Rush hour slows all four northbound lanes of highway traffic to 20 miles an hour… 15… 10… and holds at a five-mile-an-hour crawl. I’m boxed in by cars, SUVs, and a few semis. No off ramp in sight. No way to cross to the shoulder. Not two minutes later, even the crawl ceases.
The engine idles roughly in my 14-year-old ride that’s clearly feeling the aches and pains of its 200,000-plus miles. In the last year, this van has stalled at a major intersection, blew out two tires in one day, and purged its radiator in the middle of a highway construction zone.
And I just know I’m going to get stuck today with no way out. By myself. On the highway.
The wall of traffic closes in tighter and tighter. My fingers tingle on the steering wheel where they’re curled at 10 and two. My heart picks up speed at the same time the world around me slows to the dizziness in my head and the drawn-out drop of my stomach through the floorboards.
“Breathe,” I tell myself, flexing my numb fingers. “Breathing is good. Suffocating is bad. So bad.”
Death by traffic—or more accurately claustrophobia by traffic—is just one of my weird and debilitating anxieties. Imagining the worst in any situation seems to be a personal gift. Driving in the rain makes me shake. Feeling out of control twist-ties my lungs. Social anxiety slicks the back of my neck. Fear of failure sinks me into myself. General restlessness spins my thoughts until my mind won’t shut off and I can’t sleep, I can’t focus, and I can’t function.
Anxiety might be one of the least understood stalkers of our mental health. Especially to people who’ve never experienced it. Physical illness and broken bones people understand. Even a broken heart gains a sympathetic shake of the head. But anxiety can get brushed off as being in our heads.
When I’m honest about my anxiety, I get a lot of these kind of comments. Stop thinking about it. Just tell yourself you’re fine. Look around—nothing terrible is happening to you. Give it over to the Lord. Pray hard. Believe harder. God can heal you. Don’t you know we don’t have to worry about our lives? It says so in Matthew 25.
I already know I’m to be anxious for nothing. I cling to my hope in Christ. I beg for God to take away my anxiety. I pray for peace that passes understanding. Sometimes I experience it. Sometimes I don’t.
God and I have history when it comes to Him working in my life. The changes I pray about don’t often happen overnight. They’re not quite Noah-building-the-ark slow, but certain days or months, it sure feels like it. I used to worry about that slowness too. Was I not spiritual enough? Not praying the right way? Closed off and blind to what He wanted to do in my life?
Maybe. I’m human. I mess up. Thank goodness God is infinitely patient.
But I’ve learned that while a few people experience instant healing, others walk miles in the desert while God slowly takes them apart and puts them back together. His work in my life is personal—just like my relationship with Him—and it seems that with me gradual changes make more of a lasting impact than immediate relief. And gradual changes take time. Lots and lots of time.
So, if you’re in the “desert” group rather than the “instant” group and you’re left wrestling with bouts of anxiety like me, what can you do? Here are some tricks that help me function when I feel like I’m coming unglued.
1. Ramble to someone next to you. Monologue it if you’re alone. This is great for when I’m freaking out in the car. My counselor recommends deliberate breathing, but that takes focus I don’t always have. Talking is a good way to change the way I’m inhaling and exhaling naturally.
2. Sing along with the radio or risk it and go acapella. This is another great way to change up your breathing without trying that also comes in handy in the car.
3. Stand up—comedy that is. Find your sense of humor. What’s funny in your situation—or what will be funny once you’re out of it?
4. Get creative. Paint. Draw. Write. Play an instrument.
5. Organize. Cleaning, sorting, and rearranging gives me a goal to set my eyes on and something to focus on. Bonus—you also get a completed project to feel proud of. In desperate moments, I’ve impromptu-organized everything from my jewelry boxes to my husband’s underwear drawer to the closet underneath my stairs.
6. Take a shower. Or a bath. Warm water relaxes me.
7. Distract yourself. Read. Watch TV. Play a video game. Plan your grocery list. Clean up the emails in your inbox. Anything that gets your focus off what’s going on in your body and mind and puts it somewhere else.
8. Take a tour. A mental tour. Growing up, I lived in a lot of different houses. When my mind refuses to turn off at night, I mentally walk through each one and see what details I remember—the pink flowers on the wallpaper of my house in Ohio, the deep end of the pool we had in Florida, the creepy basement of our first house in Wisconsin. Replay a visual of your favorite places.
9. Wave bye-bye to obligations. Yes, there are certain things we have to do. There are also lots of things we only think we have to do. Prioritize. Step away from what you can and conserve your mental energy for what you can’t.
10. Turn off the noise. Sometimes you need to isolate temporarily. My anxiety gets worse with stimulation. I’ll let you in on a secret even my friends don’t know. If I’m going somewhere to meet other people, I drive myself so I have an escape plan. Most of the time I don’t need to use it, but it makes me feel safe to know I have an immediate getaway.
11. Pinpoint focus. Social anxiety is a problem for some of us and backing out of an event—which I’ve done on numerous occasion—or leaving isn’t always an option. Plan C? Pick one person in the crowd you feel comfortable with and ask them about themselves. If you’re focused on them and work on actively listening, you’ll spend less energy focusing inward on yourself.
12. Fail. Give yourself permission to fall from perfection. A lot of us who suffer from anxiety also suffer from perfectionism. Give it a try. Failing really isn’t the end of the world.
13. Go there. Make a plan. Visualize the worst thing that could happen in the situation you’re in, or with the fear consuming you, and plan what you’d do. I like to be prepared. Just knowing I’ve already thought a situation from beginning to end calms some of my anxiety.
14. Pray for someone else. If I focus on someone else’s needs, I slowly begin to forget about myself.
15. Memorize Scripture that speaks to you. God’s word is a living, breathing gift to us. Verses I may find deep meaning in, you may not. We read the Bible where we are in life. Pick words that dig deep into your heart and stay there.
A few verses that help me.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” (1 John 4:18a NIV)
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
A Prayer to Calm Your Anxiety
Lord, you know me. You made me. You love me. Meet me where I am in this moment. You knew I’d be here. Do what You want with my churning insides and my spinning mind and my blown-up fear. Don’t waste a minute of my anxiety. Heal it. Use it. Change it. Instead of begging for something specific, I give myself to You. What do you want from me and for me? Thank you for understanding me when no one else does and loving me anyway. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Lori Freeland is a freelance author from Dallas, Texas with a passion to share her experiences in hopes of connecting with other women tackling the same issues. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a full-time homeschool mom. You can find Lori at lafreeland.com.
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