Managing anxietyWritten by Tim Sanford
Question: How can I handle worry? I'm a perfectionist, and I really struggle with this. I worry a great deal about everything in life, but especially about my children. Fears and anxieties about what could or might happen to them out in the world are a constant feature of my everyday life. You don't have to tell me that this is wrong, that it's a problem, and that the Bible commands us not to worry – I'm already painfully aware of that. What I need to know is how to stop.
Let's begin by defining some terms. It will help to know exactly what we're talking about before attempting to suggest solutions or cures.
Fear is an intense emotional reaction to a legitimate, present danger.
Anxiety is an intense emotional reaction, usually of dread, to a perceived, anticipated, or future danger. Clinical anxiety can involve symptoms such as trembling and shaking, restlessness, sleep problems, fatigue, anger, and depression.
Worry is a non-technical, non-clinical term for anxiety.
Concern is Christianese for “worry.”
Panic is a negative behavioural reaction to being overwhelmed by fear or anxiety.
Obsession is a persistent, often unwanted flooding of thoughts that is very difficult to control.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition in which the subject tries to stop obsessive thinking by engaging in repetitive behaviour, such as hand-washing, counting, cleaning, and double-checking.
If you think you might be obsessive-compulsive or suffering from clinical anxiety, we'd urge you to see a Christian psychologist or psychiatrist right away. It's possible that you're dealing with something that you won't be able to handle on your own. You may need medication, intensive consultation, and the assistance of a trained professional. Focus on the Family Canada can provide you with a list of therapists practicing in your area who specialize in treating disorders of this nature.
If, on the other hand, you're just a garden-variety “worrier,” there are some things you can do to help free yourself from the thoughts and imaginations that seem to be taking possession of your mind. The first step is to recognize that worry is basically a habit. It's a pattern of thinking that can be summed up in the phrase, “What if?” For example:
“What if my husband loses his job?”
“What if our son ends up in jail?”
“What if my daughter doesn’t get the scholarship?”
“What if we come down too hard on our teenager and he runs away?”
The problem with “what if” thinking is that it shifts your focus. It pulls you into the future and away from the present. Present-tense fear says, “The house is burning! Run!” Future-oriented worry, on the other hand, says, “What if the house starts to burn tonight when we're all asleep?” It debilitates and paralyzes effective action because it gets the mind stuck on things that haven’t yet happened and may never come to pass.
The good news is that habits can be broken. What can you do to address this one? At the most basic level, you need to remind yourself that you can only live in the present moment. There is no alternative. Once you've convinced yourself of this fundamental truth, the challenge is to find practical ways to keep your attention focused on the situation immediately at hand. Here's a simple technique that you may find helpful:
- Write the following four questions on an index card:
- What are five colours I see right now?
- What are five sounds I hear right now?
- What are five things I physically feel right now (not emotions, but sensations like “the wind in my hair”)?
- What do I need to be doing – or thinking about – right now?
Place the card on your nightstand or dresser. When you wake up, go over the four questions to get your brain going in a new direction. After naming those five colours, sounds, and sensations, ask yourself what you need to do the moment your feet hit the floor. Go to the bathroom? Put on your robe? Make the coffee? Once you have the answer, go and do that one thing. Don't try to handle the rest of the day right now. Don't get sucked into “what if” thinking. Just make the coffee.
Take your index card with you wherever you go. Review the four questions three to five times a day. Read them again when you get ready for bed at night. Enjoy going to bed instead of fretting about tomorrow. Practice keeping yourself in the moment. It won't come easy in the beginning, but hang in there. With patience and a little help from the people who care about you, you can change.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these suggestions at greater length with a member of the Focus team, our staff counsellors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of referrals to trained therapists practicing in your area. You can contact our counselling department for a free consultation.
Timothy L. Sanford is a licensed professional counsellor and the clinical director of counselling services for Focus on the Family in the U.S. He is also a pastor, a public speaker and the author of several books, the most recent being Forgive for Real: Six Steps to Forgiving. Tim and his wife, Becky, have two grown daughters and reside in Colorado.
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