How I combat everyday anxiety and find peace amidst chaos
Ever since I can remember, I’ve struggled with anxiety. This sounds sad, I know, but to be honest, I don’t know any different. I’ve always had a lingering, low grade feeling of anxiety—sometimes for hours or days at a time. There are days I go anxiety-free, but most days I have some sort of bout with the “scaries.” It could be something as minuscule as dirty dishes in the sink, or something major, like worrying about my husband getting in a car accident on a work trip. Whatever the trigger, it’s a constant battle to combat my everyday anxiety.
My anxiety is usually worse at the beginning of the week: Sunday’s and Mondays. I think it has to do with the start of a new week and anxiety concerning change in general. I also notice changes in my anxiety levels with the changing of seasons, and especially after holidays. And speaking of change: nothing gives me anxiety like a spontaneous event. It could be an unexpected task assigned at work, a suddenly traffic jam, or even something positive or fun—like getting a job promotion or making last-minute plans with friends. I once cried over my husband’s haircut because he went for a different style without telling me and I wasn’t anticipating the change.
Anxiety is complicated, but we can combat it
Anxiety shows itself in a variety of ways. From physiological symptoms like increased heart rate, gastrointestinal distress, and trouble sleeping, to psychological symptoms like trouble concentrating and irrational thoughts. It could be social anxiety, phobias, panic attacks or general anxiety. It could everyday anxiety, or sporadic. Anxiety doesn’t discriminate! You can have it all together and still suffer from some form of anxiety.
All these triggers stem from a perceived lack of control. And the reality is, there is very little in life that you and I have control over. But lacking control doesn’t necessarily have to induce anxiety. We must take charge of the things in our lives that we can control, and let go of that which we can’t. And that’s what I’ve had to learn to reconcile over the years. You and I don’t have to suffer; we can take action to combat everyday anxiety.
*I want to make a point that sometimes anxiety is more than just everyday stress, but a chemical imbalance that needs medical attention. In this case, speak with your doctor about your options. I have seen a counselor to help me form anxiety-reducing strategies. While counseling was very impactful, it’s up to me to continue to employ these strategies to combat everyday anxiety. Here’s what I try to do when anxiety creeps in.
Steps to combat everyday anxiety
1. Know the difference between worry and concern.
A great book I read a few years ago called The Anxiety Cure (highly recommend!) taught me that there’s a difference between worry and concern. For example, concern for my husband’s safety while traveling for work is natural and healthy. However, if I continue to ruminate on this concern to the point that I am anxious, that is worry.
Concern is good because it enables us to think through potentially harmful, risky or destructive situations. If no one ever experienced concern, we would be in trouble! But anxiety takes concern to a new level, worry, which is not only crippling but also unproductive.
Concern can accomplish things. For example, I may voice my concerns to my husband and as a result he can drive the speed limit and make sure to get a good night’s sleep while traveling to avoid and accident. But worry, continuing to think anxiously about these safety risks, just makes me miserable. It doesn’t prevent an accident; it doesn’t influence anyone or anything. I am the only one that is influenced by worry—and not in a good way.
2. Let go of the things we can’t control
I am a follower of Christ and I firmly believe that the only way to truly let go of your worries is to trust in Jesus, the One who is good, sovereign, powerful and merciful. One of my favorite verses is 1 Peter 5:7: “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.” (Phillips translation). How amazing is that? I can literally put the weight of my anxiety of Jesus’ shoulders, and he is the only One who can alleviate this burden. He cares about me and wants me to experience freedom from anxiety.
Again, I am not saying that you never should feel concern, but hanging onto anxious thoughts will prevent you from trusting Christ and experiencing the perfect peace only He can provide. Isaiah 26:3 says, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (ESV). That’s the kind of peace I want!
How I practically “let go” of my anxiety:
- Pray. I tell God what I’m anxious about and ask him to help me.
- Meditate (think deeply, letting it soak in) on Scripture, like the verses above. This helps me take hold of the anxious thought and reshape my thought patterns to focus on the truth.
- Practice deep breathing to relax: inhale through your nose, filling up your stomach up with air, then exhale through your mouth (for more on this, see here)
These steps help me calm down and focus on what is true, including how I can manage the situation. Sometimes there’s nothing I can do. But, believing the truth about God in the Bible assures me that He’s got this even when I don’t.
3. Take charge of the things we can control
What are the things you and I can control? Let’s start with what we can’t control: our circumstances (most of them) and other people. What, then, can we control?
I may not be able to control that fact that someone cut me off in traffic and caused to me run into a city trash bin (this actually happened), but I can control my reaction. Our attitude is our choice, and while it’s okay to get frustrated, upset, etc. when things go awry, it doesn’t change anything.
This simple truth is one I struggle to reconcile—you mean, if I don’t get angry about ____ then it won’t make me feel better? No, it won’t. Usually, the opposite. When we choose to focus on the positive instead of the negative, we can move past the frustrating situation and experience peace. When I harbor anger or resentment, I allow anxiety to grow deeper roots, because I am trying to control something that I can’t.
This is a MAJOR factor. You might not want to hear that what you eat affects your mental health, but it’s the reality. Many staples in the American diet–dairy, gluten, sugar, and processed foods–cause inflammation. This inflammation can cause depression and anxiety, among other illnesses.
For more information on how your gut health affects your mental health, read here and here.
Along these lines, I overhauled my nutrition this past year. I realized that I was eating a lot of inflammatory foods, and wanted to see if eliminating these foods would reduce my anxiety symptoms. After a few months on the Plant Paradox program, I noticed a change in my mental health. My anxiety has been more manageable, and I have fewer mood swings. I share more about my experience on the Plant Paradox program in this post.
Clinical studies show that regular exercise can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. This can be aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga, and pretty much anything that gets you moving. The reason behind this is that exercise increases feel-good hormones and endorphins, and decreases stress hormones like cortisol. Even 20 minutes can have a significant affect on your mood. The key is consistency.
I have personally experienced these benefits and enjoy exercising 5-6 days a week to help me combat my everyday anxiety. My weekly routine consists of cardio, strength training and yoga. The physical and mental release is addicting! For more tips on how to start exercising, check out my blog post here.
When it comes to anxiety and sleep, the relationship is bidirectional. Anxiety can keep you up at night or cause you to wake up throughout the night, and therefore deprive you of a good night’s sleep. Conversely, sleep problems or lack of sleep can increase anxiety symptoms. If you struggle with insomnia as a result of anxiety, or if you have trouble falling or staying asleep, talk with your doctor about your options.
On the other hand, if your lifestyle does not allow for a proper night’s sleep (7-9 hours), you have a choice to make. Compromising sleep and therefore your overall health is not worth it! I understand there are special circumstances–maybe you just had a baby, or you switched jobs and have to work a night shift, etc. But, in other cases, you should allow for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. It might mean that you have to make sacrifices elsewhere, but your mental health is worth it.
And sleep makes a huge difference! Once I started sleeping adequately I noticed that my anxiety symptoms, especially my mood swings and irrational thoughts, decreased. And of course, I had more energy and could better cope with my anxiety when triggers popped up.
While you can’t entirely eliminate or control the stress in your life, there are ways to manage it. Moreover, we have to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary stress. Think through your work schedule, social calendar, what you do with your free time, how you spend your money, who your friends are, hobbies, etc. Are there ways you’re orienting your schedule that create anxiety? It could be that you need to overhaul your priorities, or simply rework your schedule to eliminate unnecessary stress.
As a Type A, enneagram 1, I am always trying to “perfectly” align my schedule to fit in as much as possible and to do everything with excellence. Sounds like an impossible combination, right? It is, most of the time.
So for me to eliminate unnecessary stressors, I have to take a step back and realize that I don’t need to do everything perfectly. And moreover, I don’t need to do and be all things. I can’t. Trying to live this way gives me anxiety.
So, I choose to focus on the necessary tasks each day, including first and foremost my time with God as well as time for self-care and relationships, so I can save my sanity. And although I don’t always feel super productive and on top of life, I know I did the best I could with the capacity God gave me. When I am closely following God and spending time with Him, I am confident that he will provide me with the capabilities to do exactly what He has called me to do each day, including managing stress.
How to practically live peacefully
Get to the bottom of it
Acknowledge the anxious thought and ask yourself: Why am I feeling this way? What triggered my anxiety? This will help you identify the source and therefore help address the problem. It might help to write down these triggers, so that you know how to spot them. This will help you readily identify your anxiety and address it more quickly.
Take a deep breath (yes, you have to keep doing this for it to work!)
Along with this, I try to spend a few minutes being still, maybe meditating on Scripture (like I mentioned above). I also will sometimes go for a walk to help release physical tension–not as a workout. I try to keep my heart rate low so I actually relax!
If there’s something that can be done to resolve my anxiety, I do it. This could be having a tough conversation, finishing up work that needs to be done, etc. When there’s no clear actionable way to resolve my anxiety, I pray. This allows me to stop ruminating and stressing myself out, and let’s God take control in His perfect way.
To sum things up: take it one step at a time! Over time, these strategies have helped me immensely and provided a pathway for true peace and joy in my life. As always, speak with a doctor or counselor for a more individualized look at your anxiety. It is an ongoing process to combat everyday anxiety, but we’ve got this.