I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember, but to this day I struggle describing it. It’s as if someone dropped a boulder on my chest; but it’s not only that. It’s also a sudden surge of restlessness followed by paranoid feeling that everyone can see something is wrong with me. It’s awkward, unsettling and also incredibly confusing. How could I be totally fine one moment and then be super anxious the next when nothing around me changed?
The Anxiety Confusion
When my anxiety was at its worst, I had family members say to me “you don’t have anything overly stressful going on in your life. What can you possibly be anxious about?” I never knew how to answer that. The problem was that I wasn’t anxious about anything. I was simply anxious and I had no idea why.
If there’s pain in my finger due to a splinter, the solution is obvious: remove the splinter. But when it came to anxiety there never seemed to be an obvious cause. This was confusing and incredibly frustrating.
Types of Anxiety
I’m not a licensed therapist, but from personal experience it seems to me there are two types of anxiety: situational and chronic. The first is caused by stressful circumstances and, much like the splinter in finger example, once the circumstance is resolved the anxiety disappears. The other type of anxiety is a lot more tricky. It comes and goes in waves without any apparent relationship to outside circumstances.
Although I was never diagnosed—mainly because I rarely shared my struggle with others—I battled the chronic type of anxiety for many years. However, it only took one day to find the cure.
The Cause of My Anxiety
Even though it didn’t seem like my chronic anxiety had a cause, it in fact did. One day, after being hit by yet another seemingly random wave of anxiety, I got fed up. I determined to find out what caused this torment once and for all.
In what turned out to be an answer to years of prayer, an old memory surfaced in my mind of a health talk I once heard. The health coach who gave the talk was making a case for drinking more water. He said that, contrary to common belief, thirst isn’t always a first sign of dehydration. One of the very first signs of dehydration could be something seemingly unrelated like a headache. Not knowing any better, most people tend to focus on treating the symptom of dehydration by taking an aspirin instead of addressing the root cause by simply drinking more water.
Believe it or not, remembering those words helped me begin overcoming my chronic anxiety.
The old saying “you reap what you sow” applies to mental health just as much as it does to farming. I realized I’d been consistently sowing anxious thoughts into my mind which in return produced a crop of full-blown anxiety. And just like in farming, this wasn’t an overnight process. I would entertain anxious thoughts, time would pass—so much so that I would forget all about those thoughts—then harvest time rolled around where I reaped a big load of anxiety seemingly out of nowhere.
My anxiety was a symptom of unhealthy thought patterns. Sure I could have tried treating that symptom, but I chose to address the root cause instead. I began to replenish my dehydrated mind with some much needed healthy thoughts, hoping a better crop would soon start breaking through the soil.
Thinking Better Thoughts
My wife and I once spent an entire afternoon pulling weeds in our neglected garden before planting some vegetables. It was well worth the effort; we had a nice little harvest that year and our garden was weed-free and beautiful. However, the next year we got busy and didn’t plant anything. Guess what happened to our garden? It transformed back into a sea of 4 ft. tall weeds—it was kind of impressive!
It’s not enough to simply say “alright, I’ll stop thinking anxious thoughts” and then expect all anxiety to vanish. That’s only the first step of a two-step solution. The second step is to replace those anxious thoughts with good ones. Otherwise, we’ll soon be back to a garden full of 4 ft. tall anxiety weeds.
What Worked For Me (And Could Work for You Too)
If you’ve dealt with anxiety for a while, being told to simply think better thoughts may be difficult advice to execute. You may be wondering where to begin. To help point you in the right direction, I took what worked for me and broke it down into 4 simple segments. Let’s stick with the gardening illustration to make it more memorable.
Just like we must first pull out weeds before planting anything, we must also first weed-out all anxious, negative thinking before introducing healthier thought patterns.
Why is this step important? Well for one, weeds generally provide zero value—the same can be said of negative thoughts. Also, just like weeds compete with good plants for space, water, sunlight and nutrients, unhealthy thoughts also directly compete with healthy thoughts. We can’t think two thoughts at once. So every thought is either negative or positive—healthy or unhealthy. Weeding out the negative ones creates more room for healthy ones to blossom.
And sometimes it’s not just the negative thoughts that need to be purged. Much of the anxiety I’ve dealt with stemmed from me thinking about the future way too much. Although thinking about future tasks, goals and dreams isn’t necessarily an unhealthy practice, I found it could be taken too far.
I would spend hours each day thinking about where I wanted to be next year and what needed to be accomplished to get there. This often lead to me getting frustrated that my desired future-state (professionally, relationally, physically, etc.) was not manifesting in my present soon enough.
Certainly it’s important to plan and prepare for the future. However, that should be a small part of our day. The majority of our time must be spent fully present in today. I believe we were designed with just enough capacity to live life one day at a time; if we push past that limit, anxiety will greet us on the other end.
“Do not worry about tomorrow . . . each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Jesus Christ
After the weeds are taken care of, my wife and I usually take a moment to pause and organize the flowers and vegetables we want to plant. For example, some parts of our garden get more sunlight than others; so we organize our plants by the amount of sunlight they need to thrive. We cannot plant before determining where each plant needs to go.
Organization was a big part of my triumph over anxiety because my restless mind was a major cause of it. I felt like I constantly had 100 plates spinning in my mind—anxiety usually struck when those plates started to come crashing down. My restlessness diminished when I began organizing my thoughts and environment with the help of the following tools and practices:
I started using a calendar for most of my life events. This is helpful because now that’s one less plate for me to spin. I no longer have to think about where I need to be or what I need to do each day; my Google Calendar is now spinning that plate for me and notifies me whenever something is coming up.
Journaling is also another practice that helped me organize my thoughts. I have a couple nice journals where I write about my dreams and feelings and all that mushy stuff, but I realize that’s not everybody’s thing—although I can’t imagine why. What I do think everyone should consider using is some sort of a note taking journal. I use both Evernote and Google Keep whenever I want to remember an idea, a movie recommendation, a friend’s address or anything else. In this information age, our minds are so stuffed with random bits of information that having a place to offload some of it is super helpful.
This one may take you by surprise, but another practice that helped me overcome anxiety was keeping my home, car and work-space clean. I’d like to say this was purely my idea, but my wife will probably read this so I better not lie.
There’s a good documentary on minimalism that makes a solid case for decluttering work and living spaces—I highly recommend watching it! Ever since I saw that film, I’ve been on a decluttering frenzy.
My office desk used to be covered with random decor trinkets, documents and tall stacks of award plaques—ok maybe not so much the last one. Every time I looked away from my computer screen, I had a sea of objects vying for my attention. In mere second my mind bubbled up with thoughts like, “There’s that electric bill I still need to pay.” “I really like this ceramic art piece I made in college. I wish I could go make some art instead of sitting in this office.” “This desk is so messy, when am I going to find the time to clean it?” Before I know it, not only am I distracted from my work, I’m also back to thinking a bunch of negative thoughts that don’t help me avoid anxiety.
Now this is still an ongoing battle for me. As I write this, I see an empty water bottle in front of me that needs to be recycled along with a couple random sheets of paper I no longer need. Keeping our spaces clean shouldn’t be another point to stress over. It should simply be embraced as a new lifestyle. For example, I no longer let grocery store receipts and other small things like that linger in my car. I make a point of throwing that stuff away as soon as I see it. A little unattended receipt is like a little weed that seems to possess a magical ability to multiply itself, creating a mess in no time.
Once cleaning becomes a lifestyle, our spaces will inevitably get clean and stay clean. And we all love the tangible peace that comes over us when we walk into a perfectly clean room. So, I found organization to be crucial in the fight against anxiety.
With everything cleaned and organized, we can finally begin planting good thoughts into our mind’s garden.
Just like any weed-infested garden can be transformed into a manicured oasis, any anxious mind can also be transformed into a peaceful one. It all goes back to what we plant.
Neuroplasticity is a scientific term describing the brain’s remarkable ability to reshape itself. According to neuroscientists, we can literally transform our brains to think different thought patterns. It certainly takes intentional effort to think in a new and healthier way, but overtime our efforts create pathways in our brains that allow positive thoughts to flow more freely—much like traveling along a well beaten path is easier than moving through an unexplored jungle.
The good news is that our brains can change for the better. However, it won’t happen overnight. It takes about 2 months to form a habit, so rewiring our brains to think differently is a marathon and not a sprint—patience is required.
“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.” -Apostle Paul
Seeing as we purged everything bad, the next logical step is to plant something good. Here are a few ways I plant healthy thought patterns into my mind:
Psychologists Robert Emmons (University of California, Davis) and Michael McCullough (University of Miami) conducted a couple different studies on the effects of gratitude. In one study of young adults, they found that subjects who kept a daily gratitude journal experienced a spike in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy. In another study, they found that adults who kept just a weekly gratitude journal experienced improvements in optimism and exercise patterns as well as a decrease in physical ailments.
These results are incredible! No medication, no therapy; just 5 minutes of journaling and you’re well on your way to a healthier you.
My gratitude journaling usually looks like this:
- 3 things I’m grateful for
- Something good that happened today
- One random act of kindness I did today
I jumped straight into daily gratitude journaling when I first started, but only lasted 9 days before giving up. If you’re looking to start this practice, a good idea would be to begin with a more attainable goal of weekly journaling and then building up from there.
This next tool I got from mixed martial artist and trainer Bobby Maximus. As a trainer, he saw many clients struggling with negative self-talk that severely hindered their performance. As he sees it, there are only two types of thoughts: red-light thoughts (negative) and green-light thoughts (positive). Red-light thoughts are the “I can’t” thoughts. Green-light thoughts are the “I can and I will” thoughts. With this in mind, he encourages his clients to buy a roll of green dot stickers and stick them all over their home, work, car, etc. For example, I have a green dot in my shower, on my dream board and I even had one on the back of my phone at one point.
The idea here is to check your internal chatter every time you see one of those dots to make sure you’re thinking green-light thoughts. So every time I look at my dream board, for example, I see a green dot nestled in-between pictures of my lofty dreams and I’m reminded not to think any pessimistic thoughts that could deter me from pursuing those dreams.
In a culture that values “the hustle” more than ever, rest isn’t a popular concept. Yet, rest is what many of us desperately need. After purging, organizing and planting, the only thing left to do is rest and wait for the harvest.
I know you may be thinking, “I have so much to do. I don’t have the luxury for rest.” You don’t have the luxury not to make time for it.
Take a look at Chick-fil-A for example. Unlike most national fast food chains, Chick-fil-A closes all of its restaurants one day a week—forfeiting 52 days of business every year. Yet, according to a 2018 Forbes article, Chick-fil-A’s annual domestic sales will soon surpass that of Wendy’s, Taco-Bell, Burger King and Subway—making them the third-largest restaurant chain in America behind Starbucks and McDonald’s.
Working less while making more seems like a paradox. However, this isn’t a new idea. For centuries farmers purposely left portions of their land fallow—meaning they didn’t plant anything on it—to let the soil recover the nutrients it lost in the previous harvest. Farmers don’t profit from empty fields, so leaving land fallow is a big financial loss. However, much of what is forfeited during the fallow time is made up by larger crop yields whenever the field is farmed in the future.
I hope you’re beginning to see that taking a break to rest from the hustle can be a good thing.
Here are a couple ways I cultivate rest in my life.
Every morning, I wake up a little earlier to get a couple hours to myself before the days begins. There’s no phone calls, emails, to-do lists, etc. My morning time is 100% my time and it’s wonderful!
I split this time into two parts. The first hour I spend nourishing my spirit with prayer, scripture and reflective journaling. I spend the second hour working on a passion project or anything else I may not have time for during the day.
In a way, my morning time is where I get to practice all the 4 disciplines that keep me anxiety-free. I get to purge any negative mindsets in prayer, organize my mind through journaling, plant encouraging truth into my spirit by studying scripture, and rest in the serene stillness of a predawn morning.
Seeing as it works so well for Chick-fil-A, I also take a break from work one day a week and observe the ancient ritual of Sabbath. Although this isn’t a religious practice for me, it is very spiritual. I found it’s easy to be anxious whenever I feel like everything rests on my shoulders. Taking a day off from running errands, pursuing side hustles, etc. is my way of letting go of some of that pressure and trusting God to take care of me and my family.
Having an entire day as a safe-haven from the daily pressure to produce is such a gift. It’s also a perfect opportunity for intentional time with friends and family. At my house, Sabbath begins each Friday night with a special dinner where my wife and I catch up and invest in our relationship. We then have the entire Saturday to indulge in hobbies, enjoy the outdoors, or do anything else we find relaxing—no agendas or schedules, just intentional rest.
I once heard Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist, speak about anxiety from a unique perspective. According to Dr. Leaf, anxiety is your body telling you something is off. Just like a toothache is the body’s way of sounding an alarm to treat the infection before it spreads, anxiety is also a call to address issues of negativity, chaos, overwork, etc. before they lead to something worse.
So, in a way, anxiety isn’t as much as a problem as it is a symptom of a problem.
I encourage you to begin looking at anxiety from that perspective. Instead of letting it cripple you, use the tools in this article to purge any negative thought patterns, organize your mind, plant encouraging truth into yourself and carve out time for intentional rest and recuperation.
Thank you for reading this article! I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts on how you combat anxiety. Please feel free to leave a comment below.