Navigating Anxiety and Leading Others To Do the Same

My heart was beating too fast. My mind was only able to focus on one thing at a time, and transitioning from one thought to another was like mentally crawling through quicksand. My breathing was quick and labored.

I was having a panic attack.

Anxiety is not new to me, but consistent, everyday, gut-wrenching anxiety is. It’s due to being a germaphobe during an international pandemic. It’s due to not being able to spend time with loved ones face to face. It’s due to work falling through and money being tight. It’s due to feeling frustrated with our local and national government.

It’s due to COVID-19, but it’s also due to how I process stress.

I am a PhD candidate and a pastor/mentor. Much of my life is spent face to face with others: challenging, pressing, inviting, molding. My students and mentees are suffering, unsure how to navigate work, family, school, worship—life!

I am honest with those I walk with that I’m having a tough time, too. But after my most recent panic attack, I realized I need to be more purposeful about communicating not just that I am suffering, but what I’m doing to combat the stress. Here are three ways I seek to combat anxiety and that leaders can build into their own regular practices:

Ground Yourself

Grounding exercises give your mind and body opportunities to refocus instead of dwelling on the anxiety. They require your full attention for enough time that you can redirect your thought processes and your energy. My favorite grounding exercise is to look around, and then find:

  • Five things you can see
  • Four things you can touch
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can smell
  • One thing you can taste

You can also find additional grounding exercises here.

I also rely on Scripture to help me meditate in an effort to focus. Meditation for me looks like reading the passage, reflecting on its meaning, making a personal application, and repeating this process several times. For example, Galatians 5:1a tells us that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free; as I meditate on this passage, I am reminded that Christ did not die and rise again so I would be caught up in fear and stymied by anxiety. John 1:5 tells us that the darkness of this world is conquered by the light of Christ; this reminds me that overcoming the darkness of the world has been done! Reminding myself of this gives me perspective regarding my own temporary darkness.

Give Yourself Grace

My psychiatrist gives this advice consistently. She knows I am inclined to be the toughest on myself. She and I share faith in Christ, so I know that when she talks about grace, she means the kind of grace modeled to us by Jesus: kind, gentle, uncompromising, sacrificial.

It is my thought-life that is most devastating to my whole being. When I take a moment to reflect on what I’m telling myself and redirect it to something the Lord would say about me, I am able to show myself the kind of extraordinary grace Christ does.

Some might find this controversial, but I will also use medication on a temporary basis while I work on issues through a number of therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy. I work with my psychiatrist to find the one that will be the least addictive, the least caustic, and the most likely to align with my particular chemistry. Taking the medication my psychiatrist prescribes gives my brain the space it needs to practice meditation and grounding exercises. For my journey, I need to have the grace necessary to say my mental health matters.

I also remind myself of the truths of Scripture that can help to remind me of the grace of God, such as Romans 5:20 which tells us that God’s grace is abundant. We can’t “out-sin” God’s grace. Even if I let anxiety and panic temporarily take over, I can return to the Lord for grace upon grace upon grace. And 2 Corinthians 12:9 tells us that God’s grace is sufficient and that God’s power overcomes our weaknesses. Anxiety can so consume us that it feels like the ultimate weakness at times. But then there is God. We can go so far as to rejoice in anxiety when we know it is overcome by God’s great grace. And we can have grace with ourselves when we realize these truths. Anxiety can so consume us that it feels like the ultimate weakness at times. But then there is God. Click To Tweet

Be Kind to Yourself

My counselor makes it a habit to ask me, “What are you going to do to be kind to yourself this week?” as we finish our hour together. While it is a consistent question, I am usually at a loss for ideas. Being kind to myself does not come as easily as I would like. However, this is an important practice in my development, and I have in turn suggested it to those to whom I minister. The ideas are endless for how you can take care of yourself in this way; my favorites include:

  • Eating a delicious meal
  • Making the time to stretch
  • Reading or listening to a beautiful story
  • Spending time outside with no agenda
  • Making room for creativity in my busy schedule
  • Making a list of things you like about myself

You might consider this book for a source of more ideas.

Remember what the Psalmist says, that God delights in us and saves us (Ps 18:19). There are fairly few words that are as precious to me as “delight”…especially when it is something that God does. God’s salvation is not just a utilitarian gift, it is a pleasure. I reflect on this and remember that if God can delight in me, I can do the same.

John 3:15-17 of course includes one of the most famous verses in all of Scripture, but how often do we dwell deeply on these truths within: that belief in God brings us eternal life; that God came to save us, that God loves us to no end? When I take the time to truly soak in these promises, my breath catches. What words can I utter to respond to this gift of life and love? I can muster a few feeble words, but I mostly respond in tears. I can be kind to myself because God was first kind to me. I can be kind to myself because God was first kind to me. Click To Tweet

As I learn to quiet my anxiety and to be healthy for myself and my family, I am also aware that these three principles can help me empower those I love and serve. Philippians 4:6 tells us that we are not to be anxious about anything. Navigating how to accomplish this should be both a personal endeavor as well as one we undertake regularly within our communities of faith. Perhaps this Lenten season, especially as we all continue to bear the challenges of our ongoing pandemic, you can make space for self-care as part of your journey toward Resurrection Sunday—and encourage the same in your congregations.

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