High Anxiety: Seeking Sanity when the World Goes Nuts

By: Gregory K. Popcak


“It’s like a mystery novel around here.”   George explained, frustrated with the corporate restructuring his company was going through.   “…And Then There Were None.”

George’s company was facing layoffs.   Every day, he came into work to find that yet another colleague had gotten the axe.   “It’s hard not to freak out when the cubicles around you are emptying out.   It’s like management is playing Battleship and I’m just waiting for them to call my number. How do I make plans for anything when everything is up in the air?   The stress is affecting my marriage, my sleep.    I’m snapping at my kids. I don’t like what all the pressure is doing to me, but I’m not sure what I can do about it.   ”

George isn’t alone.   Turn on any television news program and most likely you’ll see dozens of stories about economic crisis, downsizing, looming personal debt, and an epidemic of foreclosures have become standard features.   Not surprisingly, anxiety is at an all time high.

According to studies, about 20% of the population will suffer anxiety that is troubling enough to require professional help.   In fact, 1 out of every five visitors to the doctor’s office is seeking help for an anxiety related problem.  Anxiety is a common and serious concern and never is this truer than when our personal or family’s financial security is threatened.     In the present economic climate, worry has quickly become the national pastime.

But while some degree of stress is normal when you’re facing the prospect of job loss or financial insecurity, it doesn’t have to take over your life. In Lk 12:25, Jesus reminds us, “Has any of you added a single day to your life by worrying?” We hear the priest says at Mass, we place our trust in God to “free us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope…”       While this can seem like an impossible dream when things around us are falling apart,   here are some tips that can help you   be a victor in the war against worry.

Keep it in Perspective

Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve seen many troubles in my time, only half of which ever came true.”       When we are going through hardship, often the anxiety we put ourselves through is far worse than the actual problems we are encountering.   This can be true even in the worst of circumstances.

 Janice recently took a new job after being unemployed for a little over a year.   Unfortunately, it didn’t come in time to save her home from foreclosure.   Still, she’s philosophical about her experience over the last 14 mos.   “I don’t ever want to go through something like that again, but when I look back on it, I have to admit that I put myself through a whole lot more than I needed to.”   She says that she used to lay awake at night thinking of the nightmare scenarios that were just around the corner.   “I was sure I was going to be living in a box.   I kept scaring myself with a million doomsday scenarios.   It’s been awful, but   the things I was most terrified about–that I’d never work again, that I’d starve, or be living on the street–turned out to be horrible fantasies.”  

Life can be very hard and very scary, but most of the things we worry about, even in the worst of circumstances, never come true.   Psychologists refer to this tendency to amplify anxiety as “catastrophizing.”   A key to remaining focused and hopeful, if not completely calm, in the face of stressful times is to stay focused on the problems immediately in front of you and not on the things you are “sure” are going to happen ten steps down the road.   Jesus challenged this tendency to borrow trouble when he said, “Do not be anxious for tomorrow.   Let each day’s troubles suffice” (Mt 6:34).

Break It Down

Following closely on the heels of “letting each day’s trouble’s suffice” is the importance of breaking down big problems into smaller ones that you can do something about today.

Eric and his wife, Gina, needed answers.   They had never been very good at financial planning and each month they ended up putting little extras on their credit card.   Over time, these “extras” added up to over $10,000 in credit card debt.  “We were overwhelmed.   It just seemed too much to ever pay off” says Gina.   For a long time, the most they could do was argue about their finances.   “Eventually we decided to sit down with a debt counselor to help us come up with a plan for digging out of our hole.”   They decided on a budget, cancelled credit cards,   and with the help of the credit counselor, began negotiating a payment schedule with their largest creditors.     “As long as we just kept looking at the big numbers, we couldn’t think straight.   The counselor taught us to focus on the process so that we could take small steps to resolve our debt crisis.”   They have some work to do, but they have a plan that is letting them sleep nights while they pursue a final resolution.

When facing an actual or potential crisis, one of greatest contributors to a sense of powerlessness and anxiety is the feeling that one must find the answer to the big problem right now.     Often this isn’t possible, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless.   For instance, you might not be able to do anything about the big problem of getting someone to hire you, but you can do something about the smaller, related problems of a) needing an up-to-date résumé  b) searching classifieds and websites for possible openings and c) putting out feelers among friends, relations, and colleagues who might be aware of new opportunities d) begin reviewing your budget     e) pray.     Any one of these activities alone will not solve “the big problem” but they will help you take the small steps that are necessary to both retain your sanity and move you toward the ultimate answers you are seeking.

Be Patient with Yourself

Martin had been laid off from his job after 10 years.   He knew it was coming, but it didn’t diminish the shock.   “I had no patience with anyone for the first couple of weeks.   I was angry with my wife, snapping at my kids, I was so angry with myself.   I was tormenting myself.     Maybe I should have been trying to look for a job before this happened.   Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that vacation last year and saved better.”   Martin was most angry at himself for being angry.   “I just felt like I was letting God and everybody else down. Where was my faith?”

While it is important to be careful not to let your frustration cause you to alienate the people who love and support you, remember to be patient with yourself.     Job loss is often attended by all the feelings common to grief.   Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, eventually, even acceptance.   You should expect to experience all of these things, sometimes all at once.   It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad Christian.   It just means that you’re hurting.      Give yourself permission to take the time you need to get your bearings and find your equilibrium.   As St Francis de Sales once wrote, “the most important kind of patience one can practice is patience with oneself.”

Draw Closer to Those Who Love You

“After I lost my job,” says Charles, “I wanted to withdraw from everyone.   I felt like I was a downer to my friends.   I would spend hours on the computer in the spare room.   I told my wife I was on job websites, but mostly, I would just stare at the screen and surf.   I just couldn’t bear to be around anyone.   I was just so ashamed.”

When you are experiencing financial strain or job loss, it can be tempting to pull into yourself and withdraw from the ones closest to you.   In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”       This scripture is never truer than when we are going through pain and loss.   While the temptation can be strong to separate yourself from the support of those who love you, that’s exactly what it is; temptation.   God never leads us to isolation, but to communion and intimacy.   Answers are never found in self-pity and estrangement.     Refuse to give into the pride that holds you back from the support you need to rise above the difficulties you are facing.

Pray: Alone and with Others

Karen stopped answering the phone because she was tired of making excuses to creditors.   She didn’t know how they were going to get through this.   She was praying.   Hard.   But she didn’t feel anything.   That night, she decided to ask her husband to pray with her.  

Prayer, alone or especially with those you love is an incredibly important part of discerning God’s plan for your life.   In my book, Life Shouldn’t   Look Like This:   Dealing with Disappointment in the Light of Faith,  I observe that too many people, when faced with hardship, ask the question, “Why?”       But there is rarely an obvious or easy answer to this question.   A better question to ask is, “Lord, what would you have me make of this?”   In other words, “How can I respond to this in a way that will glorify God and make me a better, stronger person?”   Answering this question in little ways (like, “be kinder to my spouse and children today, “ or “remain hopeful and reach out to my friends who might have a lead or at least could offer support” ) and in big ways (like, “pursue the options that really do help me leave behind an unsatisfying, soul-draining career”)   can help us remain hopeful   and enable us to learn God’s plan for helping us grow into the people he wants us to be.

Even so, it can be difficult to find those answers without prayer, and often even when you are praying by yourself, that prayer often sounds like, “OH-God-PLEASE-help-me-I’m-so-scared-angry-depressed-and-I-Don’t-know-what-to-do-but-I’m-sure-I’m-going-to-DIE!-Amen.”     Having a spouse and/or close circle of friends to join you in prayer can help you focus your mind on God’s love and providence (instead of your panic and misery), and give you an important spiritual sounding board off of which you can bounce the various ideas and feelings.

Trust in God’s Providence

Bill shared with me that even though he’s been struggling financially lately, he’s had to marvel at how God has been taking care of his family.   “The other day, the car broke down and I had no idea how we were going to get it fixed.   There just isn’t any margin in the budget right now.   I have to admit that I really couldn’t think straight, I was so upset.   But later on that day, my buddy came by who happens to have a garage.   I told him what was going on and he offered to take a look at it.   We were able to fix it that night by cannibalizing the parts off a junk car that someone ‘just happened’ to give him for that purpose the week before.   I think it’s a miracle how it all just fell into place, and it helped me remember who’s really in charge.

We have a tendency to assume that we are our own (or our family’s) provider.   This is really not true at all and both job loss and financial hardship do a wonderful job clarifying for us that God is really in charge and is the source of whatever blessings we have.   If you can, despite your feelings, keep up the suggestion you’ve read in this article, you will be able to stay focused on the fact that God is your provider and will meet your needs both in the short term and   in the long term.


Two of the biggest lies parents tell themselves are “kids are oblivious” and “kids are resilient.”   The truth is, kids are neither.     It is well known that children are great barometers of a family’s stress level.     Though children may not respond consciously to stress in the family, they do respond with an increase of obnoxious or impulsive behavior which is caused by the fact that their normal, personal coping strategies are being overwhelmed by the stress in the household.

Likewise, while children do adapt to stressful circumstances, that is not the same as saying that they are not affected by stressful circumstances.   When going through difficult times it is critical that parents help their children both identify the source of the increased stress and plan ways to help their children manage that stress more effectively.

Be Honest

If a person, even a young person, is going to be asked to go through something, they have the right to know what they are going through.   That may sound obvious, but it is counterintuitive to many parents who have been led to believe that their children are clueless and narcissistic.   Studies actually show that children are both more aware of what is going on than parents think, and more capable of empathy than parents believe.   In fact, according to recent studies, co-operation and empathy are the normal responses healthy children make to the emotional distress of those around them.

But children can’t respond appropriately to their circumstances if they are not told what is going on.   If you are going through financial hardship, then tell your kids, in simple, calm terms, exactly what that means to your family.   Resist the temptation to go to the opposite   extreme and confess all your fears, but do tell them the nature of your immediate circumstances in simple and direct terms.   Then let them lead any further discussion by asking if they have any questions.   This is not a conversation that you can only have once.     Chances are, you’ll need to revisit the topic every week or so until you are through the crisis, but keeping those lines of communication between parents and kids is critical if you are going to make it through as a family.

Give the Kids Little Ways to Help

Children do naturally want to help, and while they may not be able to do anything to get you another job or pay off that hospital bill (nor should they be put in the position of trying) they should be given the chance to contribute to your emotional well being or even–in small ways–the family’s emotional well being.   For instance, you might say to your children, “Guys, mom and I are really working hard to solve this problem, so it would really mean a lot to us if you could help us save our energy for getting back on track by just taking care of the dishes without us having to remind you.”  Or, instead of waiting for your kids to ask for something before saying, “No” to it, anticipate the problem. Talk to your kids before going into the grocery store or the mall about what they may and may not ask for and what you can and cannot afford to get them.

Give Them   A Chance to Express Fears and Questions

Even when you’ve done your best to remain calm and factual about your difficulties, sometimes children will be upset or have questions that surprise you (“Mom, are we going to starve?”).   That doesn’t mean you were mistaken for cluing your children in.   It means that you need to keep talking about how your family is going to get through your problems together.   Take regular opportunities to ask, “So, how are you doing with the fact that we had to cut back on piano lessons this term?”   Or, “Do you have any questions about what’s going on?”   This gives you a chance to reassure your children that you have things under control and to clarify any issues they might be confused about.

Strengthen your Rituals and Routines

Finally, for your own sake as well as your kids, try to keep up the normal activities that bond your family together, or take the opportunity to strengthen them.   Regular family meals, a consistent game night, taking on projects together with your kids (cleaning up, doing the dishes, working on the car), and praying together are important ways to grow closer through the crisis and help each other feel normal while you’re going through it.   Treat these rituals and routines as a life preserver that keeps your sanity–and marriage and family life–afloat when the stormy seas are tossing you about.


Life can be hard.   But sometimes we play mind tricks that make our difficult times infinitely worse.   Here are some of the worst examples of “stinking thinking” along with strategies for getting yourself back on track.

Stinking Thinking Habit: Catastrophizing

The attack of the “what ifs?”   “What if I never get another job?”   “What if we end up on the street?”   and so on.   Catastrophizing causes us to invent problems that don’t exist and can’t be solved and stops us from having the energy to solve what we can.

Solution:   Force yourself to stay focused on the problems in front of you.   Do what you can do today to address those most immediate concerns, then take a break.   As Jesus says, “Let each day’s troubles suffice.”

Stinking Thinking Habit: Magnifying

This is the mental equivalent of standing in the middle of the railroad tracks and watching the oncoming train all the while saying, “How am I ever going to lift that train over my head?   It’s too big!”   forgetting that if you just take a few steps to the left or the right, you can dodge the train and stop worrying about lifting it.

Magnification causes you to imagine that your problems are so big that there is nothing (or at least nothing effective) that you can do.

Solution:   Break each big problem down into as many simple steps as possible. Do one of those steps each day and then move on to other work that must be done.

Stinking Thinking Habit:   Fantasies of Internal Control

Internal Control Fantasies tell me that by worrying, I prevent bad things from happening and if I stop worrying, the monster is surely going to get me.     The truth is, while planning and acting is an effective way of dealing with problems, worry gives me control over nothing.

Solution:   Realize that there are some things beyond my control, but nothing is outside of God’s control.   Do what you can today (see Magnification above) then force yourself if necessary to do something enjoyable or distracting even if it kills you.   You must tear yourself away from the worry in order to respond effectively to the crisis at hand.

For more anti-worry tips, see When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.

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