I am 1 in 40 million. We are the estimated number of people in the U.S. suffering from an Anxiety Disorder. By the grace of God, I am also among only about 1/3 of those receiving treatment for it.
Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18.1% of the population age 18+ annually, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. The stats are higher for children, affecting 25.1% of children between ages 13-18. Many suffering from anxiety disorders have co-occurring disorders or physical illnesses, which can compound symptoms and make recovery more difficult.
God built us with the natural reactions of fear and anxiety in our brains to keep us alive in the face of threats and present danger. But with an Anxiety Disorder, our stress responses activate in the absence of dangerous conditions. It is not just feeling nervous, as these disorders can be debilitating and also link to several other disorders such as O.C.D., P.T.S.D., and depression.
I’ve journeyed with anxiety from traumatic childhood events that I’ve opened up about here. Over many years, I’ve learned practical ways of coping with anxiety through studying mental health, going to therapy, growing in my faith, and through researching it. Here is an overview of some of the best ways I’ve found to help manage anxiety through mental, physical, and spiritual techniques.
Mentally Coping with Anxiety
Anxiety is overwhelming enough; don’t hold it inside. Talking about it with people we trust can bring relief. I had a Spiritual Director who told me to have at least one person that I shared how I was really doing, but the caveat was it was a 10-15 minute truth exercise , not hours of complaining.
If anxiety interferes with your functioning and disrupts your daily life, this is the time to seek a mental health professional. Working with a Therapist who specializes in trauma and is equally yoked spiritually with me has brought me deeper into my healing journey. I found my therapist by searching CatholicTherapists.com. Another great resource is Catholic Charities (do an online search for your local chapter).
If you do not have coverage through health insurance, there are still resources available. Some therapists offer a sliding scale on fees, and there may also be grants and financial assistance. It’s humbling to ask for help, but restoration requires stepping out of the boat!
One of the core issues of anxiety disorder is to try and stop worrying. Since we have difficulty focusing on anything other than what concerns us, we expend enormous amounts of energy on that which cultivates more anxiety.
I’ve taken core ideas from a therapist’s handout, plus some of my own research, that helped me to visualize an ordered approach to focus. The goal is to focus on what we have control over, the inner circle, which expands our area of influence. Focusing attention on the outer area of concern leaves us feeling controlled by circumstances and other people. As we grow our circle of influence, our circle of concern decreases.
Another powerful method to help overcome inaction in your fears is a practice called fear-setting developed by Tim Ferriss, best-selling author, and podcaster. Fear-setting is “an exercise that allows you to define and face your worst fears, outline the next steps for preventing or overcoming them, and face the consequences of not taking action.” You can watch Tim’s wildly popular T.E.D. talk on this and follow the template found here.
Journaling has scores of proven mental health benefits. Writing in a journal engages both sides of the brain: while the left (rational) side is working, the right (creative) is allowed to ramble and play. Crafting narratives about our experiences and negative emotions helps us to process them and becomes cathartic.
The Center for Journal Therapy provides a helpful approach to journal writing, especially for beginners. Check out their tips, writing techniques, and more about their steps to writing here. Their plan summarizes that it’s simple to W.R.I.T.E.:
W hat topic?
T ime yourself
E xit smart
Physically Coping with Anxiety
Our mental wellbeing is correlated to how we physically care for our bodies. We need the fundamentals of nourishing ourselves through:
- Sleep – getting enough restful sleep
- Healthy activity – exercising, spending time in nature
- Relationships – we are relational beings, so get in quality-time
- Self-care – play, laugh, do things you love
- Healthy nutrition – particularly helpful is the GAPS diet by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. “Through years of research and clinical experience, [she] adjusted her protocol to fit the individual healthcare needs of her patients suffering from a variety of intestinal and neurological conditions as a result of an imbalanced bacterial ecosystem within the G.I. tract.” Drinking water and staying hydrated are also vital. I’ll be sharing more about how my husband and I have been combatting inflammation through nutrition in an upcoming blog post.
Exercise is something I struggle to implement consistently, but it’s a natural, research-backed effective way of coping with anxiety and depression too. A Harvard study shows how exercise helps ease anxiety. The science behind the impact of activity on our mental health is fascinating because increasing your heart rate actually changes your brain chemistry. Their research shows that “exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival.” That study also reveals that “lacing up your sneakers and getting out and moving may be the single best nonmedical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety.”
The stress that the mind and body experience through the heightened state of anxiety contributes to muscle tension. It is normal for muscles to contract when our fight or flight systems are activated. When it is actually present, this muscle contraction is advantageous when the body and brain signals danger.
Having suffered from migraines, chronic neck, and back pain, I’ve tried countless treatments, meds, products, etc., to help release muscle tension and provide pain relief. I’ve visited chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, various specialists, and physical therapists. Finding what really works to help reduce muscle pain has been a long and expensive process.
The following three things that have provided relief after years of suffering from chronic pain, headaches, and involuntary muscle spasms.
Lacrosse balls – Less than $10.00, portable, and extremely useful, these smooth and strong rubber balls provide at home, custom trigger point self-massage to eliminate muscle knots and tension. There are two Physical Therapists that give excellent tips on how to stretch and use the Lacrosse balls on this video (don’t mind the cheesiness!)
Chirp Wheels – If you’re a fan of foam rollers, you’ll love the Chirp wheels. Designed to fit perfectly between your shoulder blades, these wheels target the muscles that go up and down your spine. The Chirp Wheel massages the muscles we strain through daily activity, which then lock up and exacerbate pain. A 5-minute session of rolling provides deep tissue massage through an ergonomic design that relaxes your back and relieves that pain.
Topical treatment – For me, taking Advil can cause rebound headaches, so I rely more on topical treatments. Using products derived from natural ingredients is a priority, so I love Blue Stop massage gel. Made with 100% natural ingredients, it helps nourish the skin and is alcohol-free. It contains Cetylated Fatty Acids, which restore the normal joint function and reduce body aches. It’s got a cooling, soothing sensation on the muscles.
Spiritually Coping with Anxiety
Amidst the overwhelm of anxiety, we may often feel like we don’t have time to pray, attend service/go to Mass. When you feel so anxious that you have no time for spiritual nourishment, it is critical to stop and spend time with the Lord. Don’t skip your prayer time, going to Church, adoration, meditation, and spiritual practices. The silence, slowness, and relationship with God bring the peace that surpasses all understanding.
A recent study by Oregon State University cited here discovered religion and spirituality result in “two distinct but complementary health benefits. Religion (religious affiliation and service attendance) is linked to better health habits, including less smoking and alcohol consumption, while spirituality (prayer, meditation) helps regulate emotions.”
Seeking Truth over Feelings
My Psychologist friend, Dr. Sherri, says that “feelings are information, but they are not facts. Use your feelings (aka Frustration) to learn more about what you’re feeling and what you need.”
Spiritual warfare exists, and I know that sometimes my emotional state is exacerbated by it. There are so many lies that the enemy plays on that ensnare anxious minds. We need to renounce the lies as they surface – reject what is not true. This 1-page list of Renunciations and Acts of Faith is an excellent resource to help with that. The Scriptures counsel us about taking captive every thought to bring it under Christ’s authority.
“Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards;for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy argumentsand every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. We are ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete.”2 Cor 10:3-6
St. Paul reminds us that we do have control over our thoughts. We can choose what negative thoughts to feed, which will fester, or what truth and gratitude to cultivate to help us flourish.
The simple prayer that has brought tremendous fruit in my life is, “Jesus, show me the Truth of who you are, and who I am in You.” The Scriptures show us the Truth, and the Sacraments give us sanctifying grace for the journey – steep yourself in both.
An important fruit of my therapy has been rewriting the narrative that was written through my trauma and woundedness. We focus on retraining my brain to view things in a new light and see where and how God is at work. This allows the Truth to permeate my heart and mind, and by God’s grace, hopefully, it will have a positive impact on my behavior.
Christ is our peace. We need only to ask for all the graces to meet us where we are and lead us through the next best step. Trusting in His mercy, may we seek the Truth. May that Truth guide us into the way of peace, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Lisa Martinez is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.