You don’t have to get stuck in your anxiety. Change the way you think and tackle your anxiety with four steps.
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental disease in the United States. In 2015 more than forty million Americans suffered from some form of anxiety disorder. Worldwide, one in thirteen individuals experiences an anxiety disorder.
The Brain in Anxiety
Unfortunately, anxiety disorders change the brain’s hierarchy. Ideally, the brain should govern from the top down. The anterior portion of the front brain (prefrontal cortex) should determine what is good and bad, and discern and define legitimate fears and concerns from ungrounded ones. However, in anxiety disorders, the activity within the brain changes so that the brain areas which deal with anxiety (amygdala, insula) become overactive. The connections between the front brain and these other organs are not working well.1,2 We can then succumb to anxiety. Using non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of brain structure and function, researchers found that children with high levels of anxiety had enlarged amygdala volume.3
High Cost of Anxiety Disorders
People need to find ways to reduce chronic stress and anxiety in their lives or they may be at increased risk for developing depression and even dementia. Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are linked with the actual structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampi and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.The prefrontal cortex acts as the chief executive officer of the brain.4 A healthy pre-frontal cortex is essential for making decisions, planning, focusing, and discerning effectively and accurately. The hippocampi are involved in memory and mood regulation.
Compromises Heart Health
Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder tend to have elevated LDL-cholesterol levels, elevated blood fats, and a decrease of the beneficial HDL. All of these contribute to blood vessel disease.5Sustained or chronic anxiety is associated with a significant increase in thickness of the innermost and middle layers of the common carotid arteries – arteries important in nourishing the brain.6 This thickening is usually caused by the buildup of cholesterol-containing material. In fact, chronic high levels of anxiety could accelerate the development of atherosclerosis in these important arteries. Those with anxiety disorders have high pro-inflammatory markers. This is important because inflammation fuels chronic diseases. Individuals who experience panic attacks are more likely to develop undesirable clotting.7
Elevated levels of anxiety were associated with a 9.5 fold increased risk of triggering a heart attack in the two hours after the anxiety episode.8 Then, too, heart disease patients with anxiety have twice the risk of dying from any cause compared to those without anxiety. Patients with both anxiety and depression had triple the risk of dying.9
Anxiety and Gut Health
Anxiety pales the stomach mucosa (lining) by causing the tiny blood vessels leading to the stomach to constrict. This interferes with optimal function and can set the stage for ulcers. Stress slows the emptying of the contents of the stomach. Studies on rodents suggest that rats genetically predisposed to anxiety have hypersensitive abdominal organs, especially the colon.10 High levels of anxiety also reduce the efficiency of the immune system. Anxiety, like any psychological stress, causes the body to loosen its control of inflammation and increases many pro-inflammatory agents that fuel chronic disease.11
By understanding what contributes to anxiety, we can gain an upper hand in overcoming it. Brain imaging studies show that individuals who have anxiety perceive the world differently.12 Cognitive distortions alter our perceptions. To overcome anxiety, we must replace our destructive thought patterns with healthy ones!
1. Distorted Thought Patterns
In selective filtering, an individual usually focuses so heavily on one or more negative matters, that he/she cannot see the positive. “My husband never really communicates with me.” “Only rarely does he tell me he loves me.” “My marriage is not a really good marriage.” His spouse might overlook the fact that he has held down a steady job for 20 years, faithfully pays the bills, changes the oil in her car, takes an interest in the children’s extracurricular activities, attends church regularly with the family, and occasionally takes her out on holidays. Selective filtering leads to discontent and anger because our hurts are taken out of the context of the greater blessings.
Individuals with all-or-none thinking have unrealistic goals because they tend to see everything in absolutes. There are no in-betweens. Either red or blue. No pastels. No pinks or lilacs. They either fail or succeed. “I feel crummy. I didn’t make my usual ‘A’. This ‘B’ makes me feel like I have failed.” This mode of thinking discounts the fact that we learn from our mistakes and failures. Since it strikes God’s grace in the face, it can lead us to become intolerant of others’ shortcomings and sink us into shame with our own ineptness. Our relationships can deteriorate because we become either impatient with others or absorbed in pursuing unrealistic perfection to the neglect of significant relationships. Unrealistic goals cause intemperate living. Intemperate living erodes our personal peace and the peace of our families. In all-or-none thinking, all mistakes or conflicts are seen as inherently evil, instead of a means from which we learn. This can produce anxiety whether we admit it or not.
Mind-reading is another faulty thinking pattern which produces anxiety. In mind-reading, a person is sure he knows what another person thinks. “She didn’t smile at me. She must be mad at me although I don’t know why.” This fails to realize other reasons for her actions. Jean was a persevering middle-aged lady who had struggled with anxiety and depression for many years. One day her boss approached her quite seriously. “I want to see you in my office tomorrow!” No smile. Not his usual upbeat self. The week had gone quite well for Jean. Suddenly she found herself spiraling down into a severe, anxious depression. She prayed. The question came to her mind, “What were you thinking before you got depressed? What is the problem? There must be a problem with me. Was the staff unhappy with my performance? The rug is going to be pulled out from under my feet.” Then she realized that she was mind-reading. She really didn’t know what her boss wanted. “Perhaps he wants to tie up the loose ends, before going on a six-week business trip,” she thought. That ended up being exactly the case.
Overgeneralization is assuming that bad events will happen over and over, or that things are always going to follow a certain pattern. This will also produce anxiety. A person who was once fired from his job can relive that trauma every time his boss wants to see him. “I lost my job once before. I will probably lose this one.”
Unrealistic “Should” Thinking
Should thinking is setting arbitrary requirements without considering consequences. “I should be able to rear two children alone, climb the corporate ladder, take continuing education classes, work out at the ‘Y’ three times a week, and keep a spotless home. Many single workers have done this, so should I.” Not considering that the consequences of the whirlwind of physical or mental activity accrues anxiety and eventually can leave us feeling bankrupt. Establishing realistic goals, and evaluating costs and consequences of personal action makes us wiser and better able to prevent or handle anxiety.
One of the pivotal steps in overcoming anxiety is to recognize the faulty thinking patterns that contribute to it.13 Many professional or pastoral counselors trained in cognitive behavior therapy can be of assistance. Since expression of our anxiety can deepen its impression on the mind, it would be wise to voice our anxiety only to those who know how to help us. The psalmist suggests that it is always appropriate to convey our anxieties, fear, and anger to God. Many times faith in a loving God can reduce the impact of stress.
2. Threat of Loss
Fear of loss reinforces anxiety. To overcome anxiety, we need to not only recognize our faulty thinking patterns but our underlying fears.
Conscious loss of a loved one, a physical capability, or a job, often reinforces anxiety and underlying depression. Fear of losing someone or something valuable to us can propel us into the throes of a frenzied anxiety. When this happens to me, I find it helpful to realize that in some ways I was happy before I even had the desired relationship or object. Teaching, for example, is very dear to me. Sometimes I have nightmares about losing my job or the capacity to teach. Objectively, however, I realize that I was just as happy, even somewhat happier, when I was working as a patient-care worker. I would be sad for a little while if I didn’t teach, but there are other jobs, just as meaningful, that I could do that would give me a sense of satisfaction.
Sometimes we have suffered losses of which we are unaware. We hadn’t missed them until it came to our attention that they were gone. These losses can drag us into shame and embarrassment, pushing us off-balance into insecurity. Insecurity comes in so many garbs that it is not always easy to discern. These may be especially painful when love and esteem have finally been achieved – and then we lose them to some degree. What can we do when this happens?
It is truly humbling to write regarding these experiences of pain. Perhaps you have suffered more than I have. I hope not. But some readers of this article have. I discovered a helpful suggestion one night when I was feeling especially anxious. I considered each of my major losses, and to my amazement, for every loss, I was able to realize a definite gain.
There was the loss, from a cruel mental disease, of my mother’s loving care. After spending much time and money working through issues related to this, I can see that I am much more sympathetic and insightful than I would have been without this experience. Then there was my indifferent dad. Years later, when he died, he left a small inheritance – enough to pay for a couple of years of much-needed counseling. A speech impediment and a form of audible dyslexia have limited me some, but I certainly have taught foreigners how to read standard English. Their mistakes mirrored my mistakes well. My speech therapy, it seemed, helped more people than just myself. Fortunately, I work for an institution, which has given me room to grow professionally. Bounced from a job, I got another job in a rural elementary school in which I learned much that helped me in character development and professional growth. Several years later, I lost a class I enjoyed teaching. I was determined to make the best of it. I was given a more advanced class, and the research I did for that class made me a much more persuasive teacher in the classes I currently teach. The list of my gains by losses could continue to another page.
We can confront the underlying fear of future loss by taking the time to review how God has transformed the past losses into some gain. If we can’t see this in our own upheavals, we can listen to people who have. We can read inspiring biographies of those who triumphed over losses. Study the Scriptures which show how God turned defeat into victory.
Newscaster Maria Shriver gave an inspirational graduation speech. She had taken a certain stand on an important issue in one of the major news networks. She feared that it would cost her job. It did. The experience has proved valuable to her, for she has known ever since, that she made the right decision and she will never have to struggle with that same kind of fear again. She learned that courage is not the absence of fear but the going on in spite of fear. Peace of mind doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of conflict or loss but the consciousness of right doing and the eventual triumph of good in the face of adversity.
3. Integrity Counts
Missing links in our integrity create anxiety. Integrity to principle underlies all true development.14 I like to define integrity as the harmonious movement of the intellect, the will, and the emotions into the will and purposes of God. To the extent that this happens, we have happiness and good mental health.
Character has many different aspects – the will, emotions, personal relationships, the intellect, and our physical being. Usually, one or more of these lags behind the others, and this character imbalance fosters anxiety. We know we should do differently but somehow we don’t. The stunted area(s) in our lives produce anxiety. Sometimes it is sitting on a fence in the valley of decision. At other times deeper, unresolved psychological and spiritual issues confront the soul. Sometimes God allows disturbing thoughts to come to us, to prompt us to deliberately choose to eliminate contaminating influences that erode character and contribute so much to anxiety. By acknowledging our weaknesses and working through character-dwarfing pain, we can eventually learn to make decisions that are true to our chosen values, and using our talents in harmony with them, we can avoid anxiety-producing guilt.15
Anxiety can also come from our subconscious past. A toddler is happily picking pink flowers. Suddenly, buzz, buzz, buzz. Welts appear all over her body, and she struggles to gain her breath. Twenty years pass. She has been happily married. It is her anniversary. She is looking forward to her husband’s return. He usually brings her such interesting gifts. But when she receives pink flowers she feels utterly disappointed. Her mind seems to become vacant, then apprehensive. But – sudden recognition and a flash of insight – no, these are not the same flowers as those of her previous encounter. Although the shape is different, the color is the same, and the size of the petals are similar to those she picked when she was so severely stung as a youngster. She can’t seem to disassociate the insect stings of the past from the pink flowers of her anniversary gift because her mind is working on an unconscious level.
It is helpful to recognize the connections of past events to our current anxieties and to realize that conditions are different. We aren’t in the same environment. We are more mature in taking care of our own needs and making necessary provision to protect ourselves. In the previous scenario, that would be keeping self-injectable epinephrine handy to counteract anaphylactic shock when bees and hornets are out.
4. Challenge Core Beliefs
Self-absorption is another cause of anxiety. We must certainly attend to our needs. But when my job, my health, and my goals threaten to engulf me, I need to escape this tunnel vision. The remedy for this kind of anxiety is to become involved with meeting the needs of other people and, with them, to develop a realization of the value of ministry and a habitual attitude of ministry.
Perhaps you are not well yourself. Even flashing a smile, expressing genuine gratitude, or offering a sincere prayer makes this world a better place for someone.
Sometimes having too many things to do triggers apprehension and worry. What to do if this is the case? Check your motives. Psychologists have identified three basic core beliefs or motivations that produce anger, anxiety, or depression.
Crippling Conformity Core Beliefs
Conformity core beliefs lead us to try to please others to the extent that we don’t take enough time to protect our health – physical, mental, and spiritual. This conflict easily creates anxiety.
Zapping Performance Core Beliefs
With performance core beliefs we think that perfection in every single little thing we do is required. I was living in a small dorm with the dean and her family. Our dean was a tough but loving lady. She had escaped Nazi Germany when she was only three or four years old. She tells the story of how her foot was painfully inflamed with osteomalacia which made it very difficult for her to walk. Her mother had pointed to the corpses surrounding them and said, “Do you want to be like these? Don’t walk then! You must walk to keep alive.” Years later, happily married with two young children, this enterprising dean would garden, can food, keep an immaculate home, and supervise her young ladies well. However, she would end up with a migraine headache every Sabbath. She had worked all day Friday preparing a delicious Sabbath meal and laboring to make homemade wheat rolls. Finally, I said, “Molly, you don’t have to make the rolls every Friday. Take it easy. Cook simply.” But no, to her, rolls on Sabbath were a family tradition and could not be broken. Eventually, she did learn to relax and rest although it took major setbacks for her to learn this essential lesson.
We do want to do our work as carefully and thoroughly as possible, but we fatigue ourselves too often by thinking the niceties of life are essential. We let our work define us, and drain our strength, when, really, our character and priorities should define our work and promote health.
Controlling Core Beliefs
Or perhaps we are suspicious and competitive. “If I don’t take this opportunity, I will lose it, and Jim will get ahead of me.” So we add an extra load. Maybe we climb another rung in the corporate ladder at the expense of our health, our relationships, and eventually our peace of mind. Such are the results of controlling core attitudes. Our distorted concepts of our mission can obstruct our interpretation of who we are.
Identify your major long-term roles and then from these goals, derive specific, immediate goals. If you are overwhelmed with too many tasks or responsibilities, eliminate or delegate responsibility for goals that do not contribute to the healthful fulfillment of your mission. Remember to re-evaluate periodically to maintain realistic goals.
BONUS: Abiding Trust in God
Trust in Divine Providence reduces anxiety. Juanita was a dynamic, active church member and a mother of three active teenagers. Many years ago she had been involved in a car accident and suffered such serious headaches she feared she was losing her sanity. One doctor after another could offer her no cure for such terrible pain. (This was in the mid-20th century, before CAT scans were available.) She feared long-term institutionalization. “Who will take care of my precious children? My husband is gone so often because of his job. I must do something, or I will lose my mind.” As a Christian, she decided she must break down the pain in her life into five-minute intervals. The end of each five minutes was punctuated by a short prayer. She remembered that the highest mountain is conquered step by step.
This step-by-step approach, reinforced by faith in God, accomplished what no other therapy had. Slowly she improved until one day she realized she had no more headaches. Her experience led her to venture out on a faith ministry that helped her reach some of the unfortunate people in New York City. Many times there were no funds, and sometimes vehicles necessary for her ministry broke down, but she never indulged in anxiety or complaining. God always in some unpredictable way provided.
Anxiety can nullify the benefits of our faith, but it doesn’t necessarily. Anxiety signals something is wrong. Perhaps it signals a physical disease, a distorted thought pattern, a misplaced priority, or a pseudo-god. If anxiety is honestly acknowledged, its causes ascertained and sufficiently recognized, we actually can become stronger in our faith. Like the psalmist, states “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.” Ps. 56:3.
You, too, by understanding some causes of anxiety, making the suggested changes in thinking and behavior patterns, and instigating the positive measures we have discussed, can overcome anxiety. And this can be done in a way that builds a balanced, trusting, cheerful, helpful character and personality – a whole, sound person – spiritually, socially, mentally, physically.
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- Carnegie Mellon University. “How stress influences disease: Study reveals inflammation as the culprit.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120402162546.htm
- Cell Press. “People with anxiety show fundamental differences in perception.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 March 2016. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160303132951.htm
- McMinn, M.R., Cognitive Therapy Techniques in Christian Counseling. Word Publishing, 1991.
- Chalmers, E.M., Healing the Broken Brain. Remnant Publications, 1998
- Chalmers, E.M., Healing the Broken Brain. Remnant Publications, 1998, p. 78, 79