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Conclusion: Choose Joy

I said all the prayers they asked me to pray. I went to counseling sessions, and my counselor told me that I had a very good understanding of myself (basically telling me that I didn’t need a counselor).  I took anti-anxiety medication, ate healthy food, and exercised daily.  But at the end of the day, I was still anxious.  I thought that I had failed God, since everyone told me that anxiety was a sin.  I thought that God had failed me, since everyone told me that God is a healer and does not let his children suffer.  After a whole journey of faith, after having God strip me of everything that I once held dear so that I could cling to him, I still woke up in a panic.  Didn’t God want to heal me?  Didn’t he see how much I was in pain?

The night before I went on a retreat, I did not get any sleep. Irrational thoughts, that I knew were irrational, raced through my head.  What if the retreat center is on a mountain and I can’t breathe because of the thinness of the air?  What if I get food poisoning?  What if someone drops me off and then forgets to pick me up?  What if the other women in my room do not like me?  What if I end up having to share living space with a difficult person?  On and on, the ridiculous thoughts came.

I gave up on my attempt to sleep.  I sat up in my bed. “God, I don’t get it.  I’m doing everything right. I know these thoughts are wrong.  I have trusted in you, I have prayed, and I have given you everything. What are YOU doing?  Why are you making me suffer like this?”  I felt like God was asking me, “Do you trust me?”  I had to think about it.  God had been faithful throughout my entire life.  Why would he be unfaithful now, when I needed him the most?  Maybe he had a greater plan than what I had planned.

The next day, a group of us left for the retreat center.  The ride was pleasant, as the people in my car were optimistic.  We appreciated every aspect of the ride there, even when we got lost.  When we arrived, our friends were there to greet us and encourage us.

At the end of the retreat, I was not healed of anxiety.  Instead, God blessed me with joy.  I was so excited to have joy that I forgot about being anxious.  I realized that anxiety was a choice.  Although it feels overwhelming, we can choose not to let anxiety win.  I was waiting for anxiety to just stop; I was waiting for God to heal me.  Instead, God wanted me to fight against anxiety.  Those irrational thoughts did not come to me for the first time that night.  I had established a thought pattern that resulted in anxiety when I was a child.  It took me to my breaking point to fight against those thoughts I believed.

I learned that when I feel overwhelmed, I can choose joy.  At a very appropriate time in my life, my friend’s mom gave me a book that reminded her of me.  It was a devotional by Tommy Newberry, called 40 Days to a Joy-Filled Life.  This book has helped me put the rubber to the road and fight anxiety with joy.  Just like anxiety is a choice, joy is a choice.  Newberry writes: “The word emotion is 86% motion.”  Emotions are caused by choosing to think a certain way.  The choice is ours: do we choose to focus on thoughts that give us anxiety, or do we choose to be free in joy?

Sometimes, when I feel a panic attack coming along, I just put on an encouraging song and I start dancing.  By the end of the song, my anxiety looks so insignificant.  When I’m not in a position to dance, I will color, write, or spend time with friends.  Since I recognize that I have a choice over my emotions, I no longer allow myself to think irrational thoughts.

Emotions don’t have to just happen; you can be proactive in your thinking and in your feeling.  Choose to believe what God says about you.  Choose to believe the truth.  Choose joy, and you will overcome anxiety.

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Slow Down!

In tenth grade, I could never get a perfect score on my math tests.  I would always be the first student to hand in her test.  Since I knew all the answers, it was easy for me to go through the test quickly.  However, every time my teacher would hand back my tests, they would have at least one question wrong.  My teacher would tell me to look over my test.  I would scan each sheet of paper, looking for that red ink.  The ink would often circle around a mistake that could have easily been avoided.  I would have no problem doing the hard math, like factoring or simplifying the fraction.  The mistake would come when I was one step away from the answer. All I had to do was add 25 and 30 (for example), but I would write down 65 and move to the next question.  I knew how to do math.  I learned addition in kindergarten.  However, because I rushed through the test instead of taking my time and checking my answers, I would make mistakes.

Yesterday, I discovered that I still have not learned how to slow down and check my answers.  I am taking a TEFL certification class so that I can teach English to non-native English speakers.  Since I had off from work, and I am working every other day this week, I decided to get as much done of my weekly assignments as possible.  I clicked through the lessons, taking notes and gaining insight about how to teach English pronunciation.  I finished a week’s worth of notes in two hours.  Since my momentum was going, I decided to take most of my assignments – five multiple-choice quizzes – at that moment.  The program gave me an hour to work on each of the quizzes, but each quiz only took me five minutes to complete.  I felt pretty confident because I had just read the material and I had gotten a perfect score on my first quiz.  I didn’t bother to look over my work. Expecting to get a perfect score on all the quizzes, I was astonished.  I got three answers wrong on each quiz.  If I had taken the time to review the material, or at least to check my answers, maybe I would have done better on my quizzes.

Rushing clouds our judgment and makes it difficult to live to our full potential.  When I have a panic attack, I feel a sudden urge to do anything to calm me down. If I am in a stressful situation, I feel the need to leave as soon as possible.  I have noticed that this robs me of the opportunity to enjoy what I have in front of me.  Sometimes, I feel anxious at work, a job I am very grateful to have.  Because of a huge mistake that I made one time at another job, I often want to rush through helping a customer so that I do not make a big mistake at my new job.

Now that I have realized this, I have tried to become more aware of my rushing.  Before helping a customer, I take a deep breath and consciously remind myself that I am blessed to have a job that I enjoy.  I stop to ask the customer how he or she is doing. We sometimes have conversations, but most of the time my customers simply appreciate the recognition.  I have been told that I have a positive attitude, and that my optimism has a good influence on other people.  By taking the time to slow down and enjoy what I am doing, I am positively affecting the lives of other people as well.

What could you do if you took a break?  If you feel an uncomfortable urgency, take a deep breath, tell yourself to relax, and choose to do something that will help you rather than hurt you.  I have heard it said that strong emotions – both good and bad – can lead to unwise decisions.  You can save yourself a lot of guilt, regret, and anxiety by slowing down and reviewing the situation.  Slow down, and enjoy what you have in front of you.

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Tell Me How That Makes You Feel

I used to go to counseling.  After talking her ear off about my childhood, my life as a college student, and my future plans, she woudl reply: “Interesting.  Now, is there anybody you can talk to about your feelings on a daily basis?”  That was an easy question.  “Nope.  No one at all.”  She squinted her eeys at me in curiosity.  “You don’t have anyone to talk to?  No one you could call at any time of the day to ask for help?”  The answer was still the same.

For a long time, I had believed that nobody cared about me or what I had to say.  Although I knew that it was not true, I acted and thought liked I believed it.  I had made excuses for people so that I did not have to face rejection.  She’s too busy.  He’s too preoccupied.  She has problems of her own to handle; why would she want to help me?  This is how I lived, knowing and believing that no one wanted to help me.

I started to ask for help last summer.  I took a trip to Southern Spain to help with children’s camps and ESL classes.  There was one time when I had a really bad fever.  The fever was probably caused by the heat, and it made me feel nauseous and helpless.  Normally, at home, I could easily grab some water, take a shower, or go to sleep.  But I was in another country, speaking Spanish in a school classroom filled with kids.  I didn’t know what to do.  One of my friends came over and put her arm around me.  I told her, “I don’t feel well.”  That was the first time in a long time that I had admitted to someone else that I needed help.  My friend asked me what was wrong.  I put my hand on my foreahd and told her in Spanish that I had a fever.  We walked to the bathroom. She put cold water on my head and neck, told me to breathe, and then took me to get a glass of water.  Within about a half hour, my fever had left me.  If I hadn’t asked for help, I would have sulked in my fever, and I would have believed that nobody cared about me.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not easy to talk with others about my own feelings, especially if they do not seem interested.  It is also difficult when my feelings are fresh.  For example, if someone says something offensive to me, it is difficult for me to express that my feelings were hurt.  This is not something that I can learn overnight.  As I said in my series about being childlike, it takes risks to depend on other people.  But I am learning that it takes more of a risk to keep your emotions a secret from other people.

I always had anxiety because I knew that I could not get help from other people.  After learning how to trust people with my anxiety, I feel like I am not alone anymore.  When my eyes get wide and I have trouble breathing – a sign of a panic attack – I have friends now that understand the causes and know how to help. I also have friends that ask me how I am doing and then genuinely listen to me talk, which prevents panic attacks.  Having others help you carry your burdens and help you live your life allows you to feel more at peace.  However, if they need to give you advice, listen to them and accept what they have to say.  They can see things in a way that you cannot, so they can offer you a fresh perspective on the situation.

My counselor knew the value of sharing my emotions with other people.  If you trust other people with your emotions, your anxiety will not be as strong.  Learning that you are not alone will help you to feel more in control.

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How Does That Make You Feel?

If you’ve been following my other blog posts, you would know that emotions are a big deal to me.  The reason why is the topic of this blog post: My failure to acknowledge my emotions on a daily basis has been the ultimate source of my anxiety.  For a long time, I kept my emotions bottled up inside of me, afraid to show others how I felt.  I was scared that no one would understand–or, even worse, that no one would care.  As a result, my anxiety became the only thing that I would let myself feel.  On the outside, I became quiet, reserved, and stoic.

I would have random moments where I would not be able to control my emotions.  My friend would invite me to hang out, and I would angrily scream that I was always busy and I could never hang out with anyone!  My mom and I would go out to eat, and I would start crying.  I would apologize and then become irritated because I would not know why I was crying.  I would have a great day at the beach with my friends, then come home and have a bout of depression.  I believe that this chaos of emotions is due to the fact that I did not deal with my emotions on a daily basis.

As a result of my inability to control how I felt, I would feel more and more anxiety because I did not know what was wrong with me.  I even developed psychosomatic symptoms (physical symptoms caused by mental or emotional stress) because I was not emotionally healthy.  There was a period of time where I could not eat anything; everything I ate made me sick.  I would also randomly get headaches.  These physical sicknesses, as well as the episodes of emotional outburst, were red flags that something needed to change.

This last year of college, I learned how to identify my emotions.  I discovered the value of my emotions, and the freedom to express them whenever I needed.  When others told me to stop overreacting and just calm down, I stood firm in my ability and entitlement to feel what was in my heart.

I am finding a balance between expressing when I feel sad and forgetting about all of the blessings that I have. Today, I read some insightful advice from Tommy Newberry’s 40 Days to a Joy-Filled Life.  He made it clear that it is okay to feel emotions, but it is also important not to let those emotions justify negative thinking or behavior.  I realized that my negative emotions (irritability, feeling unloved, and feeling belittled) come from my refusal to take responsibility for my emotions.  I justify my emotions by blaming others or saying that I’m entitled.  I have a right to feel irritable because I did not sleep well last night.  I would feel happy, if she did not look at me the wrong way this morning.  Well, now that I am an adult, I am now responsible for how I feel and what I think.

You are responsible for your emotions.  You could either suppress them or dump them onto other people.  It is important not to justify your emotions but to validate them.  You can start by writing a journal entry, maybe something like this:

Today, I feel (emotion) because (reason why you feel this way).  I know that this is a valid emotion, but it does not have to control how I live.  In order to be happy today, I can (practical ways that you can feel joy again, whether it is talking about it with a friend, changing your perspective about the situation, or doing something fun to distract yourself from it for a little while).  Today is going to be a great day, filled with joy and peace rather than anxiety and negativity.

It is difficult to sort through your emotions when you have a lot of them. However, identifying your emotions can dispel anxiety and cause long lasting peace.  I can honestly say that identifying and learning how to express my emotions has been the most helpful exercise in overcoming anxiety.  Because of the support of other people, the grace of God, and the many hours I spend a day writing in my journal, I do not have any more stomach problems or headaches.

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Know Your Boundaries (And Use Them!)

I have an allergy to nuts. When I eat certain types of nuts, my throat swells and I have trouble breathing.  Therefore, I have to be very clear about what I can and can’t eat.  When people cook me or buy me something to eat , I always ask them if there are any nuts in the food.  Although in most cultures it is rude to refuse food, in this case, my life and health is more important than being polite.   Recently, I also discovered that I was carb sensitive, meaning that eating carbs makes me gain weight.  Once I eliminate as many carbs as possible from my diet, I lose weight instantly.  Although it is important for me to maintain physical health, I will give myself the freedom to eat carbs if someone brings me to a carb-crazy restaurant or bakes me cookies.  My sensitivity to carbs is not destructive to my health, but I should limit my interaction with them in order to stay healthy.  Eating carbs every once in a while is fine, but eating them over a long period of time could make me sick.

Just like our physical health is affected by certain types of food, our mental health is affected by certain types of situations.  Certain situations trigger anxiety in certain people because of their past experiences.  Someone may have drowned as a child, so deep water may scare him.  Someone may have been betrayed by a close friend, so she may be scared of commitment.  Just as we should know ourselves and our personality types, we should also know our boundaries.  We should know what makes us anxious, and we should avoid them.  There are some situations that could lead to stress, but do not trigger anxiety.  When we go for long periods of time under these conditions of stress, however, it could result in anxiety.

Personally, I would have a panic attack if I was working with people who do not follow structured plans.  Every time I had been in a disorganized situation, my stomach would get in knots and I would have difficulty breathing.  When I learned that lack of consistency makes me anxious, I began to communicate my boundaries with my co-workers, supervisors, and classmates.  If I had to work on a group project, I would tell my partners that I need deadlines or else I would be upset.  I also take responsibility for my boundaries by establishing my own deadlines when possible.

A less serious boundary is my bedtime.  I go to bed early, and when I am tired, I become irritable.  Lack of sleep does not give me anxiety; it only gives me stress.  However, as time progresses, the less sleep I get, the more anxious I become.  Therefore, I try to get enough sleep each night.  If I do not get enough sleep, when I am hanging out with my friends or I am about to have a serious conversation with a loved one, I will make it known that I am irritable.  If someone says the wrong thing when I am tired, I will get angry because I am more sensitive without sleep.

There are times where we may feel called to do something uncomfortable, but understand the implications of that decision.  Although it is good to make choices that are beyond our comfort zone sometimes, going against our comfort zone could cause anxiety.  Being aware of this normal emotional reaction will help you prepare yourself to handle your anxiety.  In another post, I will talk about practical ways to handle anxiety, such as deep breathing exercises.

By remaining unaware of boundaries (or by neglecting to make your boundaries clear), you are creating more anxiety within yourself.  We all need boundaries in order to survive.  People will understand if you have boundaries, and if they don’t, well, at least you’re taking care of yourself.  As you think about your boundaries, think about what gives you anxiety.  Think about the last times you have had anxiety; think about the situations and the people involved.  When you identify your boundaries, make them clear to the people around you. It is helpful to have an accountability partner to help you keep your boundaries.  By freely stating your boundaries, you are protecting yourself as well as people you encounter from unnecessary anxiety.  At the same time, you should take care of yourself by honoring your boundaries.

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New Series: Overcoming Anxiety

I find great joy in using my struggles and successes to bring encouragement to other people.  This next series that I feel I should share is a rough topic for me.  Having had anxiety since I was seven, I could say that I am an expert at dealing with anxiety.  I have heard many times that if you have anxiety, you are living in sin or you do not have enough faith.  While there is some truth to that, it is not encouraging for someone who seeks to be obedient to God.  After praying and seeking counsel, I have realized that there is more to overcoming anxiety than simply thinking good thoughts or breathing clean air.  By the glory of God, I am a lot better than when I was even a few months ago.  I hope to share what I have learned with you over the course of the next few days.  

I will be talking about practical ways that I have developed more peace.  I will include advice given by my counselors, good friends, and authority figures.  I believe in a God that heals, so I will be discussing how God has helped me find peace.  

Although I have dealt with anxiety and have had success in overcoming it, I am not a doctor or a psychologist. I can only suggest speculations about what has helped me.  I do not claim that what worked for me will definitely work for you, but I hope that it encourages you that you are not alone.  If you have an actual anxiety disorder, I suggest that you go to counseling.  But if you are simply looking to live a more peaceful life, I encourage you to read this series.