Facing Anxiety (when you don't have the answers)
Even the word gives me a feeling of uneasiness. Anxiety and stress plague even the most easy-going of people, and I know it is something I have to be mindful of daily to hang onto sanity. Life is not always a walk in the park, but that doesn’t mean anxiety gets to weigh us down. For me, balancing college classes, family, graduate school planning, social life, and general responsibilities that come with being alive can seem overwhelming. Whether you’re a 20-something trying to plough through college or in your 50’s climbing the corporate ladder, all of us face decisions and situations that aren’t always easily resolvable. There’s a few things you should know if you feel like you’re breaking under the weight of worry, anxiety and stress.
You’re being passive.
Human beings have the remarkable capability to have an advanced level of control over their thoughts—or at least where their thoughts linger. This is one of those operational characteristic that separates us from animals as being created in God’s image. A dog, for example, thinks according to its intrinsic needs and impulses. We, however, were given a great gift—intelligent thought and reasoning. Most of us have heard, “take every thought captive”, quoted out of 2 Corinthians 10:5, but it is in the context of battling sin through the dismissal of sinful and impure thoughts. This concept of taking thoughts captive, however, can also apply to the idea of taking anxious thoughts captive.
I know something that I struggle with is allowing disruptive thoughts to live in my mind. It is all too easy to passively let these unhealthy thoughts loiter. God created us different from animals in that we have ability to move beyond passive, instinctive, primitive thought to sophisticated intelligence. We were created in Imago Dei, the image of God, our Creator who is more than capable of intentional thought (i.e. the Creation of everything). Why, then, do we throw our hands up in apathetic surrender when it comes to keeping our thoughts in check?
As Christians, or really as functioning human beings, we cannot just submit to whatever thought crosses our mind. Be direct. When a troublesome thought crosses your mind, recognize it. Rationalize it. Re-evaluate it.
You are being irrational.
One tendency of mine when I am dealing with a difficult situation is to get bogged down in all the possibilities, usually focusing on the absolute worst outcome possible. From there, it seems natural to roll through all the possible repercussions of said negative outcome. For example:
“If I fail this biology test, I will get a C in the class. If I get a C in this biology class, my GPA will go down. If my GPA goes down, I won’t be able to get it back up, and I won’t get into graduate school. If I don’t get into graduate school, I can’t be a chemist… so on and so forth.”
Do you see how easily I went from a single test grade to my dreams being crushed? The key word in that downward spiraling thought pattern is a single, two-letter word—“if”. The likelihood of the biology test destroying my chance of success is slim, if I think about it rationally. There are only one of two outcomes from taking the test. The test is inevitable. You will take the test, and it will either drop your grade or it won’t. Either way, you will unavoidably move forward with the consequences, favorable or unfavorable.
Most difficulties can be reduced to a simple “it will or it won’t”. It is a yes or a no. The blood work will come back positive or negative. It is cancer or it is not. Given a good outcome, there is reason
for relief and even celebration. Given a poor outcome, you are then presented with the opportunity to overcome the obstacle set before you. Like with any battle, it is virtually impossible to conquer an opponent you can't clearly see. Once you understand what you're up against, it seems a little less insurmountable. Often times the worst type of anxiety is the anxiety of uncertainty.
This feeling of irresolution can be likened unto finding yourself in a completely dark room. You are missing a major piece of the puzzle--your sight, and you must rely on your other senses. As you try to make sense of your surroundings in the pitch black room, let's say you come across something that feels wooly and hear a grunt. Immediately, your mind will jump to the worst case scenario in self-preservation. It's a grizzly bear! It's a wolf! It's bigfoot! Rarely would you feel confident assuming it was a golden retriever. There is a great deal of danger in making assumptions. I would certainly deal with a grizzly bear or bigfoot differently than I would Buddy. Even I was up against the most vicious of the bunch, I would rather face it in the light than in the dark. A perilous opponent that we know is more manageable than a less threatening opponent that we can't identify.
There is a sense of helplessness and wild desperation when you feel threatened and don’t know what weapons to employ. I don’t have a catch-all fix for this, but do your best to take a reductionist approach and impartially realize what your problem actually is.
A disheartening side effect of anxiety is that you feel like you’re the only person falling apart. Take heart; struggling with anxiety is normal. The central thought being the fact that you are indeed struggling with it. Struggle implies resistance. I typed the word “struggle” into
Google, and I love what it gave me. Struggle: “make forceful or violent efforts to get free of restraint or constriction.” Forceful. Violent. Active, powerful words indicating you are not going down without a fight. I think that is the mindset we should take when tackling anxiety. In life, we will have crucial decisions, weighty situations, and fretful tasks that will seem to consume the mind and weary the heart. Though burdensome, this reaction is normal. No one takes everything in perfect stride. What is unhealthy is allowing it to linger and eventually cripple you.
I often find myself in the trenches as well, warring against anxiety in my own mind. Even as I wrote this post, I questioned my integrity in writing on this topic. It is something I still grapple with - how am I supposed to write about something I haven’t really “conquered”? A wise friend of mine weighed in with some encouraging advice.
So I decided I would mention a few things to do when you’re in the ring with your anxious thoughts.
1. Take a Step Back
Sometimes all it takes is a deep breath. A moment of reflection and rationalization can be a great tactic for putting this absolute catastrophe in perspective. Most of the things we worry about don’t actually happen. Even when they do, they’re almost never as bad as we imagined. The human mind can create elaborately devastating circumstances—the worst possible scenario. Keeping a healthy perspective on the actual impact of whatever you’re anxious about is vital to getting through it.
2. Talk it Out
While this may not always be the best strategy to take in all high-anxiety situations, I know there have been times where I can’t seem to find my center. My perspective is volatile, and I am
ceaselessly second-guessing myself. This is when you employ a wise and trusted friend who will lend their ear. This advantage is two-fold. Talking through the problem out loud will undoubtedly help you rationalize it, and having another opinion and viewpoint may be just the reassurance or dissuasion that you needed to fall to one side of the fence or the other.
3. If there is action to be taken, take it.
This point is somewhat self-explanatory and unique to each particular scenario. I know, personally, that I have a much easier time dismissing uneasy thoughts when I know I have done everything in my power to improve the outcome. Walt Disney once said, "Why worry? If you've done the best you can, worrying won't make anything better." There is something to be said about taking action. For example, when I was told I needed a bone marrow transplant, I was naturally knocked flat with anxiety. It sounded vastly unappealing to spend my whole summer in a hospital room undergoing intense and risky medical treatment with a coin's toss chance that it would be successful or if I would even survive it. I had to realize the gravity of the situation, though. If I had the bone marrow transplant, I would at least have a shot at beating my cancer. If I didn’t have the bone marrow transplant, I would have had no chance at all. For myself and for my family, I had to know that even if I passed away, everything possible had been done. It wouldn’t be said of me that I didn’t go down swinging. There is peace in that. It doesn't have to be so extreme, though. It could be something as simple as asking that cute classmate on a date. If you ask, she may say no. If you don't ask, she won't even have the opportunity to say yes. At least you know you tried. Once you've done everything you can, you really don't have to worry. At that point, with some prayer, the ball is in God's court.
4. Trust the Lord
God is aware of our human-ness. Left to ourselves, we are awesome at messing everything up. We are incapable of seeing beyond what our finite minds are able to fathom or infer about circumstances and their ramifications. The Lord is able to see those implications into eternity. This comforts me to no end. The verse out of one of my favorite chapters of Scripture, Isaiah 55, says “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” I am so thankful that the Lord knows better than I do. Sometimes the outcome we see as negative is for our good down the road. It seems painful in our limited mindset to watch what we fiercely want and work for dissolve before our eyes. We have to trust that God is not bound by time, and only He can really give us what is best. Proverbs 19:21 has been a guiding verse for me in these situations, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” His purpose stands, and we know that His purpose is for our good and His glory according to Romans 8:28. We can rest in knowing that we belong to a good and faithful Father.
5. Find Comfort in Prayer and Scripture
My biggest weapon in battling anxiety is reading truths and promises in Scripture. Here are a few that I tend to return to when I feel overcome by anxiety.
I don’t have all the answers, and there’s no formula to winning a struggle with anxiety, but like Jacob said, I have provided you with some of the steps I take in my effort to overcome anxiety. In the words of Matt Chandler, “it’s okay to not be okay”. It’s just important that you continue to press forward. Today, I challenge you press forward without the weight of anxiety and live brilliantly.
Hillary Husband is a lover of science, travel and Jesus Christ whose repertoire includes baking, dance, and defeating cancer three times before turning 21. She hopes to make an impact for Christ by loving others genuinely. Recently, she drove cross-country to do chemistry research at Notre Dame.