I could see it in the young man’s eyes sitting across from me. He was scared. He was confused. He was searching for answers. He had never experienced anxiety before and now it had gripped him so tightly that he couldn’t even work from home by himself. Newly married, he had to spend the daytime hours at his parents’ house while his wife was away at her job just so that he could do his.
While that may not be your exact story, if you’re reading this chances are you’re experiencing anxiety (or even depression) just like him. In fact, as COVID-19 surges again there are many joining our ranks. I say “our” because I’m right there with you. Even though I’ve written a book on how to fight back against your anxiety, the truth is it’s still an ongoing battle for me as well.
I want to share some ways I’ve learned to manage my own anxiety that I think will help you right here, right now. Some of them are practical, while others are rooted in faith. A few may seem obvious but let’s just be real: sometimes we need someone to give us permission to do the obvious.
1. Just keep swimming
Most of you have probably seen “Finding Nemo.” In it, there’s a mantra that one of the main characters, Dory, adopts, especially when life feels heavy: “Just keep swimming.” That may seem simplistic, but it’s true. Sometimes, all we can do and should do is, “just keep swimming.” That’s because “paralysis by analysis” is real. And paralysis by being overwhelmed is even more real.
Before you go emailing me about basing my theology on a Disney movie, let me say the mouse and Dory weren’t the first ones to come up with this idea. Elisabeth Elliot, the famous missionary, talked about the same thing. When she returned to the jungle after her husband was killed and didn’t know where to start, she found solace in the mantra, “do the next thing.”
Don’t feel like you can make it? Just do the next thing. Feeling overwhelmed by what you’re hearing? Do the next right thing. Break everything into smaller pieces.
2. Realize your struggle is both physical and spiritual
Your anxiety, your depression, your OCD are both physical and spiritual issues. For me, I need to address the physical before I can ever tackle the spiritual. The former looks like taking medication, watching my caffeine intake and making sure I force myself to exercise regularly (among other things). At the same time, that doesn’t mean I can neglect the spiritual. My anxiety also has deeper roots, like pride and distrust of God. I go to counseling for those because it’s imperative that I root out the heart issues contributing to what’s going on. In other words, both my brain and my spirit are sick. It's paramount that both are addressed.
3. Find community
You were not meant to live in isolation. You were not meant to wage this war or face these battles alone. Personally, I’ve found that to be true. When I am engaged in a godly community, I have more control over my anxiety. Part of that is practical: I can share my burdens with others and they can help me bear them. But it’s also spiritual. As modern theologian Sinclair Ferguson says, “Only an open heart toward our fellow Christians makes for authentic and natural spiritual development.”
Anxiety and depression are inherently self-focused. They focus on what you’re going through, what you’re feeling, what you’re struggling with. Do you know one of the most surefire ways to get your attention off yourself? Volunteer. Help others. Even the secular world understands this. I implore you to seek ways to serve. I think you’ll find that when you do, relief is easier to discover.
5. Adopt a proper theology of suffering
This may seem like an overwhelming phrase, so let me break it down. A proper theology of suffering is all about understanding why we experience bad things and how we contextualize them. Here’s the short answer: Because of sin in this world, we are not whole. But despite that reality, God has promised to take our brokenness and use it for our good.
The book of Job as well as Romans 8:28 (among others) assures me that my pain is not in vain. God is using it for my good, to refine me and to bring Him glory. How does that work? Because our struggles draw us closer to Him, and the closer we are to Him, the more we reflect who He is. Friend, God is using this struggle. That may be hard to see now but trust me (and the Bible) that He truly is.
6. Consider medication
I’m not going to lie, this has been a controversial item in the faith community for some time. And it’s been detrimental. It has led many with anxiety and depression to suffer in silence. But I’m here to tell you that medication is a common grace. It’s something the Lord has ordained and given to all of us, just like the sun and the rain.
We have no qualms about going to the doctor and taking his or her advice for a broken arm, but we hesitate to do the same for a broken brain. I’m not saying that medication is the end-all-be-all for everyone. But why wouldn’t you at least talk to your doctor about it? It’s time to remove the stigma and shame that comes with taking medication for your mental health. Hear this: doing so does not equal a lack of faith.
Listen, these aren’t the only six things that will assist you but these are a good start. They will help you reframe your mind, while also taking care of your body and your spirit. That’s important.
But let me end with this: please don’t carry shame for feeling the way you do. This pandemic has unearthed something in a lot of us, both those who have struggled before and those who are new to this struggle. If I can reiterate one thing it’s that God is using this. That’s not a trite platitude from someone who doesn’t understand. I relate in a very real and sometimes frustrating way. You can find rest in this battle even though it rages on.
In other words, I promise you can get to a place where you have anxiety and anxiety doesn’t have you.
Jonathon M. Seidl (Jon) is the author of “Finding Rest: A Survivor’s Guide to Navigating the Valleys of Anxiety, Faith, and Life” (Sept. 28). He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and two kids. You can visit him at jonseidl.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jonseidl.