Worry: Friend or Foe?

Can worry ever be helpful? My guess is that your instinctive response is to roll your eyes and say no. To be honest, worry has a pretty bad reputation, and for good reason. Worry often looks like endless negative ruminations. It can look like catastrophizing the future. It can lead us to unnecessary fear. It can get us stuck in endless thought loops, like a car spinning its tires in the mud but going nowhere.

I often find, though, that worry can be broken into two categories: helpful and unhelpful. Helpful worries are those that bring an important thought into our consciousness: something that needs to be dealt with and not avoided. For instance, if I anxiously remember that I’ve forgotten to tell my husband to pick up my son from school, that would be a helpful worry. It’s something that needs to be dealt with, and for which a plan needs to be made. It is not something I should avoid, though the situation may be creating anxiety inside of me. Another example might look like worrying about a confrontation or a hard conversation with someone that I love. This worry can be helpful, because the discomfort of my anxiety may be compelling me towards reconciliation in my relationship.

Helpful worries drive us to think about and make plans for dealing with the hard and uncomfortable parts of life.

On the other hand, unhelpful worries are thoughts about the future over which you have no control. Worrying about how your plane might crash, how you might have cancer in the future, or how long it will take the next virus epidemic to reach your neighborhood definitely classify as unhelpful worries. These thoughts lead to unneeded anxiety and cause our brains and bodies to react negatively. I’m certain that these sorts of worries are what Christ talks about in Matthew 6 when he warns us not to worry about what will come tomorrow.

This image of Matthew 6:34 is taken from the YouVersion Bible app.

Many years ago, when I was still only a mother of two children rather than four, our family moved to a new house. It was a dream come true for our family, as it provided more space, it was closer to family, it had a huge yard in which my children could play, and it came complete with a tiny goldfish pond made from a recycled old church baptismal. Therein began my worry.

Before we had even moved in, I woke up in the middle of the night, heart pounding from a nightmare about the pond. In my dream, my oldest child toddled into the pond (which looked substantially larger in my dream) and drowned. When I awoke, the dread began. I talked it over with my husband, and we came up with many rules for the pond.

  1. Do not play next to the pond.
  2. Do not stand next to the pond or feed the fish unless Mommy or Daddy are with you.
  3. Do not get in the pond.
  4. Do not bend over the pond looking at the fish.

After a few months went by and no incidents occurred, my anxiety decreased. In fact, the only problem we ever seemed to have was with our wild and fearless second-born, who always, even to this day, acts before he thinks. He lives to experience the world with all of his senses. Many times we found him leaning over, touching the water. Still, two years passed after we moved in, and no real incidents occurred.

One day I returned home from work, and my five year old came running out of the house to tell me about his day. With exuberance, he told me how while Daddy had been looking elsewhere, his little brother had fallen in the pond. Quick as a wink, he ran screaming to tell his Dad, who ran over and pulled our little guy out soaking and squirming. No harm had been done, but he was definitely frightened. In fact, he didn’t try to play in the pond again for quite some time. Sometimes experience teaches better than warnings…

However, the scare definitely increased our plans to better secure the pond. At this point, my worry could have taken a turn towards unhealthy fear and endless ruminations. Instead, it spurred me to action. Our children were soon put in swimming lessons after that incident. In fact, for years afterwards, the pond was filled in while we pursued our foster and adoption license due to license restrictions about water around our home. More importantly, I came away from that incident knowing that even when I wasn’t there to protect my children, God was watching over them. As children of the Most High, we are promised that He watches over us and protects us. As I John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Our goldfish pond

Pause: Find a few quiet moments and reflect on Matthew 6:25-34. What stands out to you about anxiety and worry? How does this relate to your own life?

Renew: In thinking about your own list of current worries, which would you classify as helpful, and which feel most unhelpful? Why?

Next: This week, as you find yourself worrying, quickly decide if that worry is a helpful or unhelpful thought. If it could be helpful to make a plan regarding that worry, go for it! Then, give your worries to God, journal about them, talk to a trusted friend or counselor, and try to shift your thinking.

May we live in peace, free from the worries that drag us towards unhealthy fear.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Anchoring Our Eyes

Have you ever observed a toddler throwing a tantrum, or an adolescent having a meltdown? If so, you can probably attest to the fact that the child had wild eyes throughout the meltdown. When our bodies are under stress and undergo the fight or flight response, our senses are heightened. This affects the eyes, as they are preparing to take in any important visual cues.

For the most part, this response is beneficial. Imagine you are walking to your car late at night in a dark parking lot. Your pupils will be dilated, taking in as much light as they can to help you see better. Chances are your eyes will also be scanning the alley, checking for signs of danger. This is a helpful response, as it helps to keep you safe.

What if, however, you are in a crowded restaurant, trying to enjoy dinner with your family, but the crowds and noise are making you anxious. You find it hard to concentrate on the conversation at your table. Instead, you find yourself looking around the restaurant restlessly, scanning the room. In this case, you are not in danger, and your eyes are doing you a disservice by keeping you from focusing on the loved ones at your table.

Anchoring can help our bodies and brains calm down.

Because processing visual stimuli takes a lot of mental energy, one way that we can help our brains and bodies calm down in moments of high arousal or stress is to block out some of the distracting visual stimuli. There are two main ways to do this:

  • The first is to close our eyes. It’s amazing what a difference closing our eyes can make to our inner state. We are taught to pray with our eyes closed, and in this way we can focus inward, rather than paying attention to what is going on around us.
  • The second is a tool called visual anchoring, which is choosing a neutral object to stare at for a short period of time. Using the restaurant example, this might be the menu or a saltshaker at the table. This gives time to refocus the mind and body while purposely keeping the eyes from scanning. This tool is even more effective when paired with deep breathing.

Interestingly, this same anchoring principle can be found in Scripture. In Matthew 14, we find the disciples in a boat, in the middle of the night, being approached by a ghostly form walking on the water. Jesus reassures His disciples that it’s just Him, but, being overwhelmed and terrified, the disciples find it hard to believe. The ever brave and impulsive Peter quickly devises a scheme to test the validity of Jesus’ claim. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” Jesus replied.

Good enough for Peter, he jumps out of the boat and begins walking toward Jesus. We can imagine at this point that he has anchored his vision onto the Savior. Then, he becomes aware of the wind and fear takes over. I can only imagine his stress response system kicking in as he begins to sink. “Lord, save me,” he cried.

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:31 ESV

Just that quickly, Peter was safe.

When we are in danger, our bodies are designed to serve us well, protecting us from danger and rising to challenges. Our eyes are designed to take in more light and scan for danger when we are under stress. Remember that ultimately our fear response can be overridden with calming tools such as visual anchoring. Even more importantly, we can remember that we have a Savior who will never leave us or forsake us, even when it feels like we’re drowning.

Pause: Take a deep breath and exhale. Now would be a great time to practice your new anchoring tool by closing your eyes or fixing your eyes on a neutral object for 20 to 30 seconds. When you feel calm and ready, read Matthew 14: 22 – 33.

Renew: Think about a time in the last month that you felt overwhelmed. What was the trigger that caused you to feel overwhelmed? What helped you to feel more calm?

Next: Both in a spiritual as well as in a physical sense, think about how you can use anchoring the next time you’re feeling stressed or afraid.

May we anchor our eyes on the One who can save us from the wind and waves of life!

Pause, Renew, Next!

Mantras and Meltdowns

Have you ever noticed that when you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to form clear thoughts and think logically?  There is a good reason for that. When we are under great stress, our bodies go into the “fight or flight” response which equips the body and brain for survival.  The same mechanisms that make your heart pound harder and adrenaline flow when under stress also cause your higher-level thinking abilities to become impaired.

One of the downsides of the stress response is that our higher-level thinking cortex (responsible for language, logic, imagination, and planning) gets hijacked, while our lower brain that runs instincts, reflexes, emotions, and memory is highly activated. This is all meant to work for our survival. After all, if your car is parked on a train track, and a train is barreling down the track towards your car, you don’t need to calculate the velocity involved; you just need to MOVE! Our bodies and brains in fight or flight mode are made to do just that.

Our fight/flight response helps us react quickly in stressful situations.

When under great stress or anxiety, we are also more susceptible to believing negative thoughts.  It’s a lot easier to fight negative thoughts when you’re in a positive frame of mind. When overwhelmed, you will not only have more negative thoughts, but also give in to “stinking thinking” more easily.

I am a huge proponent of talking back to negative thoughts.  In other words, replacing lies with truth. In previous blog posts, I’ve shared about the importance of using Scripture to combat negative thoughts. However, when overwhelmed, the part of your brain that can think logically and combat lies with truth is impaired due to your body’s fight/flight system.  What then?

Enter the mantra, a short, true statement (4-5 words) that uses little concentration and can be used to get through a time of stress.  

Mantra: a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation / a statement or slogan repeated frequently.

Long before I knew about how the fight/flight response affects the brain and body, I managed to use a mantra.  I was in labor with my second child in the middle of the night, and I told myself over and over, “Joy comes in the morning, Joy comes in the morning.” After my first birth experience, which was far from pleasant, I was prepared for the worst. In the heat of labor, immersed in pain, I almost forgot my mantra. Still, when it was all said and done, my joy DID come in the morning, with the birth of my sweet child.

Some examples of helpful mantras could be:

  • “This too shall pass.”
  •  “I am not alone.”
  • “Tomorrow is a new day.”
  • “I can do this.”

Large chunks of Scripture may be hard to remember when in fight or flight mode.  Still, the truths of Scripture can be shortened to work as a mantra.

  • “His mercies are new each day.” Lamentations 3:22 & 23
  • “He will fight for me.” Exodus 14:14
  • “God loves me.” John 3:16
  • “He is with me.” Isaiah 41:10

If I am being carried along in a rushing river, trying to keep my head above water, I will not be looking for a yacht to come and save me.  I will be looking for a life saver, a piece of plywood, or a log to grab onto, until I can make it to shore. That is how I think of mantras.  They’re not elaborate. They’re not even eloquent, but they are true. They can be clung to until our brains return to a calm state.

Pause: Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Think of a Scripture passage that brings you comfort when you are overwhelmed and read through it now.

Renew: Remember a time when you felt overwhelmed and had to fight negative thoughts. When in that circumstance, what kind of a mantra would have been helpful to repeat to yourself?

Next: Make a list this week of a few true, short statements that will be helpful for you the next time you find yourself under major stress. If you want, keep a couple of them in a location where you can see them easily (in your wallet, on your phone, or taped to your bathroom mirror).

May you be encouraged to hold onto truth in the midst of stress and anxiety.

Pause, Renew, Next!


Strength Through Anxiety: An Interview with Missy Stone

Anyone who has had anxiety can attest to the struggles and battles that it can bring into daily life.  In today’s episode, Missy shares her own struggles with anxiety and how God has met her and sustained her through her fears.

Missy shares in today’s episode how God’s faithfulness has encouraged her over the past couple of years as she has experienced intense bouts of anxiety.  She also talks about how God has used people (her husband and others) to support her along the way, as well as how Scripture helps her combat some of her anxious thoughts.

Missy also shares in today’s episode about how she reached out to JJ Heller and was encouraged with a book recommendation that has been very helpful to her:

From Panic to Power by Lucinda Bassett

One of my favorite JJ Heller albums

Missy also shared in this episode that two of her favorite Scriptures are Psalm 121 and Psalm 91.  They bring her comfort during times of anxiety.

If something you heard in today’s episode resonated with you, please share in the comment section below, or join in the conversation on PRN’s Facebook page.

May you be encouraged on your journey with Jesus.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Courage – Reinterpreting Fear Signals

A few years ago, my husband and I were asked to give a short presentation about our adoption journey during a service at our church. As I sat there, waiting for our turn to speak, I could feel my anxiety rising.  My heart was pounding, and my stomach was tied in knots.  I was getting more and more nervous by the second.  “There is no logical reason for this response,” I told myself, “You shouldn’t be scared.”  After all, I was going to be talking to my friends and family.  My body didn’t believe me, however.

Thankfully, I knew that my body was doing what it does under stress – the fight or flight response.  So, rather than interpret those body signals as danger, I instead reminded myself that my body was helping me rise to a challenge.  (Because even in front of friends and family, giving a short speech really is a challenge!)  That perspective shift can be the difference between cowardice and courage: being able to push through, interpreting fear signals as a challenge to be conquered.  I’m not sure that I exactly “conquered” the presentation, but I was able to do it, and that in itself is also a victory.

The definition of courage

When I think of a Biblical example of courage, Joshua comes to mind.  As the book of Joshua opens, we find that Moses has just passed away and left his right-hand man, Joshua, in charge.  Joshua is faced with an enormous task: to lead the children of Israel into the promised land.  Moses, the greatest leader Israel had ever known, had not been able to accomplish this task.  The promised land was full of enemies to be conquered before it was to be theirs.

Joshua was well-equipped for the task though.  He had been mentored under Moses’ leadership. Not only that, God gave him a few direct and precious promises to encourage and embolden him for the task:

Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you,  just as I promised to Moses. Joshua 1: 3 ESV

No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.  I will not leave you or forsake you.  Joshua 1: 5 ESV

Joshua 1:9

Being given these promises was a key factor in Joshua’s courage. Knowing that God was promising the land to him, and that He would never leave or forsake him, was paramount to his being courageous in leading God’s people into battle. The context of fear changes when we have the confidence to know that we can take on the challenge! It changes fear from an insurmountable obstacle to a necessary struggle in the quest for victory.

Joshua lived thousands of years ago, but the promises are still true for believers today.  Jesus sent his followers on a mission too – to go and make disciples in all nations. As he sent his apostles out, just as God sent Joshua centuries before, he promised them, “Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 19-20)

That promise is for us today!  If we are in Christ, He is with us always.  He will go before us and will give us the strength to do all that He calls us to do in His name.

Pause:  Close your eyes and ask the Lord to reveal His Word to you.  Now read Joshua 1: 1-9.  What stands out to you in this passage?

Renew:  Think about times in your life when you were afraid but were able to act with courage anyway.  What caused you to act with courage in those moments?

Next:  Contemplate the phrase: “for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”  If you were to own that phrase and fully believe it, how would it change the way you live? Repeat this phrase to yourself as you go throughout your day, thanking God that as a believer, He is not just with you, but His Spirit lives in you.

May you be filled with courage to take on any challenge that the Lord may lead you through!

Pause, Renew, Next!

Rest? Yes please!

It happened in the midst of a crazy month, my sweet lesson on rest.  My husband and I had received a call from social services a couple of weeks prior asking if we would be foster parents to a baby girl who was currently in the NICU.   We prayed and said yes.   It was believed that she would be discharged from the hospital within the week and would be coming home with us.  Disappointingly, she didn’t leave the NICU right away like we had hoped.  Thus, I went into a holding pattern of parenting four children, while trying to find time to spend in the hospital bonding with my new foster daughter.  My emotions were raw and the questions remained unanswered: When would she be released to come home with us? How much time should I be spending with her in the NICU? How could I be in two places at once? The uncertainty went on and on.

One Sunday afternoon, midway through that month,  I was feeling overly emotional, stressed, and exhausted.  We had spent the morning at church and had eaten lunch with our extended family.  My kids were taking their afternoon nap and my husband was at home, so I knew this was my opportunity to spend time with my foster baby.  I lay down on the couch for just a minute, gathering the energy to get back in the van and drive to the hospital.  The next thing I knew, I had been asleep for an hour. As I awoke, I had the distinct impression that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me: “I give sleep to those I love, and you needed rest. She will still be at the hospital when you awake.”

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil:  for he gives to his beloved sleep.  Psalm 127:2 ESV

I had been going through the motions, feeling compelled to keep functioning past my exhaustion point.  I was aware that I was beyond tired, but the need of the moment felt too great to allow myself to rest.  The Lord sweetly reminded me that without rest, I could not do the hard things I was called to do.

Isn’t that the way of rest?  We all know we need it, but the many demands placed on us keep us from allowing ourselves to stop.  I’m not just referring to sleep;  I mean real rest.  We need time to disengage, allowing our batteries to be recharged.

Interestingly, we can only rest when we give ourselves permission to do so. God knew the intrinsic battle we would have against rest, so He gave us a Sabbath day and commanded that we take it.   We are designed to need rest, both physically and spiritually.

This weighted blanket is used in my counseling office to help with relaxation.  It provides deep pressure touch that simulates being held, which helps the central nervous system calm down.

Another barrier to being able to rest is stress and anxiety.  Both sleep and relaxation are vulnerable activities. The human body’s fight or flight system is designed to help us survive a real or perceived threat. When there is a threat, the last thing the mind wants to do is let down its guard and go unconscious. Thus, when we are afraid or stressed, it is very hard to rest.  

Feeling safe and loved is an important component to fighting anxiety, because we are designed to be in connection with others in times of stress.  Just as a small child runs to his parents’ room after a nightmare to seek comfort, so we can seek safety and peace from our Heavenly Father.  The Psalmist writes that God is a Comforter and a source of safety for us, so that we can sleep in peace.

 

PauseWhen is the last time that you felt really rested?  What were the elements that helped you feel at rest?  

Renew:  Think of a place that you feel safe, calm, and able to rest.   If you cannot physically go there now, imagine that you are there.  Use your senses – what do you hear, see, feel, and smell in that place? 

Next: Make a plan to set apart time for rest this week.  If one day is not possible, try a few hours, or one hour each day.  Make a plan to exclude those things that keep you from resting (phones, emails, chores) and make it a point to enjoy the absence of those distractions.  If sleep is what you really need, make a plan to take a nap during this time.

Like a toddler rebelling against the nap-time they so desperately need, we fight our need of rest.  In order to be energized and invigorated to carry out our passions and responsibilities, we must make time to be still.  May the Lord teach us more about how to rest, that He may replenish our souls and bodies.

Pause, Renew, Next!