I’ve always considered myself to be a person who handles stress pretty well. I like to be busy. I enjoy taking risks. I never thought anxiety was my problem.
Then, a little less than a year ago, I hit a wall. I could never seem to get enough sleep. Small tasks I had normally done with little thought or stress were suddenly accompanied with an almost crippling anxiety.
One day as I was driving, it suddenly felt as though my heart was malfunctioning. That was my first panic attack. It was also the moment I realized I could no longer ignore the stress and anxiety that was slowly taking over my life.
Something had to change.
After that day, I began seeking counsel. I saw a doctor. I began making changes. By God’s grace, I am now no longer on any medication, the panic attacks are gone and my anxiety is at an all-time low. I still have days that are harder than others, but those days are increasingly few and far between.
I continue to meet many people who find themselves in a similar place to where I was just a year ago. Those conversations have confirmed that we the Church have a long way to go when it comes to addressing issues of mental health. Many aren’t sure how to understand or respond to their struggle as Christians.
So to those who find themselves in that place right now, here are seven ways to deal with anxiety and stress:
1. Admit There’s a Problem
Those familiar with programs like AA will tell you the first step to recovery is owning up to the fact that a problem exists. And they are right.
This requires a lot of humility. Anxiety in particular can be hard to own up to because it makes us feel weak in an area where so many others appear to be strong. The temptation is to keep pushing and hope the anxiety goes away on its own.
As I learned the hard way, however, pushing through without addressing the problem can lead to an inevitable and ugly crash. I was dealing with anxiety for a very long time before I would acknowledge it. It wasn’t until I started having debilitating panic attacks that I finally admitted there was a problem.
Had I owned up to the problem sooner, I could have spared both myself and my family a lot of pain.
2. Stop Self-Medicating in Unhealthy Ways
Many who struggle with stress and anxiety develop their own ways of coping along the way. Some respond to stress by snacking constantly on junk food. Some drink to take the edge off. Others camp out in front of the television for hours on end.
None of these are healthy ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. Most of us intrinsically know this. What we don’t often realize, however, is that responding to stress in these ways can actually work against our body’s ability to fight back and get healthy, not to mention what it can do to our soul.
In other words, unhealthy coping mechanisms often make it worse, creating an endless cycle of stress and self-medication.
3. Take Care of Yourself Physically
In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul encourages believers to remember that our body is a living temple, one that has been bought at a great price, and therefore we ought to glorify God with it. Taking care of our bodies, therefore, is a spiritual endeavor.
This is particularly important for those who struggle with stress and anxiety as our physical health is connected to our mental health. Regular exercise, for example, has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. One study in particular showed that those who regularly exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.
One of my favorite anxiety moments in the Bible is found in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah is so overwhelmed by his circumstances that he wants to end his life. In that moment, God didn’t give him a pep talk or shame him for his lack of faith. Instead, He gave him a meal and let him go to sleep. Twice.
Learning to rest is an important part of taking care of the body God has entrusted us with. Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is take a nap.
4. Be Intentional About What Goes into Your Mind
Philippians 4:8 says this: “Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.”
Paul is pointing to the fact that what we fill our minds with has a profound effect on us. We see this truth at work whenever the Scriptures speak of meditation. Hebrew meditation isn’t just about emptying one’s mind of wrong things, it’s about filling one’s mind with the right things.
5. Don’t Neglect the Spiritual
You and I are spiritual beings, which means there is always more going on than meets the eye.
We must never forget that we live in a world at war. And while God desires for us to flourish, there is another who would love nothing else than to see to see us suffer. When you are overwhelmed with grief and anxiety, he will whisper in your ear lies about your identity, your self-worth, your status before God, your past, your future, your hope. It is important that you recognize these for what they are.
You must make a habit of utilizing the power of prayer, the gift of the Scriptures and the support of Christian community who can help you discern the lies you are tempted to believe and who will remind you of who you truly are in Christ.
6. Consider Seeing a Doctor
Personally, I believe medicine is not a rejection of God’s power, but rather a provision of his grace. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need.
That said, medicine is not the cure-all when it comes to treating anxiety (or any mental health struggle). It can include side-effects and it often takes multiple tries to find the right one. But it can help tremendously. Don’t be afraid to see a doctor and ask about treatments—just like you would with a physical ailment.
7. Embrace the Blessing of Brokenness
When I was in the worst of my depression and anxiety, there were days when getting out of bed was difficult work. Hardly a moment went by when I was not painfully aware of my shortcomings as a man, as a husband, as a dad, as a leader. It was awful. But it also created in me a dependency like I’d never previously experienced.
I held onto Jesus with white knuckles as I prayed during panic attacks. I desperately felt my need for prayer every single day. Words like those of Psalm 23 weren’t just nice words to casually read or embroider on a throw blanket. They were my life.
There are some things about God that can only be learned through suffering. Sometimes I wonder if this is why God refused to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Because a broken and dependent Paul was a Paul through whom God could change the world. He was the kind of Paul that could write and mean words like this:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take this suffering away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
If you are walking through the valley of anxiety right now, there is a way out, and I pray you find it. But in the meantime, don’t miss what God may have for you right where you are.
This article was originally published on aarongloy.com. Used with permission.
Aaron is a husband, dad, church planter, coffee addict, insatiable learner and chronic dreamer. He's the founding pastor of Mosaic Lincoln. You can find more of his writing on his blog or on Twitter.