Anxiety, prt. 2
In my last post I mentioned that the best way to overcome anxiety is not to face it head-on, but to undermine it — to subvert it. This is just a way of saying that the old advice, “Try not to worry,” could not be more useless than it is. When we try not to fall, we pay more attention to our balance, and thus we are less likely to slip up. When we try not to look stupid, we pay more attention to our behavior and may be less likely to do something socially unacceptable. But when we try not to worry, we pay more attention to what we are thinking, and this is the last thing we should be doing.
The kinds of things that work best for anxiety are things that keep you in the present moment. Anxiety is nearly always about the future, so the more focused you can stay in the present moment, the better. The follow four techniques came from my good friend Tim McVay, a practicing psychologist, who specializes in treating people with anxiety. Tim shared these techniques with me when I called him in desperation a while back, and they are effective.
1. Say to yourself, “I am having a panic attack,” or “I am experiencing anxiety.” This separates you from what is happening to you and allows you to look at it with a little more objectivity. Spiritually this is based in the idea that you are not your thoughts, but I’d like to keep this post to under ten-thousand words, so I won’t go there.
2. Name your fears. Say them out loud. Anxiety can be so terrible that we are afraid to say out loud what we are afraid of. Saying it out loud brings it from the realm of your imagination into the real world and it will immediately seem a little less threatening.
3. Take inventory of your symptoms. Note what is happening in your mind and body. Again, this will help separate you from what is happening to you.
4. Smile. Sounds pollyanna, I know, but when you smile, your brain is actually washed with chemicals that create feelings of well-being. So smile – you have nothing to lose.
Tim also suggested placing a penny in the shoe. Walking around on that penny constantly draws one’s thoughts away from future-based worry and toward the in-the-moment reality of that penny.
Those were Tim’s suggestions, and they have been instrumental in changing my life. But they are not the only things to do, by any means.
Those who run on the spiritual side must realize that there is no fear in love, and what this means. From the New Testament we come to understand that we are not simply to stop worrying, and not simply to pray about our fears, but we are to steep ourselves in the reality and love of God (Mt. 6). As we do this, Christ will displace worry at the center of our lives (Phil. 3) This gets to spiritual formation, and this is not the place where I can cover that adequately. Suffice to say that in order to embark on that journey, you must possess a Vision that your life can be transformed, you must have the Intention to restructure your life in ways that can bring that transformation, and you must be familiar with the Means of grace through which God will do the job (credit, Dallas Willard). If you do not possess the vision, you will not care and thus will not try. If you do not Intend to be transformed, you will not go beyond wishing. If you do not know the means through which transformation happens, your efforts will be in vain.
It is important not to discount easily controllable factors such as getting enough sleep, eating properly, and staying in good condition. Everyone needs “a program,” or “a plan” and these three things will play a key role in any balanced life plan.
There are many techniques for dealing with anxiety. Bourne’s Anxiety and Phobia Workbook is an oft-used resource I recommend to anyone looking to increase the number of available tools for dealing with anxiety. The thing I have found that makes the most difference, by far, in my ongoing levels of peace, is meditation. I will deal with meditation on its own in my next post.