Do You Feel Anxious? Is it Affecting Your Relationships with Others?
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” - Philippians 4:6-7
We all know from personal experience that stress and anxiety are a normal part of our human experience. Life is full of daily hassles, perceived or real threats and challenges, and the usual ups and downs. Such experiences impact us physically, psychologically and behaviorally, as well as influencing our ability to engage in satisfying relationships.
When such feelings and responses become overwhelming and uncontrollable, affecting and disrupting our thinking, emotional state, and behavior, the resulting anxiety may be classified as a mental disorder.
Anxiety is one of the most common disorders today. A recent survey by the American College Counseling Association found that anxiety (as well as romantic heartbreak, identity crises and depression) makes up a large percentage of the students who seek help from professionals. Here are some other sobering statistics:
- 46% of college students said they felt “things were hopeless” at least once in the previous 12 months, and nearly a third had been so depressed that it was difficult to function, according to a survey by the American College Health Association.
- More than 30% of college freshman report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time, and about 38% of college women report feeling frequently overwhelmed.
- Working adults and parents also struggle with anxiety, feeling just as rushed and tired as college students, unable to spend quality time with their children, friends or partners, or even finish reading a short blog like this one.
Those who specialize in treating anxiety look for physical, psychological and behavioral signs and symptoms such as these (from experts at Mental Health First Aid):
- Cardiovascular (a pounding heart, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, blushing)
- Respiratory: fast breathing, shortness of breath
- Neurological: dizziness, headache, sweating, tingling, numbness
- Gastrointestinal: choking, dry mouth, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Musculoskeletal: muscle aches and pains (especially neck, shoulders and back), restlessness, tremors and shaking, inability to relax
- Unrealistic or excessive fear and worry (about past and future events), mind racing or going blank, decreased concentration and memory, indecisiveness, irritability, impatience, anger, confusion, restlessness or feeling “on edge” or nervous, fatigue, sleep disturbance, vivid dreams
- Avoidance of situations, obsessive or compulsive behavior, distress in social situations, phobic behavior
Alarmingly, stress and anxiety are often referred to as “silent killers” because of their impact on heart disease. Panic attacks and anxiety are often linked with high blood pressure, leading to chest pains and irregular heartbeats. They are also linked to other leading causes of death such as cancer, lung ailments, accidents and suicide.
Treating anxiety and panic attacks takes a lot of time and effort. It often involves a comprehensive approach—following a number of different steps—to get the best results. There is no one simple path to healing. It is hard work, but there is hope.
Here are some recommendations for those who are struggling with anxiety or in a relationship with someone who is.
The physical symptoms of anxiety like those listed above should be discussed with medical, general practitioner during a thorough health review. This will help identify some underlying issues that may be contributing or exacerbating anxiety. A friend recently had this done and realized that his consumption of caffeinated beverages throughout the day was making his symptoms worse. Once other causes are ruled out you can then discuss different drug and therapy options with your doctor.
Anti-anxiety medications are not a panacea—they will not “cure” anxiety, but they will help you to better manage symptoms and to feel better in general daily functioning. They are very safe and non-habit forming when used under the proper care of your medical practitioner.
Combined with the medical, many psychological therapies can help a person discover new ways and approaches to deal with troubling thoughts and emotions, and to recognize and manage anxiety when fears become excessive. According to psychologist David Myers the broad goals of therapy are to offer hope for the demoralized and to give a new perspective on life. This is done in an empathic, trusting, and caring relationship. A common therapy modality for treating anxiety disorders is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where a trained professional focuses on your thought patterns and reactions to the events that cause anxiety. A goal of CBT is to help sufferers gain a better understanding and outlook on life, gain control of thoughts and recognize those that cause anxious thoughts, and to manage stress symptoms when they occur. There should be a number of good therapists in your area, or you can look at our referrals at cmr.biola.edu.
Behavioral and Spiritual Practices:
I love the verse in 1 Peter 5:7 where the Apostle Peter writes “cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” What a great passage to memorize and meditate on. There are many ways we can practice good emotional health. Here are nine things I can suggest for someone dealing with anxiety symptoms, or helping a friend who may be struggling.
- Meditate on God’s Word. Meditate on how God views you, and on what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf. God’s view of us is deeply caring and loving, and can profoundly change the way we see ourselves when we spend time ponder His love for us. You probably already know a ton of verses that talk about stress and anxiety and His peace, and now may be the time to commit some of those to memory.
- Practice gratitude and extending forgiveness. Research shows that practicing gratitude improves happiness by 25%. We must grow in our ability to accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world, and that people make mistakes. Letting go of anger and resentments will free you as grant forgiveness and begin to move forward. It may start with avoiding people who stress you out, or avoiding hot-button topics – If you get upset over religion or politics, cross them off your conversation list. It does start with gratitude, even something as simple as listing all of the things you are most grateful for, then updating the list daily or weekly.
- Begin to regularly record your gratitude and forgiveness thoughts from above in a diary or journal. This may not appeal to everyone and may seem like more work than it's worth to others, but for those who enjoy writing, this is another way to cope with the stress of life. Like talking to a friend, getting your thoughts down on paper (or in your phone or computer) puts those feelings where you can examine them and work on a strategy to manage your stress. Just don’t tweet them or update your Facebook status with them.
- Pay attention to what is going on in your heart. Learn to recognize your emotional reactions. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz (UCLA) says that just naming the feeling of anxiety reduces it -- even if you do nothing else except to name it. Some people are good at being able to name and identify their feelings, as well as expressing them in an appropriate way. Others may need help doing this. In general it tends to be better when you are able to express your feelings instead of bottling them up. If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. If you don’t voice your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.
- Practice new ways of breathing. There are lots of different methods and exercises that can help with anxiety. Dr. Schwartz offers guided instruction in a breathing exercise that can be found at Open Biola (http://open.biola.edu/resources/mindful-breathing-exercises-getting-mentally-fit). He introduces “mindful meditation” and comments on the significance of each step. It is amazing what this simple exercise that we take for granted can do to bring greater calm and contentment.
- Talk to a trusted friend or a counselor. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation. Staying connected to others is key. Healthy relationships provide an amazing buffer to our stress and anxiety, and they will often grow stronger as a result of navigating the tough times together.
- Accept the things you cannot change. There is a lot of evidence that accepting those things we cannot change lowers anxiety levels. Matthew 6:25-34 is awesome: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”.
- Exercise, get outdoors, and keep moving. Many times we allow the busyness of life to stop us from doing the things that we know help us to feel good, such as exercise and eating well. Being outside and in nature will reduce anxiety, as will just simply looking at green outdoor pictures if you do not have time. Dr. Amit Sood at the Mayo Clinic says to we need to pay greater attention to the things we see in nature for at least 10-15 minutes per day, and that a 30-minute walk in nature reduces depression symptoms by 70%!
- Finally, where do you feel most at home? God’s Spirit is present and working in our world. Find a place to call “sacred,” where you can be alone with God and have minimal distractions, and mentally and emotionally “rest” 10-20 minutes with Him. For me in college it was in a music practice room where a friend would practice playing piano. Later it became time alone during long commutes, meditating on passages like “Be still and know that I am God.” Maybe it is during a long walk, or on a weekly hike. The key is find and make space in your life to meet with God, increasing your sense of the sacred, and finding His peace which is even greater than our comprehension.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.