Dr. Gregory Popcak
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
Crazy schedules, conflicting responsibilities, never-ending piles of work and bills. Complicated relationships, ghosts from the past, and the feeling that we’re being pulled in a zillion different directions. Sometimes it seems as though life intends to squeeze us until we pop! In the eye of the mental hurricane, however, there is a constant, quiet voice calling to the center of our soul. “O my child,” says the gentle, loving whisper, “you are busy with many things. Be still. Do not be afraid. I am with you.” Sadly, many of us doubt that God really cares about our everyday anxieties. We think that the God who has numbered the hairs on our heads is too busy solving wars, famines, floods, and the million or so other “real” problems in the world to be concerned with our silly concerns. Shouldn’t we just “offer it up” and get over our whiny selves?
Not entirely. While there certainly is merit, as the Apostle Paul says in Colossians, in joining our sufferings with Christ’s cross for the good of the church, this does not mean that God does not wish to deliver us from our anxieties. Jesus reminds us that just as earthly parents want to give good things to their children, our Heavenly Father–whose love is more perfect and profound than anything we could experience on this earth–wants to shower his goodness upon us. What parents want their child to be consumed with worry? When Jesus’ disciples began fretting, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we put on today?” Jesus comforted them, confident in the providence of his Father: “Do not worry . . . but seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:25, 33).
In the two thousand years since Christ walked the earth, the church has continued to echo this sentiment, from Paul’s proclaiming (from prison, no less) that we should not allow anxiety to disturb our minds, all the way through to the modern age. Every time I go to Mass, I hear these words: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin, and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.” To me, these powerful words represent both a prayer and a promise for every Christian. Yet this is an extraordinary thing to pray. Protect us from all anxiety? Isn’t that selfish or, at the very least, hopelessly unrealistic? How many of us can even tie our shoes in the morning without experiencing some small pang of anxiety? Dare we ask the Lord to deliver us from something that is as much a part of daily life as breathing?
What is Anxiety?
We often equate stress with anxiety. But some stress is good for us. Without stress, very little gets done in our lives. In fact, some degree of stress is necessary for good physical, mental, and relational health. For instance, if you are stressed about paying your bills, and that stress leads you to sit down with your checkbook and make a budget, that’s a good thing. If you feel stressed because you and your spouse have not been getting along in a while, and that stress forces you to take a trip together to reconnect, or call a counselor to learn some new ways to solve problems, then that stress was also a good thing. Stress, in the healthiest sense, leads us to respond to the problems we encounter in a manner that makes our lives significantly better in some way. Clearly, when we pray to be freed of all anxiety, we’re not praying to be relived of the stress that empowers us to make our lives and relationships more healthy, more joyful, and more abundant.
But anxiety is stress that leads nowhere or causes more problems than it solves. If I am stressed about my otherwise healthy spouse getting sick and dying, that’s anxiety–and it’s pointless. If I worry about my financial problems, and rather than coming up with a budget, I go out and spend more to make myself feel better, that’s anxiety–and it’s pointless. If I am so worried about losing the job I haven’t yet lost that I (a) can’t make a plan to seek alternative employment and (b) can’t enjoy the benefits of my relationship with my spouse and children, that’s anxiety–and it’s pointless. In fact, worse than pointless, anxiety is demonic, because it robs us of our ability to cooperate with the grace God gives us to solve our problems and live more meaningful, joyful, intimate lives by making us obsess over things beyond our ability to control.
Why Do We Do It?
It isn’t as if anyone wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I want to be an anxious wreck today!” So how does anxiety gain so much power over us? Anxiety is seductive. It tells us that if we can only worry enough, we can control anything. We think that by keeping our eye on the horizon for potential problems we can any avert disaster. Sickness and death? Under control. Financial ruin? Got it covered. End of the world? I’m at the ready, baby. As if. The truth is, the best way to prevent future problems is to respond promptly to the ones in front of us. But anxiety causes ruin by diverting our attentions and energy away from “what should be solved now” to “what can’t be solved ever.”
Marissa came to the Pastoral Solutions Institute complaining of almost constant anxiety. Anytime she watched the news, she would worry that the tragedy du jour would affect her family. That disease of the week movie? What if her husband or her kids got it? Wouldn’t that be awful. Meanwhile, her constant fears of losing her family to catastrophic disaster drained her energy and sapped her patience. She was irritable with her children all day. Night found her too tired to enjoy an intimate relationship with her husband. She was regularly too tired or worn out to play or have fun as a family. She was fried. Worrying about losing the people she loved to catastrophe was causing her to lose the people she loved by her own actions.
Jesus describes the best treatment for anxiety in Matthew 6:24-34, when he tells us to resist the temptation to anxiety about tomorrow and instead, focus on resolving the troubles we meet today. When you are troubled by anxious thoughts and feelings, try the following.
Make a Plan
If you are worried about losing a job, paying your bills, maintaining your health, keeping your relationships healthy, or any other problem, don’t worry. Make a plan. If the problem seems especially big, don’t try to solve it all at once. As the old joke says, “How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.” Ask yourself what you can do today to bring some small degree of relief, take one step closer to an answer, or find another resource. Breaking the big problem down into bite sized pieces and focusing on the pieces rather than the whole will help you feel like your problems are more manageable and concrete.
Mark had a huge deadline at work. But it seemed so overwhelming that instead of working on it, he wasted a lot of time surfing the web and distracting himself. The more he delayed the worse the anxiety got. “What if it couldn’t be done?” “What if he wasn’t smart enough to solve the problems presented by the proposal?” Finally, Mark convinced himself to sit down with his planner and break each section of the project into a smaller problem. Each day, he resolved to just focus on that piece of the proposal. “It was like I could breathe again.” He said. “As soon as I had a plan, I saw how I could get it done in time and what I would need to make it happen. It seems silly, but I just couldn’t figure it out until I saw it on paper.”
Once you have a plan, make sure that you can be accountable to something or someone for following through. Most of the things that cause us anxiety are things that we don’t particularly want to deal with, so finding the support to get the job done is critical to success and peace. Sometimes, writing down your action steps in a planner or calendar is enough, other times, a spouse or trusted friend can help keep you on track (although, please remember, when they hold you to your word, don’t kill the messenger, you asked for their help, right?). In some cases, you might require counseling to give you new tools as well as the accountability. Regardless, accountability equals commitment to change, don’t be afraid to seek it out.
Revise and Re-commit.
Every day, ask yourself again what else you can do to move one step forward with the problems that have been causing you to be anxious. Is the plan not working? How can you change it? What resources are lacking? Go get them or find someone who can! Then recommit to cooperating with the grace God is giving you in the moment to solve today’s problems so that tomorrow’s might never come.
St Francis De Sales once said , “We must trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to our faithfulness, and the future to his providence.” In other words, all we need to do is to be faithful at working at the tasks in front of us. The rest is in God’s hands. The degree to which that is a comforting thought will depend on how well you know the Lord and trust in his commitment to care for you. Gaining that trust requires us to put in the time with prayer, studying scripture, and knowing what the saints have written about remaining faithful through difficult times. Once a client said to me, “I keep leaving my problems at God’s feet, but I keep taking them back when he isn’t looking!” If you’re having a tough time leaving things in God’s hands, ask yourself how much time you’ve spent allowing him to hold you in those hands lately, then ramp it up a bit. Trust will follow.
Is it time to get help?
You might need professional help to overcome your anxiety if you are experiencing any of these problems:
___ Your anxiety is persistent and prolonged (consistent over weeks or months, not just intermittent).
___ You can’t stop feeling anxious even when you try to calm down or enjoy yourself.
___Your anxiety is affecting your health and well being as evidenced by three or more of the following (according to the criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder identified in the Diagnositic Manual of the American Psychiatric Assoc):
___ Restlessness and feeling keyed up or on edge.
___ Becoming easily fatigued.
___ Troubles with concentration and your mind “just going blank.”
___ Losing patience or easily irritable.
___ Muscle tension
___Sleep problems (trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, sleeping too much.)
___ You are having physical problems related to stress (gut problems, tightness in chest, difficulty catching your breath, dizziness.
___ Your stress is negatively impacting your work or relationships.
If anxiety has got you worried, contact your PaxCare Tele-Coach and get the support you need. Together, we can help you develop the skills you need to succeed.