So I thought I would kick off the new year by getting rid of things I have lying around that are seldom used and gathering dust. Makeup, clothes, home decor, and toys were making their way into the “donate” pile. This quickly became an exercise in self reflection.
At first I felt the urge to justify keeping things, thinking, “Oh I’m sure I’ll use this soon.” But as my stack began to grow, the buzz of having more space and simplifying my home began to kick in. Before I knew it, I was happily tossing things in. I began to feel more energized, and it occurred to me just how long it had been since I felt that way.
I realized that not only did I need to declutter my house, I needed to declutter my life. It wasn’t just about “things” zapping my energy. Unhealthy habits, relationships, and priorities can throw everything off kilter. They steal our time, energy, and quality of life. And just like justifying the keeping of unnecessary things, we legitimize those habits by saying, “It’s not that big of a deal.” We defend unhealthy relationships with family, friends, and partners, thinking, “It will get better.” We excuse skewed priorities with, “I’ll get to it later.” But later never comes. Not that way.
Later is now. This moment is what we have to work with. Maybe “it” is that big of a deal. And how can things get better without correction? Ask yourself honestly what (or who) needs to go, needs to change. Even if the one who needs to change is you. Change is scary, but what scares you more? Changing…or staying the same?
What will you “declutter?” Leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.
Of all the clients I have seen over the years, one of the most common problems people have come to counseling for anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue, affecting approximately 40 million adults each year. To a certain degree, anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to stress. For example, if you have a big exam coming up at school or an important presentation at work, anxiety and nervousness are natural responses. However, if an anxiety response causes substantial emotional impairment or distress, a person may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. For more information on anxiety and how to help ease the symptoms, keep reading.
While anxiety has many forms (listed below), this article focuses on anxiety in the general sense. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes Generalized Anxiety Disorder as extreme and frequent worry that is difficult to control and causes impairment in functioning in at least one area of a person’s life (that is not caused by a medical issue or substance use). Symptoms can include feeling edgy, cranky, and drained; having difficulty focusing, muscle tension, and trouble sleeping. Remember that each individual is different so anxiety may not look exactly the same from person to person. This can be exhausting to deal with for ourselves and our loved ones. In addition to the mental and emotional response to anxiety and stress, our bodies also have a physiological response to stress and anxiety.
Naturally, our bodies respond to stress by trying to avoid or eliminate the stressor. The hypothalamus kicks into gear. The pupils dilate, the adrenal glands drive cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine throughout the body, the heart rate and blood pressure jump, our bodies burn stored fat for energy and constrict blood vessels in certain parts of the body. This readies us to respond to and survive the threat by fighting, fleeing, or freezing (i.e. the fight-or-flight response). While these automatic functions in the body are invaluable in protecting us from threats, anxiety can enable them by even a perceived threat.
If we get stuck in an anxious mindset, anything can become a perceived threat. This can leave our body in survival mode around the clock, when it is only meant to turn on in an emergency. Operating on this mode all the time can actually have toxic effects. No wonder you are having difficulty concentrating and sleeping with all of this going on inside your body! But how can a person get off the anxiety roundabout? We have to engage our minds and bodies for the solution.
It all starts in the mind. Ask yourself when the anxiety first started. What was happening at that time? What were you responding to? Sometimes anxiety is (and other mental health issues are) a result of something we’ve been ignoring within ourselves that is trying to get out. We can only stuff it down for so long before it manifests itself. Identify how you respond to the trigger emotionally, physically, and mentally. What are your thought responses to stress? For example, if a teacher or an employer asks to speak to you privately after a presentation, are you assuming that what they have to say is negative? Jot the answers to these questions down. Take your time. If you are having a difficult time answering some of these questions just relax and give yourself a break; you may have to revisit these questions repeatedly, and that is completely normal. Now that you have identified the stressors and your initial responses, let’s get your body under control.
When you feel the anxiety start to creep in, the first thing to do is maintain a low heart rate. Take slow, deep breaths. Under stress our bodies want to huff and puff; these shallow intakes can encourage the stress response in your brain. By maintaining your breath you can cut off the anxiety hormones at the pass. Relax any muscles that may have tensed. Try some progressive muscle relaxation; you may be surprised at how many of your muscle groups have been activated. Participate in regular exercise. When we sweat it releases many of the toxins in our bodies and leaves our brains and bodies in a much more restful state. One of the most effective ways to relax the mind and body is through prayer and meditation. Studies show how powerful these are, as people who identify themselves as religious are less likely to become anxious and depressed. In one study, 20 out of 22 participants who practiced prayer or meditation to reduce moderate to severe anxiety showed marked improvement after three months. When we pray and meditate, we use the most advanced part of our brains that is responsible for thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. These functions are dampened by anxiety from the activation of more primal instincts for survival. Let’s not underestimate the power of our Lord. He designed us this way for a purpose.
Now back to our thoughts. Once the anxious thoughts have been identified, challenge and replace them along with any fearful self-talk; exchange them for empowered, positive ones. Analyze how likely the feared event is to occur. You see, our fears are like a plant. They start with one seed, and then we water it by continuing to think and speak fearful thoughts which, many times, are unrealistic. What can you do to control the outcome of the dreaded situation? Remind yourself that you are not as helpless as you may feel. Identify how you might respond to the feared outcome in order to return to a normal level of functioning. And try to stay in the present moment. Anxiety is usually brought on by thoughts of the dead past or the imaginary future. Most of the time we are safe and should not have to feel worried. This can be incredibly difficult at first, but patiently keep returning your focus to the here and now. However, if there is a question of physical safety in your life, contact a helping professional to assist you in getting you to a safe place or situation as soon as possible.
Have a loved one or close friend to talk with about the anxiety. Sometimes another person can give us a fresh perspective on how probable a feared event is. They can also hold us accountable to our coping strategies. If possible, this person should not have an anxiety problem as anxiety can be contagious; if we are in close proximity to an anxious person, our brain picks up on their elevated heart rate and will send a signal to the body that something is wrong. This can stimulate an anxious response within us. Also, exposing ourselves to anxiety-provoking material can do this: reading crime novels, watching disturbing movies or television, etc.
Again, we are all unique so some techniques may work better for you than others. It can take time to overcome anxiety, so celebrate every small victory you have. The good news is that anxiety is very treatable. Continue to educate yourself on the causes, symptoms, and solutions of and to anxiety with many available books on the subject. If your anxiety is serious, get in touch with a good counselor or licensed therapist. Trained professionals have many additional resources and treatment exercises to help you reclaim control over your thoughts and feelings. I am confident you will find freedom from the plague of anxiety and find your way back to a place of rest.
If you would like to see an article about other specific types of anxiety or anxiety in children/adolescents, or for questions, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.
“If any of you are having trouble, pray.” James 5:13
“Cast all of your anxiety on God because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
Anxiety types or disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Panic attacks and Panic Disorder
Phobias (ex. Agoraphobia)
Acute Stress Disorder
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Resources: A great workbook to check out is The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth ed., Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Here in the States, we live in a culture of busyness. There is work to be done, people with which to meet, activities to master, studying and homework, and families who need us. What about ourselves? How well are we meeting our own needs?
This is not to say we should shirk our responsibilities and just do what we feel like. This is about finding a balance between giving and refueling. After all, in order to give richly we must have the inner fullness to do so. My friend Zuri shared with me her experience of trying to manage life without taking care of herself.
“As a child my parents were always emphatic about teaching me that discipline in life will help you accomplish a lot. I followed this while I was living with my parents: worked out daily, planned my days and my meals. When I went to college I decided not to plan so much. And that is when I started gaining weight, fell into a depression because things were not going as expected, and it wasn’t good financially. I hit rock bottom when I found myself 85 pounds overweight. At that time I realized that not taking care of myself or living an organized life could be fun in the moment, but later I am more stressed trying to accomplish what I need to accomplish and it is even harder. Turns out my parents were right all this time! Right now I am working on retraining myself at planning, setting goals for myself, and also finding people that keep me accountable.”
This is a great example of how so many of us today are running on fumes. We have somehow lost the right to ourselves. This idea may make some people uncomfortable. Some may think “Who has time to take care of themselves? My days are non-stop.” Others may feel guilty at the idea of taking time for themselves, believing instead they should be doing something “more important.” But how truly fruitful is this approach? I know that for myself, if I am not taking the time to build myself up in a healthy way, I am less patient with my family, less productive, less willing to help others, and more likely to look for a shortcut to get things done faster. How effective am I then?
While it may seem counterintuitive, when we take more time for self-care we are more productive and effective. I’ve put together my list of the top 5 things you can do to take care of yourself. Some may be obvious tips we already know we should be doing; others perhaps less so.
Get more sleep. There is so much I could say about this that I will likely do a blog post dedicated to this entirely. Aim for around 8 hours. When we get less sleep than our bodies need, it negatively affects our mood, appetite, appearance, and cognitive processes. So if you want to feel better, eat better, look better, and think better, aim for a full night’s rest.
Eat better. We all know this one, and we all probably could do better at this. More lean protein for energy and omega fatty acids, vegetables and fruits for vitamins and minerals, and whole grains for fiber. Eliminate trans-fat, fast food, soda, overly processed foods such as white breads, chips, and frozen meals, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame; greatly reduce sodium and sugar intake. While this can be hard as these ingredients are downright addictive, your body will thank you by giving you better health. And be sure to drink plenty of water! The formula I try to live by is drinking half your weight in ounces (i.e. if you weigh 140 lbs try drinking 70 oz of water, more if you are exercising, pregnant, or breastfeeding). When we eat better, we feel better.
Manage your stress level. Negative stress can have toxic effects on the mind and body. There are many ways to manage our stress, such as maintaining a less demanding daily schedule. This means occasionally saying “no” and being okay with chores at work sometimes being put off until tomorrow. Do things you enjoy, such as reading, hiking, prayer, taking a warm bath, spending time with friends, or spending time alone with no noise. How often in American culture are we able (or willing) to sit quietly with our thoughts without music, cell phones, computers, or television? Remember to laugh and have fun as this releases positive chemicals in our bodies. This list is not exhaustive as we all have different ways of recharging our batteries. Another way to decrease our negative stress is to increase our positive stress. This leads me to my next suggestion.
Exercise. This is a type of stress that is good for your body, and also one we probably already know we should be doing. I’m not saying we should all be able to run a marathon at a moment’s notice, but it is important that we get our hearts pumping, sweat away toxins, burn off fat, release tension, and strengthen our muscles. Do what you enjoy, mix it up from time to time, and stretch well afterward. Exercise produces endorphins which are a fancy term for chemicals in our brains that make us feel good.
Be Present. In each current moment, be there fully. This sounds simple but for many of us it can be profoundly difficult. It means really listening to the people we are with, without thinking about what we want to say or what we have to do next. It means eating slowly enough to taste our food. Taking slow, deep breaths. Paying attention to our five senses in each current moment helps keep us grounded to the here and now. As a counselor, I see so many people struggling with anxiety. What is it that causes us so much unease? It is often our thoughts of the future which is imaginary or the past which is gone and done with. Let’s live fully in each precious moment. By doing this we can enjoy lowered stress levels, improved relationships, and a higher quality of living.
I do not intend to weigh anyone down with more things they “should” be doing. Start by taking small steps. What is one thing you can do this week to take better care of yourself? It does not need to be very time consuming to achieve great benefit. I recommend scheduling it in and not allowing anything to push its way into that time slot. Over time gradually add more things. Tell someone about your wellness goals so they can hold you accountable. Celebrate your victories, no matter how small. The time is there, it just needs to be saved for taking care of ourselves. While this may mean we get fewer tasks accomplished, our quality of work and life will improve greatly.
Thanks for reading. Let me know in the comments below what your goals and tips are for increased personal wellness.