Antidotes To Anxiety

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by Dr. Bill Gaultiere
Executive Director of New Hope

Anxiety disorders are the number two mental health problem in America, second only to addictions in terms of the number of people effected. One in ten adults have suffered from panic attacks, phobias, or other anxiety disorders in the past year. Many, many others have problems with anxiety. Anxiety can be debilitating. It saps your energy for living, makes relationships feel like more trouble than their worth, diminishes productivity, distracts you from learning, and dulls your sense of humor. The good news is that there is help! You can move from anxiety to peace, emotional paralysis to effective living and I've suggested 26 antidotes to help you - or someone you care about - to get there. First, let's get a better understanding of anxiety. Consider these people who suffered from common anxiety disorders.

Sheila, a mother of three young children had been struggling with a social phobia for years before she got help. She described a typical episode like this, "I was at a church gathering last night and they started going around the circle for everybody to introduce themselves. Immediately I panicked. My face flushed, my heart was racing, and I felt sweaty. I couldn't sit still. So I got up and went to the bathroom."

A college student named Jared struggles with panic disorder. He becomes panicked about going to his Communications class because he never knows when his teacher will call on him to read out loud or to present his views on a subject. Sometimes his heart races and he has difficulty breathing, he starts sweating and becomes dizzy and disoriented, and he's sure that he's going to die or go crazy.

Briana is 26 years old and she has the same symptoms as Jared whenever she feels trapped in public. She's an agoraphobic and lately won't go out of her house or her car in public, even to the grocery store, without her husband or her mother. She explained why, "My cart was full of groceries. I was ready to check out and saw that the lines were really long. I panicked. I was afraid to get stuck in line. What if I had an attack? That'd be so humiliating. I just left my cart in the aisle and went home."

A father named Randy obsesses over his 10-year old girl's safety. Every day he checks on her at school, looking in the window to see that she's okay. Every night he checks many times to see that the doors to their house are locked. Randy has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Even if you don't suffer from social phobia, panic disorder, agoraphobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder you may have a significant problems in your relationships or work because of anxiety. Ask yourself (or the friend or family member you're concerned about) if you experience any of the following symptoms of generalized anxiety.

  • Restlessness and feeling keyed up
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Easily fatigued
  • Tension, aches, or tingling in muscles
  • Difficulty sleeping

What causes anxiety?
Chronic or debilitating anxiety, like other serious emotional and behavioral problems, is multi-causal. By definition anxiety is a secondary emotion that is felt when primary emotions like anger, fear, or sadness are repressed. Denial isn't the only cause for anxiety though. Usually, anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of two or more of four factors.

  1. Hereditary vulnerability and biological factors. Some people are born with an anxious and reactive personality type. Their neuroendocrine and neurotransmitter systems in their brains are particularly vulnerable to stress. Various medical conditions and drug reactions can also cause anxiety symptoms.
  2. Childhood circumstances. Usually, adults with an anxiety disorder grew up with negative, anxious messages (explicit or implicit) like: "Don't be emotional or needy."
    • "You are as valuable as what you accomplish so try harder."
    • "You have to be careful. The world is a dangerous place."
    • "You need to take care of yourself."
  3. Cumulative Stress. We all experience stress, some more than others, in the form of challenges and changes. We can't avoid stressful life events but we can respond to them with a healthy attitude.
  4. Anxiety Provoking Personality Traits. Usually, people with anxiety disorders have internalized into their self-talk one of more of the four negative parental messages above. They relate to themselves and to their world in ways that cause anxiety. When they experience stress they don't process their feelings and adapt well, but instead become anxious and dysfunctional.

26 Antidotes for Anxiety
I know many people who have either overcome an anxiety disorder or significantly reduced their anxiety. In each case they needed immediate and effective help for their whole person - body, mind, and spirit. Here are 26 different anxiety antidotes in four categories - emergency first aid, physical, psychological, and spiritual - that can increase your sense of peace and your effectiveness in relationships and work.

Emergency First Aid:

  1. Medication. Randy took medication for his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder as part of his therapy and learned to trust that his daughter wasn't in constant danger. There are a number of anti-anxiety medications that offer immediate and powerful help. Of course, prospective patients need to consult with their doctor or a psychiatrist.
  2. Distraction. If you're having a panic attack or are highly anxious you can use this technique just to get through it. Focus on something to distract you from your anxiety until it subsides. It could be a reading, watching TV, or a project your working on. Later, when you're feeling up to it, address your feelings.
  3. Floating. People with panic disorder make the mistake of trying to control their symptoms. But you can't stop a panic attack once it's started. Instead, realize that it's not going to hurt you and let it ride its course by "floating" with it. Paradoxically, this should help it subside.
  4. Breathing exercises. Anxious people breathe rapid, shallow breaths from their chest. Slow, deep breathing from your stomach helps you relax. Breathe in deep until you fill your lungs, hold it inside for the count of ten, slowly exhale. Repeat this until your body relaxes.
  5. Muscle Relaxation. Anxiety cumulates in our bodies and needs to be discharged. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Do some deep breathing exercises then go through certain muscle groups in your body, tensing the muscle for a count of ten and then relaxing. You can go through your whole body, head to toe or you can focus just on those muscles that are tight and tense from gathering anxiety - forehead, jaw, neck/shoulders, back, hands.
  6. Retreat. Briana, the agoraphobic referenced earlier, learned to utilize this technique. Instead of driving home from the grocery store when she felt panicked she went to her car and waited until she calmed. Then she gathered herself and went back into the store to bring her groceries through the check out line. Retreating to her car gave her permission to go to a safe place to calm down and going back into the store to face her fear restored her confidence. To not go back and face your fear is avoidance and increases the power of your fear to paralyze you.
  7. Prayer. The Bible offers a powerful prescription for anxiety: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7).
  8. Rest. Many people today try to get too much done too quickly and need to set more realistic expectations and get enough rest. Honoring the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and it's more needed today than it was 3,000 years ago.
  9. Diet. To reduce anxiety, avoid caffeine and nicotine and decrease sugar and fat intake.
  10. Massage. Deep tissue massage or even a good neck and should rub can relax your body and help you unwind.
  11. Exercise. Jog, bike, lift weights, walk, or do some other aerobic activity for 30 minutes at least three times a week and you'll feel increases in energy, well-being, and confidence and you'll release pent up stress in your body.
  12. Verbalize your feelings to a safe person. At least once a day, process the events of your day and share your feelings with a caring listener. This is one of the most things you can do for your mental health.
  13. Re-prioritize your schedule. Left unchecked, anxiety feeds on itself by leading you to become helter-skelter in thought and activity. It's good to take a step back, review your priorities, make a to do list, and focus on them one at a time.
  14. Assess your Anxiety. Understanding when you're anxious and what causes you to get anxious will enable you to get the help you need before you're overloaded or in a crisis.
  15. Admit your Feelings. When you're angry, afraid, sad, or whatever you're feeling, accept it and talk it through with your therapist, support group, or friend.
  16. Accept your Limitations. Learning when to say no empowers you to say yes and accomplish great things. You can't do everything you want to do, you can't please everybody, and you can't do things perfectly. Instead, focus on what's most important and do your best until you've accomplished it.
  17. Adjust your Self-talk. Anxious people need to change counter the negative things they say to themselves and use positive self-talk to help them cope with anxiety and to better care for themselves. Sheila learned to do this to overcome her social phobia. Instead of fretting, "They're going to see me blush. I'll make a fool of myself." She said to herself, "I don't need to impress anybody. I like me. I can introduce myself." Other examples of replacing anxious self-talk with affirming self talk are: "What will they think if I lose it?" -> "If I start to panic I'll let it pass and probably no one will notice."
    • "Oh no - here it comes again. What's the matter with me?" -> "I'm experiencing anxiety symptoms. I'll be ok."
    • "I'll never get over this problem." -> "I'm working to implement my treatment program. It just takes time."
    • "I'm weak." -> "It's taking courage for me to face this problem."
    • "I'm not good enough." -> "I am loved, forgiven, and valuable."
  18. Address Relational Conflicts and Set Boundaries. Most people with anxiety problems fearfully avoid conflicts with other people, thereby internalizing their anger and generating anxiety. They need to learn say no, express a dissenting opinion, ask for what they need, and verbalize their anger to those who hurt, control, or offend them.
  19. Assert Yourself. For instance, Jared's therapist helped him learn to speak out loud in class without panicking by using a technique called systematic desensitization in which he gradually faced his fear. First he imagined giving a speech in class. Then he gave one alone in his room in front of the mirror. Then to his roommate. Then to his professor in the classroom. And finally, he gave his speech in front of the whole class.
  20. Active Relaxation through Biofeedback. By working with a therapist or a doctor trained in the use of biofeedback you can learn to reprogram the way you respond to stressful events.
  21. Thankfulness. Being thankful for God's blessings in your life - small and large - helps secure those blessings for your benefit and is a healing balm when anxious concerns burden you.
  22. Meditation. Meditation is a powerful relaxant. I often do this with Psalm 23, prayerfully reciting the psalm to myself, imagining it's vivid, soothing scenes and entrusting my concerns to my Good Shepherd. I also like to meditate on nature. Near my home is a lake, many sycamore trees, flowers of all types, and music-making birds that I use to focus my thoughts through reflection and prayer.
  23. Mantra. This is commonly used in eastern religions, but is safe and helpful for Christians too. Simply pick a comforting word or a phrase and focus on it, repeating it over and over. For instance, I've done this with the phrase, "I trust you Lord" in order to turn over my burdens to him, one by one.
  24. Bible Study. The Bible offers much comfort and wisdom for those who are anxious and troubled. Here's a few examples to get you started: Psalm 46:10, Proverbs 1:33, 19:23, Matthew 6:25-34, 11:28-30, Philippians 4:6-7, 1 Peter 5:7.
  25. Worship. Singing songs of praise to God tunes your soul to God and His loving purposes for you. When we worship him as our Lord then we can relax.
  26. Altruism. Find someone else who is anxious, or who has some other problem, and offer a listening ear or some practical help. You're problems won't seem so big and you'll feel better about yourself knowing that you're making a difference for someone else.

By Dr. Bill Gaultiere

2002 Used by permission.