to face spiritual harassment.  And I’ve had to learn to not snicker or feel ashamed at identifying things as “spiritual harassment.”  It seems like most of us act like demons are really just mythical creatures from medieval times.  But the Bible is very clear on how real they are.  And if we do not take them seriously, we fail to recognize demonic attacks, we fail to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit in us, and we fail to use the spiritual weapons that God has given us.  And one of these weapons is Jesus’ name. 
            You may not really believe me right now.  You may be snickering inside and rolling your eyes.  (I used to do that, too.)  But just remember this line, if you ever need it:  “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.”  Even just calling out Jesus’ name sometimes is enough to make them leave. 
            Demonic harassment may be obvious, like feeling an evil presence in your room at night, being woken up with a huge weight on your chest or feeling electrocuted, or feeling something invisible walking up the bed when you are fully awake.  (That’s how it was for me.) 
            But spiritual attacks also might not even look all that supernatural, such as dark feelings, thoughts of self-harm or self-debasing thoughts, being overwhelmed by guilt and shame, intense or irrational fear, health problems, temptations that are calling out to us, etc.  While not every problem is demonic, some of these things may just be demonic attacks.  And you need to remember that you have spiritual weapons to battle them, as well as earthly ones.  Don’t let these valuable spiritual weapons go unused.  Learn to be discerning and learn to fight the battle with all the tools God gives you.    

            7.  Search your heart and be willing to obey!
            I think that when we find ourselves in a furnace of affliction or in a long time of waiting on God, it is incredibly wise to spend some time searching your heart for anything that may be blocking the Spirit from moving in your heart or life.  So many times, we don’t look for any hidden sins or deep lingering fears or misconceptions that we have about God, ourselves, and life until we are deep in a trial and don’t know what else to do. 
            What we usually want during a trial is just to get out of it and to get back to normal.  But what we might really need is to use that time to let the Holy Spirit purify our hearts, get rid of any blockages or obstacles between us and God, and to learn what it means to follow instead of lead.  And part of that is learning to obey God.  To listen to Him and to learn to desire His Will over ours.  To die to self and lay aside our agendas.  To trust that He will lead us in the best way possible.  And this is the kind of stuff that we usually learn best through pain and trials.  So don’t just wait in despair when you are going through a hard time; use that time to search and purify your heart, to learn to follow and obey and want God’s Will above all.
            It was only after Jesus transparently poured His anguish out to God that He was finally able to say, “Not My Will, but Yours be done!”  And I think this is how it goes for us, too.  We need to go through the emotions and to lay them down before God honestly.  We need to wrestle with our desire to lead and to do our own wills.  And some of us stubborn ones need to exhaust ourselves trying to make things all better, before we finally lay down at His feet and say, “Okay, God.  I’ll do it Your way.”   
            That is the ultimate place we need to arrive at no matter what trial we face in our lives.  And we need to consciously work through anything that is hindering us from getting to that point.  Pride, fears, doubts, longings, sins, etc.  Eventually all of this needs to be laid at the Lord’s feet so we, too, can get to the place of saying, “Not my will, but Yours be done.  I will trust You, no matter what.”

            8.  Find something constructive to do while you wait.
            If you are waiting on God to help you through a concern or fear, don’t just sit there.  Sitting alone in our house makes it worse.  Find something constructive to do while you continue talking to Him and keeping an ear out for Him. Clean your kitchen, go for a walk, write to a friend, learn a new hobby, start a list of things you are thankful for, go out for coffee with a friend, organize a closet, put up a birdhouse, etc.  If you just sit around and wallow in your despair, you will just feel worse at the end of the night.  Because not only will the problem still be there, but your house will still be a mess and you’ll have nothing to show for the time you wasted.  So do something that uplifts you or that accomplishes something. 
            I know it’s silly, but as I struggled through feelings of failure and like I can’t do anything good enough, it helped me to sew aprons.  It was a simple project that only took a short time.  And in the end, I had something to show for it.  Something did get finished, and it made me smile to see a completed project when everything else seemed to be coming undone.  And even when I just wanted to sit there and wallow in my fears, it helped to do the dishes and throw out old papers.  Because at the end of the day, I could at least know that I did those, even when I really just wanted to sit around and watch television all day.  Do something constructive, even if you have to force yourself to do it.  It helps make the wait more bearable and it makes you feel better about yourself.           

            9.  Remember that whatever happens, we are here to glorify Him!
            Some of us are meant to glorify Him with wonderful answers to prayer, with abundance, and with great opportunities.  And some of us are meant to glorify Him with prayers that are not answered the way we want, with wants and needs left unfulfilled, and with menial jobs that we have to do over and over again every day.  Whatever our lot in life, we need to remember that we are working for the Lord, that we are His tools to do the job that He gave us, and that our rewards will be in Heaven.  
            Keep in mind that whether you have a lot or a little and whether your life has been good or bad, this life won’t last.  And we can’t take anything with us except what we have done for God and His Kingdom.  So prioritize thoughtfully.  And remember that whether we wash dishes or speak in front of thousands of people, we do what we do for God’s glory.  And He is honored just as much by the old man who says kind words to the neighborhood children as He is by the preacher who gives our Sunday sermons.  Big or small, He sees what we do for Him, He judges our hearts and motives, and it all matters to Him. 

            10.  Find ways to reach out to other people!
            One of the best things we can do with any trial we face is to let it soften our hearts to others who are going through trials of their own.  If you are wallowing in self-pity or in your fears, look for practical ways to reach out to others and to be a blessing to them.  Taking our eyes off of ourselves and looking for a way to help someone else makes us feel a little better.  Let your trials make you more sensitive to others who are hurting.  It may bring them the little bit of hope that they need to keep going.  The hope that someone cares, that they matter, that God has a plan, that He can be trusted, and that all things will eventually be made right again.  Isn’t that something we all desperately need?  Be that encourager for someone else!

            11.  Whatever happens, don’t waste a trial or a hard time!
            I’ve kinda covered this already.  But remember that every trial is a chance to grow.  It’s a chance to explore what thoughts and feelings it triggers about yourself and about God and faith.  It’s a chance to be spiritually pruned and to learn some deep spiritual lessons.  So don’t just wallow in despair.  Consciously allow the Holy Spirit to mold you during these hard times.  Let Him reveal to you any doubts or fears or misconceptions that are being uncovered in your heart about yourself or the Lord.  Let Him reveal any idols you may have, sins you may be hiding, priorities that are out of whack.  Whatever is deep in your heart and mind is usually revealed during the hard times.  Let God grow you and purify you through them.  You will be better for it in the end.          

            12.  Once again, pray and read your Bible every day! 
            Not just to learn about God, but to meet with Him!  We need to draw near to Him daily, hard times and good times!  It’s not about practicing disciplines or following legalistic rules.  It’s all about our relationship with Him.  And we can’t have a relationship with someone we don’t regularly meet with or take the time to get to know.  And we can’t get to know Him if we do not read His Word to us.  If there is one thing my hard times have taught me, it’s how desperately I need to stay connected to God – in His Word and through prayer – everyday.  Everyday! 

Well, this is some of the stuff that has helped me learn to manage my anxieties a little better.  Hopefully, they can help you, too.