If you were to read the statistics, you’d think anxiety had suddenly descended upon the human race like a dark plague some 30 to 40 years ago. Anxiety has been escalating so quickly that the trend line is almost completely vertical—and it’s currently affecting 40 million adults in the United States alone.1 Some people blame genetics while others blame biology. And then there are people who think anxiety is exaggerated or fake.
Anxiety is real, and it’s powerful. It hijacks our thoughts, our guts and our heart rates. At times, it can be crippling. People are desperate to know how to deal with anxiety, but they’re paralyzed by the conflicting information. I’ve got some news for you: We’ve been looking at this entire thing the wrong way.
Think about it like this: Anxiety is like a smoke alarm. It goes off when it detects a “fire” in our hearts or heads—like a feeling of being in danger or an unpleasant emotion. And it only takes 30 seconds of watching the morning news to see that our world is on fire—literally, in some places.
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I like to use the word “ecosystem” to help us think about the complexity of our lives. Your ecosystem is the sum total of the world around you—the way you interact with your family, your community, the rules and expectations of your culture, your past trauma, your physical health, and your thoughts, hopes and actions.
The destructive ecosystem that we call normal life is full of outrageous demands and expectations for what we accomplish. Our ecosystems are the problem, not the alarm. We’re disconnected and overstimulated. We try to be all things to all people all of the time. We want everything right now. We’ve replaced true relationships with electronic boxes.
My friends, the alarms are working just fine. But we’ve been telling people to cover up and take out the batteries in the smoke alarms when we should be putting out the fires. To be clear: This is a lifelong journey. But I want to encourage you to do six important things today to start changing your relationship with anxiety.
1. Stop using anxiety as an identity.
Anxiety is not a medical disease or a genetic disorder or a way of being. It's not an excuse or a death sentence. You are not your anxiety. Millions of people “with anxiety” are walking around believing they’ve got a disease. They wear it like a cape that covers them and drags them down and impacts everything they do.
But anxiety is a learned and adapted physical and mental response to a world that’s full of threats and disconnection—perceived or real. It’s a fear of the future and a fear of things you cannot control. Anxiety is your body’s way of trying to take care of you. And since you learned it, it can be unlearned.
Anxiety is not who you are: It’s a way you experience the world. It’s the warning signal that you’re disconnected from your loved ones and that the world you’ve been placed in (or that you created for yourself) is on fire.
2. Honor the alarms.
We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, a recession, massive civil injustice and community unrest—and all this with no clear leadership anywhere. In moments like these, your alarms should be going off. This is exactly what they are for. Honor and respect them and look for what they’re signaling.
What are your alarms trying to tell you?
Learn to pay attention to when and why the alarms go off for you personally. Maybe it’s running into a certain coworker in the hall, or being ignored by someone you care about. Or maybe it’s when you arrive home after a long, exhausting day and feel afraid to step inside because there’s only loneliness waiting to greet you. Maybe it's the weight of a past tragedy.
Yes, the alarms are loud. Your heart rate takes over. Ugly, damning and intrusive thoughts become missiles through your mind. Your thoughts spin out of control. But the longer you ignore the alarms, the longer you’re cutting yourself off from taking control of your thoughts, changing your environment, and getting what you need. Pay attention to your anxiety instead of silencing it.
When sad things happen to you, you should feel sad. When tragedy strikes, you should be heartbroken. When someone around you dies, you should be angry and grieve deeply. Feeling hurt is the price of admission for love. Having uncomfortable feelings or painful experiences doesn’t mean you’re broken. It means you’re a human, and pain’s part of the deal.
How Anxiety Medication Silences the Alarms
We cannot talk about anxiety without talking about anxiety medication. I want to be clear: As a society, we are way overmedicated. We’re addicted to quick fixes. We avoid every uncomfortable feeling. We’re playing whack-a-mole with our brain chemistry. This is dangerous and highly unsettling.
It’s no surprise that one of the common attempts to “insta-fix” someone struggling with anxiety is to throw a bunch of pills at the problem. These medicines fall into categories like SSRIs, benzodiazepines or off-label antihistamines like hydroxyzine. Yeah, those are a lot of big words. But the point is that each medication you take triggers a highly complex and interactive process in your brain. And I’m oversimplifying here, but the end result is that medication dials down or “turns off” the alarms. And silencing the alarm won’t put out the fires. In almost every situation, medication is not a long-term solution.
In the short term, medication can be helpful if your alarms are constantly ringing. I took anxiety medications for a while during a time of life when the alarms were overwhelming. It helped me take my hands off my ears and connect with my community, mentors and a counselor.
But before taking medications, I recommend that you work with a counselor and a doctor to examine your diet and sleep, connection and relationships, and trauma and family histories. If you do end up taking medicine for a season, it can be a remarkable support as you heal and change your thoughts and actions. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be—and almost never should be—a part of your story forever.
3. Take an inventory of your life.
“Putting out the fires” in your world can be a long and intentional process. But you must take stock of where you are now so you can paint a picture of where you want to be later.
Pause and examine your past, your current life, and your intentions and values for the future. Below are some questions to help you begin to take stock of your life. I encourage you to write down your answers to these questions. See what you learn—and what needs to change.
- Am I safe and valued in my current environment?
- Have I dealt with past traumas and painful relationships?
- Do I have a space where I’m connected and vulnerable with others?
- Do I find purpose and meaning in my work?
- Am I prioritizing my health by eating well, exercising and getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night?
- What forms of distraction or comfort am I addicted to?
These questions are just a start. No doubt they can be hard. Silencing the alarms begins with finding out what’s on fire in your heart, mind and environment, then locating where the smoke’s coming from.
4. Make a habit of identifying your thoughts and emotions.
Anxiety often feels like your brain is filled with smoke and flying rubber bouncy balls. Writing your thoughts and feelings on paper makes them visible and manageable. Then, you can sort through the truth and the lies that are swirling around in your brain.
It’s easy to jump from a reasonable, healthy thought to an intrusive, worst-case scenario death spiral. I’ve been there. Let’s say you’re on the dating scene and you see someone attractive at a party. You take a risk by walking across the room and striking up a conversation. After a few minutes of pleasant chatting, they excuse themselves to go get a drink or to talk to another friend, then they don’t make an effort to see you again the rest of the night. Of course, you’re disappointed. You were courageous and vulnerable, and things didn’t go the way you hoped.
A thought like, It sucks that [insert person of interest’s name] didn’t want to hang out more. This is a reasonable response. But within a split second, we jump from mild disappointment to something like, There’s something wrong with me. No one ever wants to hang out with me. I must not be attractive enough. It always ends up like this. I’ll always be alone. I’ll never have a family.
That feels over the top when you read it, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t feel that way in our heads, which is why we need to get our thoughts out of our heads and onto paper. We often talk to ourselves in ways that we would never tolerate someone talking to one of our friends. So don’t talk to yourself that way. Challenge the critical voice inside your head. Don’t be a victim of your own thoughts or feelings.
5. Learn to control your thoughts and actions.
You can only control two things in the world: your thoughts and your actions. That’s it. Make a choice to spend your energy growing in strength and character and learning to take ownership of your thoughts and actions—and the choices you make as a result.
In order to take control, first you need to identify what’s within your control and what’s outside of your control. Let’s say you’re overwhelmed and burnt out at work. You can’t control the decisions your boss and coworkers make, but you can decide how you will act at work—how you show up early, work with integrity and excellence, and respect others. You can also choose to set boundaries, or maybe even look for a different job. You can choose joy.
Learning to control and direct your thoughts, your emotions and your actions is a hard but holy adventure. It can take a lifetime. But no matter how challenging, your thoughts and actions can be tamed. It just takes strength and practice, like working out a muscle.
6. Connect with real people in real ways.
You cannot get through your life alone. You must be in relationship with other people. This is not just a cute quote or a cliché Instagram-ism. This is science. This is truth. This is biblical.
True relationships and connection are the emergency fund for your life. It’s not a question of if challenging times will occur . . . it’s when. You can count on it. Relationships and community cushion your crash and encourage true healing.
Don’t turn to a screen before or after your alarms start to sound. Don’t text. Don’t tweet. See someone face to face. Hear a real voice. Our bodies are designed to regulate themselves and calm down by interacting with other people—in person. We can’t pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Believe me: I’m an introvert from Texas, and I’ve tried.
I want you to connect with people you love or who you can be vulnerable with. Today. Right now. This might mean calling a professional therapist, a trusted doctor, a pastor or your neighbor. It might mean calling old college friends or getting back in touch with your work friends or church small group. You can’t put out your fires alone.
Practical Tips for Anxiety Relief
The next time the alarms start to sound, pause. Remember that things are out of whack, but you have tools to deal with anxiety. Reach out to someone you can trust. Breathe deeply and intentionally. Hang in there. There’s a better tomorrow waiting for you if you want it. It will take some work to create it, but you can do it.
I know this because I’ve been bent low by anxiety, intrusive thoughts and the runaway train of fear and compulsion. I had to put aside my arrogance and deal with my loneliness. I connected deeply with a community, and I got professional support. I worked to take full ownership of my thoughts and actions, and I now experience peace and rest . . . on most days. My story can be your story too.
Anxiety Relief Checklist
While there's no quick fix for anxiety, there are practical steps you can take today to find relief.