There’s always something to be anxious about. If it’s not the health crisis, it’s the economic crisis or natural disasters or social upheaval over racial injustice or some personal tragedy. The year 2020 is turning out to be one of blurry, painful vision.
It’s often said that there is no problem so bad that it can’t be made worse by imbibing alcohol. It’s also true that there is no problem so great that it cannot be made worse by succumbing to anxiety.
Anxiety is produced when we see an adversity as an unmanageable threat. As a result, our lungs, heart, and brain work less efficiently, which impairs our problem-solving and decision-making. Excessive fear amplifies the effect of adversity and can paralyze us. Threats often activate our freeze reaction as well as a fight or flight reaction.
Fortunately, we have an alternative. We can reframe the threat into a challenge – something we can tackle and eventually overcome. Some talk about overcoming anxiety in three easy steps. No, they are not easy any more than strenuous exercise is easy, but there are steps we can take to exercise our resourcefulness and resilience muscles and become stronger, better people in the end. In this world, we’ll never be completely free of anxiety, but we can prevent it from debilitating us and destroying our joy in life.
STEP 1: Accept adversity as normal in this flawed world.
Every book in the Bible assumes that we will experience suffering. “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) That helps us not to be surprised and shocked when it happens to us or loved ones. We can ask why did this terrible thing happen to me. A better question is why do so many good things happen to me, including
being a redeemed child of God and heir of Heaven?
For most of the Third World, subsistence living and suffering are often a daily experience. All through history, human beings have suffered sudden, seismic changes in their daily lives through wars, crime, cruelty, natural disasters, deadly diseases, famines, and economic revolutions. None of us is immune to that. In fact, refocusing our attention toward others in dire straits can help us turn away from our own anxiety – and toward compassion on them and gratitude for what we do have.
STEP 2: Encountering adversity is common, but don’t unnecessarily imagine the worst.
Some of us have a tendency to awfulize or catastrophize every potentially bad situation into the end of the world. Approximately 85-90% of what we worry about never happens. The purpose of fear is to alert us to danger so that we can prepare, not panic. Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
STEP 3: Choose what we listen to and think about.
Proverbs 23:7 (KJV): “As a man thinketh, so is he.” Marcus Aurelius said, “We become what we think about.” We can choose to think dark thoughts that depress us . . .or positive thoughts that give us hope. The Apostle Paul tells us what to think about if we want “the peace of God” to “guard your hearts and minds”: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:7-8)
Our minds keep changing channels. We can’t stop that, but we can choose the channel we want to tune into. There are many voices in our head; we can choose which one to listen to and believe. Jesus said that His sheep listen to Him. They know His voice and follow Him (John 10:3-5).
We can expand on those who recommend three easy steps as well to include the following helpful steps to overcome anxiety.
STEP 4: Listen to Jesus and the rescue and hope He brings.
Jesus didn’t just tell us not to worry. He told us that our “heavenly Father knows every one of our needs. You’ll find that your everyday concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Matthew 6:32-34 in The Message)
STEP 5: Expect that God will use these latest disasters or any personal tragedy to accomplish a good outcome.
God promises this in Romans 8:28,31-32: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. . . .If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”
When we put ourselves into God’s hands, He will bring some good out of whatever happens to us. We can rest assured that whatever is bad in our lives will be temporary, and whatever is good will become permanent. Paul identifies a good outcome we can expect in Romans 5:3-5: “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”
Paul is saying that suffering serves a positive purpose in God’s hands. Suffering alerts me to areas in my life that need change and growth. Some things, usually the most important things, I can learn only through struggle. Suffering deepens my character; it’s the easy life that corrupts me. I cannot go on without hope, and one essential lesson I learn is the One who is my most reliable source of hope for the future. Earthly props give way; God doesn’t.
Our hope is not wishful thinking. As Paul says, it doesn’t disappoint because it’s based on the promised care of an almighty and merciful God. When adversity strikes a terrible blow, it takes time to recover. But just as we can recover from physical wounds, we can also recover from mental and emotional wounds. In fact, our earthly bodies will eventually die, but our healed soul and spirit will live on eternally in a glorious world we can only imagine.
STEP 6: But don’t forget that physical health is foundational to mental health while still on planet Earth.
That means taking good care of the marvelous body God has given us with plenty of water, plant-based nutritious whole food, sufficient sleep, and exercise. According to BrainMD.com, physical exercise is essential in keeping our brain healthy. Exercise boosts blood flow that sends needed nutrients to the brain, increases our levels of dopamine, and generates new brain cells that can help the brain self-regulate and calm down. The simple exercise of walking can help us clear our mind, decrease anxious thoughts, improve our mood, and burn calories all at the same time.
A little humor defuses tense situations. Laughter is good medicine. Paul, usually serious, could still show his humorous side. He said to the Corinthians: “I didn’t come to make you sad, because if I did, who would cheer me up?” He also said, “I wish you would tolerate me, even when I’m being a bit foolish.” (2 Cor 2:1-2 and 11:1)
And smiling! Smiling literally interrupts the stress loop that can easily get stuck on repeat. So, practice smiling; fake it ’til you make it. We can alter our stress levels by “tricking”our minds into believing it by smiling. Look at yourself in a mirror, make a funny face, and laugh. Watch a funny movie.
“May your soul, mind, and body be kept whole until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:23-24)
By taking these steps, we can go beyond coping and turn difficult times into a growth experience.
~ Ed & Emily Kast
Ed & Emily have been married over 50 years and live in Michigan, where Ed served as the senior pastor of a large church and school. Emily taught in elementary and preschools and trains leaders of small group Bible studies. They have a daughter who is a college math professor, a son who is a physical therapist, and two grandchildren. For many decades they have served as a clergy presenting couple for Lutheran Marriage Encounter. They never stop learning about marriage and how to experience a life blessed by God. They are more in love with each other than ever. Happily ever after is achievable!