I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned on managing anxiety. In the process, it became clear how deeply personal my journey has been. I wish there’s an “easy button” to banish anxiety for good, but that’s just not the case. However, changing my mindset and learning life skills in the right areas have helped me cope with stress much better. I know everyone has their unique set of challenges. All I can do is share my experiences in hope that it may be encouraging and helpful to those who may have similar struggles like me. Here, I will give a quick overview, highlighting the key elements that made major differences in my life. Eventually, I hope to discuss and explain these areas in more detail.
Anxiety sneaks up on me in many ways. When something breaks down in the house and I don’t how to fix it, I feel stressed. When it feels like I can’t say no to someone, I get stressed. When I think about my aging parents and other situations beyond my control, I’d have a full-on panic attack accompanied by insomnia. On top of these things, I have a curious habit of always expecting the worst outcome. After a while, I began to realize that stress and anxiety seem to be merely symptoms triggered by a myriad of causes. I’ve developed the habit of turning to anxiety and stress when I feel out of control in many areas of my life. Anxiety became my default response when I encounter changes or have internal emotional conflicts.
At first, I tried to manage my feelings of anxiety. There were plenty of tips out there. “Stress management” seemed to be the trending topic. However, I soon realized that many of these tips and exercises only brought a sense of peace momentarily. They’re like pain killers. If I didn’t deal with the root cause of my anxiety, sooner or later, the anxiety and stress will return, in full force.
Now, I treat the feeling of anxiety more like a signal light. When I start to feel anxious, I know there’s something going on inside that needs my attention. Sometime, it’s obvious what’s bothering me. Other times, the emotional strain is more complex. This is when journal writing becomes very useful. I learned of a “stream of consciousness” journal writing technique* that has been extremely helpful in unpacking my multi-layered emotions, and diffusing many of my stressful episodes.
For me, understanding the root cause of my emotional burdens really helps when I feel the stress building up. Once I am aware of what is at the core of my burdens, I can then address it accordingly. Many times, all that’s needed was for me to be honest and acknowledge my concerns and fears. In some cases, I needed to share my needs with others because I needed practical help. And still other times, I needed to recognize my utter powerlessness in a situation, and ask God for help and wisdom. In doing so, I have made peace with the situation and was more emotionally ready for the next step.
Practically speaking, much of the popular advice like learning to slow down, meditate and pray are all very helpful. Looking back, I’ve adopted many changes that have been important in developing my peace-focused lifestyle. I’ve learned to say no to social events that are merely people-pleasing. I’ve learned to schedule in solitude sessions in my calendar so I can reserve time and creative energy for self-development. The idea of creating “margins” in my schedule and learning how to slow down and enjoy the everyday moments have made a great difference. Even though these habits didn’t develop overnight, but once they’re in place, they have helped me build an atmosphere of calm and peace instead of chaos in my daily life.
Among the many lessons I’ve learned, much of them were not directly related to dealing with stress. That’s why it felt more accurate to describe my process as a healing journey. A few years ago, I felt really stressed about taking care of my home. I was great at my professional job, but dealing with a dirty bathroom brought me to tears. I was grateful that I found a helpful housework advice group online, and started to pick up some life skills in that area. Believe it or not, even something as mundane as finding the right way for me to clean my house was life-changing in so many ways. For one thing, it helped me realize how my perfectionistic mindset was the cause of much of my fear and stress. It wasn’t the house chores that were causing me stress, it was how I responded to them. Little by little, I developed a housekeeping routine that worked for me. Little by little, I learned how to resolve the problems that used to be “stress-triggers” in my life. Through my growth in this area, I came to realize dealing with stress was not just about managing my life better, but it was also about how I approached life in general. It was also related to my mindset.
“The best way to disempower a negative is to take your attention away from it.” A major motivator for me in healing from anxiety has been my experience of peace and rest. For a long time, I unconsciously embraced my stressful lifestyle. One of the reasons is that our communities today thrive on being busy. This is true both in our secular and spiritual circles. Being busy seems synonymous with being “productive” or “important.” When my counselor recommended the practice of solitude to me, it was a game changer. Being alone exposed many of my insecurities, but it also allowed me to experience a deep sense of peace and stillness for the first time. And it is through that deep peace and stillness where I began to distinguish the “still small voice” of God. It is the pursuit of that peace and divine fellowship which helped me walk away from my familiar old habits. I had a glimpse of what my “new life” could look like. My goal now is to develop a lifestyle where I can be free to pursue my gifts, and be the best version of me possible. Even though that doesn’t seem to deal with anxiety directly, my new life philosophy encourages me to pay attention to my inner life and work through issues as they come up. I’m learning how to live in peace as a normative instead of living in stress.
As I mentioned in the beginning, working through anxiety is a very personal journey. I think our tendency to be anxious is both affected by our nature and nurture. At least that is so in my case. We may all experience similar symptoms, but the root causes may be drastically different because we are each so unique. However, in my journey, I have realized that there is hope to live differently. But, we must be willing to make different choices. It really begins with our daily decisions. One small change in the right direction can and will make a world of difference. And one small step, after another, will in time lead us to the breakthrough our heart longs for.
For further reading on journal writing, visit Journal Writing As Spiritual Exercise.