The Link Between Anxiety and Control

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.”

– Psalm 37:7a

I’ve always been a careful planner. I like to know what to expect. As a result, I love organizing things, making lists, and creating plans. Although these are good qualities, I think that sometimes control is actually a coping mechanism for my anxiety.

There are so many unpredictable things that happen in life. And I feel safest when I try to control what I can.

My desire for control affects the way I plan my week. I’ve noticed that I can be fairly inflexible about my daily and weekly schedule because routines make me feel safe. As a teacher, this also impacts my classroom. I spend too much time over preparing for lessons and often miss out on spontaneous moments of fun with my students. Control impacts my relationships as well. I regularly rehearse difficult conversations with people in an effort to be prepared for any possible outcome. My desire for control even affects my relationship with God. I struggle to just be quiet and let God speak to me whatever He wants to say.

I can say from personal experience that controlling my own life is exhausting. It leaves me tired, weary, and discouraged since I’m living out of my own strength.

However, I’m learning that God doesn’t call me to control and manipulate situations just so that I can feel better.

He calls me to be still.

He reminds me that He is God and I am not.

He invites me to surrender control because His ways are so much higher than mine.

He helps me to open my fists and let go of the things that I think will make me happy so that He can show me true joy.

I’ve been discovering that solitude is a powerful tool for releasing control. This can be as simple as taking just 10 minutes a day to be quiet before God. During this time, I don’t bring my own agenda or questions. Instead, I ask God to speak to me whatever He wants to say. Sometimes He encourages me to pursue an activity that I hadn’t planned for that day. Other times He invites me to reach out to someone in my life. And most of the time He simply reminds me of who He is and who I am.

In these times I feel truly secure in the love of my Father.

And I remember that out of control is actually the best place to be.

Think on These Things

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

-Philippians 4:8

As someone who is no stranger to anxiety, I’ve discovered just how important it is to guard my mind.  I think that everyone struggles with negative thoughts from time to time. However, for people with anxiety, this battle can be especially intense.

In an earlier post, I wrote about strategies I use to fight the battle for my mind. In this post, I want to share some specific ways that God is teaching me to combat negative thoughts. 

Being wise about entertainment: The honest truth is that for much of my life I didn’t give enough thought to the media that I consumed. However, several years ago, the Lord challenged me that the TV and movies I watched were affecting me more than I realized. I asked God to make me more sensitive in this area and I quickly realized that most media focuses on things that are completely opposite of Philippians 4:8. Rather than filling my mind with lovely, pure, and peaceful things, I was consuming negativity, impurity, and anxiety. Now I’m not saying that I think that all movies and TV shows are evil. I think that film can be a powerful tool for conveying important stories and messages. However, I do believe that as Christians we need to be a lot more careful about what we’re consuming and the way that the things we watch affect our minds. Although, I definitely still watch movies and TV shows from time to time, I am much more careful about what I’m consuming. And this has done wonders for decreasing my anxiety.

Reading/listening to uplifting content: While I’ve found that many TV shows and movies are harmful to my thought life, there are other types of content that support good thoughts. I’ve always loved reading, especially books about faith, psychology, and personal development. Reading opens my minds to enriching ideas and perspectives which have such a positive impact on my life. The same is true about listening to podcasts and sermons. Over the past few years I’ve become a bit of a podcast junkie. 🙂 I always feel so encouraged and inspired by my favorite podcasts. I’ve found that this is a much more positive and productive way to spend my time than on other forms of media.

Limiting social media: I have such a love-hate relationship with social media. On the one hand, I love the way that it connects me to dear people in my life, especially people that live far away. At the same time, I’ve noticed that when I spend too much time online, I end up feeling discontent, self-critical, and restless. I think that for people who struggle with social anxiety, social media magnifies our sense of unworthiness. Seeing the “highlight reel” of everyone else’s lives quickly causes me to feel like not enough—not social enough, not pretty enough, not busy enough, not successful enough— and this is a very unhealthy place for me to dwell. Additionally, social media is such an inauthentic representation of reality. Social media fails to show the mundane, ordinary, and unexciting parts of life that we all experience. Therefore, I’ve realized that in seasons of anxiety, it’s helpful to limit my social media use or take a break completely. It’s amazing how much more peaceful and comfortable with myself I feel. And I also have more time and energy to invest in meaningful relationships with the people around me.

Spending time with uplifting people: This one is so important. As someone who tends to take on the feelings and emotions of others, I am very impacted by the people around me. Although I strongly value having ministry relationships in my life where I can pour into others, I’ve realized that it is vital to also prioritize mutual, life-giving relationships. I need time with gracious and compassionate friends who will listen and seek to understand. I need to be surrounded by people who are also pursuing peace and joy in their lives. Finding this balance is challenging, but so critical in maintaining a positive perspective.

Prioritizing beauty: Spending time in God’s creation does wonders for my anxiety. There’s something powerful about getting away from the day to day worries of life and soaking up the beauty that God has made. In these times I gain new perspective about the things I’m worried about. I also have such a profound sense of peace and rest. The same is true about listening to beautiful music, reading a well-written story, or watching a beloved movie. God’s world is overflowing with beauty and it is such a healing remedy for my mind.

Practicing gratitude: Although I mentioned this in an earlier post, I think it’s worth mentioning again. Having a daily (or at least weekly) practice of gratitude has revolutionized my thought life. It’s so much easier to focus on what is true and lovely when I’m operating out of a posture of thankfulness. It’s almost impossible to be self-critical or anxious when I’m thanking God for all that is good in the world.

Spending daily time with the Lord: This is by far the most important way that I combat negative thoughts. I believe that daily time with God is a necessity for all Christians. However, as someone who struggles with anxiety, solitude with the Lord is absolutely vital. In the quiet place, I remember who I am and how God sees me. I gain God’s big picture perspective on life and get out of my self-centered orbit. And my soul finds true rest. Honestly, in seasons of busyness and stress, daily time with God seems to be the first thing to go. However, I’m realizing that during these times, it is all the more essential! I am definitely still a work in progress on this one. However, I’m slowly discovering that daily time in prayer and in God’s Word radically transforms my thought life.

I’d love to hear from you! What are some practical ways that you fight negative thoughts?

Beloved

“Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we were spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock time— our brief chronological existence— but by the one who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

-Henri Nowen, Life of the Beloved 

I just love this book and the beautiful truth that is described in this quote.

As Christians, we are the beloved of God.

However, I’ve found from personal experience that it is much easier to know this truth than to actually live like I believe it.

I think that one of the greatest roots of my social anxiety is a fear of rejection. In my opinion, rejection is one of the most painful experiences that we can have as humans. We were created by God for love and connection and that is why rejection is so incredibly painful. 

In my research about anxiety, I’ve learned that most people who struggle with social anxiety can pinpoint specific memories (usually in their teenage years) where they felt rejected, excluded, or unwanted.

As I’ve sought healing in my life, God has taken me back to specific memories of rejection and exclusion. I’ve tried to identify the lies I started to believe about myself through those experiences. Sadly, I’ve realized that I’ve allowed fallen human beings to speak my identity over me, rather than my perfect heavenly Father. 

Over the past year or so, God has been taking me on a journey of reclaiming my own belovedness. I’ve set aside a lot of time this year to intentionally focus on scriptures about His unconditional love for me. In the process, God has started to reveal to me my true identity as child, friend, and beloved of God.

Along the way, something surprising has happened. My capacity to love others has increased. There is a strong correlation between the way I view myself and the way that I judge others. It’s hard to truly love others when I’m viewing myself harshly or with self-criticism. As I’ve come to believe that God truly loves me just as I am, regardless of how I perform or measure up, I’ve realized that the same is true about other people too. And this profoundly impacts the way I see and treat the people around me.

Reclaiming my own belovedness frees me to call out the belovedness in others.

What a beautiful gift!

A Freeing Perspective on My Social Anxiety

Recently God gave me a picture to better understand my social anxiety. When I’m filled with anxiety, it’s like I’m carrying a giant mirror into social situations. This mirror causes my normally others-focused personality to become self-absorbed.

In these moments, it is especially difficult for me to be present to what people are truly saying or needing. Instead, my mind is racing with self-focused thoughts and questions. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to keep a conversation going because I’m not truly listening to what the other person is saying. Instead I’m worrying about how they perceive me or what they’re thinking about me. After leaving social situations, the self-analysis gets even stronger. I’ll obsess over stupid things I did or said. Or I’ll be extremely hard on myself about anything that felt awkward or unnatural.

Honestly, this is probably the most frustrating thing about my anxiety. One of my greatest joys in life is connecting with people and trying to understand them and their unique perspectives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt discouraged by how my social anxiety gets in the way of the very thing that brings me so much purpose and life— authentic connection with others.

As God has led me into to deeper freedom, He’s invited me to drop the mirror of self-focus. Instead, the Lord has been encouraging me to approach social situations as though I’m looking through a window. Rather than focusing inward on what people are thinking of me, I’m trying to enter situations with eyes focused outward on the people around me.

What a freeing perspective! When I take my eyes off of myself, I have eyes to see others who are lonely, anxious, or in need. This frees me to truly get to know people and understand their unique stories and personalities. And I find that when I focus on the people around me, I completely forget about my own anxiety.

God doesn’t mean for us to live lives stuck in self-absorption. He wants so much more for us than that.

I’m slowly discovering the freedom and joy that comes from approaching life looking through a window, not a mirror.

The Battle of the Mind

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.”

-Romans 8: 5&6

This verse has had such an impact on me lately. Oh how I want a mind governed by the Spirit, filled with life and peace!

Since anxiety always begins in the mind, I think that as Christians we need to pay more attention to our thoughts. I once heard it said that our minds can be one of two things. The mind can be a Wild West where anything goes and criminal thoughts are allowed to enter and wreak havoc. Or it can be a Garden of Eden, disciplined by the Spirit and ruled by truth and peace.

This sounds ideal but in reality, a mind governed by the Spirit requires so much discipline and intentionality. I know from personal experience that controlling the mind is a battle that is not easily won! In this post, I want to share some practical ways that God has been helping me win the battle for my mind.

Questioning anxious thoughts: When I’m overcome with an anxious thought, I first try to carefully examine it. It’s almost like I’m putting my thoughts on trial to see if they actually hold up.

In her book How to be Yourself: Quiet your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety (highly recommend!), author Ellen Hendriksen suggests two important questions to ask oneself in an anxious moment:

  1. What is the worst that could happen? Although this might seems dramatic, sometimes playing out an anxious thought to its end is actually very helpful to me. It helps me to realize that no matter what happens, I’m going to be ok. As a Christian I can rest in the truth that no matter what happens, I always have Jesus and He is all I need. This may sound simplistic, but honestly this reminder is so important when I’m in the midst of anxiety.
  2. How would I cope? This question is equally important because it takes away feelings of powerlessness. I remember how much support and love I have in my life through dear friends, family, and especially my faith. Remembering my support system lessens the power of anxious thoughts and ideas.

Distinguishing truth from lies: There is so much power in identifying lies, many of which are the root of social anxiety. However, I’ve learned that I have to be close to the Lord in order to recognize lies from the Enemy. Only by spending time in God’s presence, reading His Word, and studying His character can I be equipped to identify thoughts that are harmful and untrue.

I’ve also realized that it’s not enough to simply identify lies. Victory comes through replacing those lies with truth. Sometimes I’ll keep a list on my mirror of truths from God’s Word. I will read them each morning as I’m getting ready for the day. In another season, God laid it on my heart to journal every scripture I could find about His love for me. This is something that I can go back to when I feel overcome with lies and need to remember the truth about myself. 

Healthy processing. I don’t think it’s every helpful to wallow in anxiety. However, I have found that healthy processing can be a good strategy for releasing anxious thoughts.

Journaling is one of my favorite tools. If I go to bed feeling overwhelmed with anxieties of the day, sometimes I’ll write an “offload list” in my journal. This is a place to write anything that I feel unsettled about that is absorbing my attention. Sometimes I’ll even draw a picture of a present next to each item as a visual reminder that I’m giving that anxiety to God and refusing to dwell on it any longer.

Sometimes processing with a friend or family member is also helpful. We aren’t meant to walk through challenges alone. Sometimes it’s so relieving to speak out the things that are swirling around in my mind. Additionally, I’ve found that someone coming from an outside perspective can more easily identify the lies that I’m accepting as truth.

Self compassion: I am a big fan of self compassion, but I don’t love the terminology. I think that a better term might be “God compassion”. When I’m in the midst of anxiety, I need to talk to myself kindly, treating myself with the compassion that God has for me.

As someone who is very self-critical, this is a challenging strategy to implement. Sometimes I find it helpful to imagine that a dear friend is experiencing the anxiety I’m facing. I then try to to talk to myself in the same way that I would talk to them— with grace, compassion, and validation of their feelings.  The following are helpful phrases to speak to myself:

“This is hard for you right now and that’s ok.”

“You’re feeling really anxious and that’s not a good way to feel.”

“This anxiety is going to pass.”

“You’ve been victorious over anxiety before and you can do it again.”

Gratitude: This is probably my favorite strategy for reclaiming my mind. In my opinion, gratitude is the most helpful remedy for critical, negative thoughts. A few years ago, I started documenting “evidences of grace” in my journal. My habit is to daily (or at least every few days) make a list of the places where I’ve seen God’s grace in my life. This could be anything from a warm cup of tea to a moment of connection with someone. This practice has been revolutionizing my mind. I am more aware of the beauty, gifts, and blessings in my life that I so easily miss. When my mind is filled with thankfulness and gratitude there is no room for anxieties and worries to enter.

The battle for the mind isn’t easy, but it’s so worth fighting. I don’t want you to think I have this figured out. The truth is that sometimes my mind still feels a lot more like a chaotic Wild West than a peaceful Garden of Eden. However, I no longer feel powerless when unruly thoughts enter my mind. I have tools that I can use to discipline my mind, allowing it to come under the government of the Spirit, not my flesh.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do you combat anxious thoughts in your life?

Social Anxiety and Vulnerability

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” 

-Brene’ Brown, Daring Greatly

I can honestly say that vulnerability has been one of the greatest keys to battling social anxiety in my life. However, when I initially identified social anxiety, my first instinct was to avoid vulnerability at all costs.

For people who struggle with social anxiety, vulnerability is especially terrifying. After all, social anxiety centers on a fear of being seen, known, and rejected by others.

Additionally, I know from personal experience that people who struggle with social anxiety tend to also battle shame. And shame likes to stay in the dark. However, the interesting thing about shame is that it loses its power when it is brought into the light. I’ve found this to be so true in my own life.

I remember feeling so overwhelmed by my social anxiety. I felt stuck and trapped. Honestly one of my greatest fears was that someone would find out about my anxiety. It made me feel defective and unworthy.

However, one day I mustered up the courage to talk about my anxiety with my counselor. Next, I talked with each of my family members. Not long after that, I let several of my closest friends and a dear older mentor in on my struggle.

Although this didn’t immediately fix my anxiety, I felt so much lighter. I now had people lifting me up in prayer. I also was touched by how each of these people responded to me. Rather than condemning or rejecting me, they expressed deep love, empathy, and compassion. Their gracious responses reflected to me the love of Jesus which was exactly what I needed to combat the shame that I felt.  That was such a gift.

Although I believe that vulnerability is an important step in battling social anxiety, I would like to give a word of caution. Vulnerability is a powerful force that must be used carefully. As research professor Brene’ Brown wisely suggests:

“Share with people who have earned the right to hear your story.” 

When I was in the midst of my struggle, it wasn’t wise for me to share about my social anxiety with anybody and everybody. I only shared with people whom I truly trusted and knew would respond with empathy and understanding.

Vulnerability can be so terrifying, but I have become convinced that it is such a powerful tool for healing. I have also discovered that it is such a powerful tool for connection. Over the past couple of years, I have been amazed at how God has used my vulnerability to give others a safe place to share their own vulnerability and pain.

Vulnerability begets connection and that is such a precious gift.

Social Anxiety and Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” 

-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

I’ve come to the realization that perfectionism is perhaps the greatest root of my social anxiety. Perfectionism has been an unwanted friend of mine for as long as I can remember.

As a child, perfectionism was apparent in my immaculately clean room. When I felt stressed or out of control, I found myself constantly reorganizing my room. Suddenly all of my books needed to be in alphabetical order or my closet needed to be organized by color.

Perfectionism stayed with me in my years as a student. I was so tied to getting a 4.0 GPA and did everything I could to maintain that. I remember my dad actually challenging me to purposely get a “B” in one of my college classes because he was concerned about my addiction to perfectionism!

Perfectionism also impacts how I approach social situations. I’ve realized that I tend to avoid social interactions if I don’t think that I can handle them perfectly. I’d rather simply not go to an event if I won’t know most of the people there or if awkward situations are likely to occur. Unfortunately, I realize that this has caused me to miss out many potentially beautiful and life-enriching opportunities over the years.

About a year ago, God challenged me that my “all or nothing” mentality was holding me back. He encouraged me to approach social situations with a 70 percent mindset, rather than the perfection-driven 100 percent mindset I naturally adopt. As a result, I’ve started to say yes to more opportunities and social situations while giving myself permission to handle them imperfectly. I’d rather move forward in my life and keep growing than stay stuck because I’m afraid of failing.

As God’s been stripping away this pattern of perfectionism from my mind, I’ve had some powerful realizations. First of all, I’ve noticed how much deeper and meaningful my relationships have become. I think that it’s actually harder to connect with people when I’m trying to perform perfectly. As human beings I think that we are more attracted to the imperfections and broken pieces of each other than the perfect facades that many of us try to keep up. As Brene Brown suggests in her book The Gifts of Imperfection (a book I highly recommend!), letting ourselves be seen in our vulnerability and imperfection is what actually connects us to one another.

I’ve also realized that when I fail, I’m going to be ok. My identity and value as a child of God are not centered in handling every social situation perfectly. God loves me simply because He loves me, not because of the way I perform. I have become intimately and personally acquainted with the extravagant grace of God.

That is why I chose the title of this blog: “grace to be imperfect”.

It’s true. There is grace to be imperfect.

And I’m starting to believe that truth more and more each day.

Brokenness

“We have to dare to overcome our fear and become familiar with it. Yes, we have to find the courage to embrace our own brokenness, to make our most feared enemy into a friend, and to claim it as an intimate companion.”

-Henri Nowen, Life of the Beloved

I absolutely love this quote and have been deeply impacted by its truth. My natural inclination is to simply avoid the brokenness in my life because facing it is just too painful. However, the Lord is teaching me that the journey to healing involves facing my brokenness and even befriending it.

A couple of years ago, I identified a new area of brokenness in my life:

Social anxiety.

Although social anxiety had been a struggle for me for many years, it reached a new level of intensity a couple of years ago. In the past, I had attributed my extreme discomfort with unknown social situations to my introverted personality. However, as the symptoms of my anxiety kept increasing, I began to wonder if my difficulty was more than introversion. One day I started researching everything I could about social anxiety. I was shocked to read my personal experience described so succinctly and clearly. I also took a detailed online test that suggested I had “marked social phobia”.

This realization was incredibly overwhelming for me. Honestly, I felt a lot of shame about my anxiety and didn’t want people to know about my struggle. I also felt sincere regret as I realized how many opportunities I had missed because of my anxiety.

At the same time, I actually felt relieved to have language to describe what I had dealt with for so many years. I also was comforted to learn that I wasn’t alone. As I researched about social anxiety, I learned that 18 percent of the US population battles anxiety disorders and 7 percent of the population struggles specifically with social anxiety. This showed me that social anxiety isn’t a unique struggle, but rather a challenge faced by a significant percentage of people.

Additionally, as I gained courage to open up about my anxiety with trusted friends and family members, I was shocked to discover how many people in my life also struggle with anxiety. It was encouraging to see how God used my brokenness to offer understanding and hope to others with similar struggles.

God has brought so much freedom to me in this area. But this freedom hasn’t been easy. It has required facing the deeper reasons and roots beneath the surface of my anxiety. I’ve had to be vulnerable with the people in my life and let them in to help me. I have started seeing a counselor for support. I’ve also had to put myself in situations that stretch me way beyond my comfort zone.

Even after all of this work, anxiety is still a struggle in my life. Social anxiety is no longer my constant experience. However, It does pop up from time to time, especially during seasons of stress and change. I would rather write about something that is completely healed and no longer an issue. However, I feel compelled to write about this even though I am still a work in progress.  God is bringing freedom into my life day by day and I’m excited to share my journey from brokenness to greater wholeness.