Overcoming Anxiety

Anxiety affects 1 in every 13 Americans. The number is growing.

Anxiety is that surface-level, bubbling lava that will, if not tended, explode. It’s revealing something about you, deep inside of you.

J.P. Moreland, a phenomenal Philosopher, once said, “Anxiety is a surface feeling that masks the deeper feelings that are most likely the real issue you are dealing with – embarrassment, fear, grief, helplessness, hurt, loneliness, or sadness.”

“What if?” is a crippling phrase that keeps coming back, uninvited, to haunt you over and over again. While all of this happening, your brain is literally being rewired; they create a ‘neural pathway, a groove in the brain, that becomes habitual and contributes to a situation in which a person is literally stuck on a pattern, stuck in a rut.’

What I’d like to do today is begin a conversation on how one can overcome anxiety. There’s a lot to be said regarding this subject matter, but I’d like to jump into some basics to get us started.

But, first:

In the words of J.P. Moreland, “If you have anxiety, you are not alone, weird, a spiritual failure, or hopeless.” It’s really important to grasp unto that truth.

While much can be attributed to anxiety (genetic dispositions, the inability to control the future or current circumstances, escalating demands, the fast-paced society we live in, insecurity, trauma, major life changes, etc.), a major crippling contributor to our anxiety is the messages we hear about ourselves, buy into, and believe about ourselves, even when those messages do not correlate with reality.

Did you know, according to experts, 85% of what we worry about never actually happen? Now, keep in mind, what I’m going to share with you is not prescriptive; they are suggestions to help you overcome anxiety. The process and outcome are not always black and white, but I do believe whole-heartedly that a real transformation can and will occur if we take action on what Scripture teaches and not just read a verse about it and end it there. No one merely reads a manual about how to get better at basketball and then expects to be great at basketball without every picking up a basketball and putting into practice what was in that manual.

There are two passages in the Bible we want to work with today. The first is Psalm 139:23-24 which says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The second is Philippians 4:6-7 which says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We will revisit these two passages periodically. They are also two passages that I want you to treasure deep in your heart and never let go up for the rest of your life.

First things first: when you don’t love yourself as your neighbor, you will spiral down a path that you do not want to spiral down into. What I mean is that if you continuously beat yourself up all the time and if you continuously accept that anti-gospel statements that are thrown at you, your anxiety worsens. And, if you keep doing this over and over again, those HABITS will rewire your brain and get you to think that you are worthless. You cannot do this. But some of us have been doing this for so long that we literally need to develop new habits to put them in place of old habits. We’ll talk about this in a moment.

Suppose a loved one screws up in life. They did something stupid. They really messed up. How would you respond? Would you beat them over the head, tell them how worthless they are, and kick them while they are on the ground? No, of course not! So, why do the same to you? Jesus did, after all, say, “Love your neighbor, as yourself.”

Understand though, that loving yourself is not egotistical or narcissistic. It’s understanding the worth, value, and dignity that God has declared onto you; it’s having a proper view of the gospel. Did you screw up? Sure, but that doesn’t define you. You are not defined by your past, your short-comings, or your uncertainty of the future.  

A lot of our negative self-talk begins and fuels our anxiety and a lot of our negative self-talk is habitual. We need to get rid of those habits and replace them with something entirely different, but we cannot do this by simple will power. I think this is what Paul means when he says to bring our requests to God. To bring it to him over and over and over again.

Second, I want to do an exercise with you. Close your eyes.

Now, with your eyes closed, think of a false message that keeps popping up in your mind. Your brain literally sends you false messages all day long. Maybe the message is “You are not worthy”, “You are a failure”, “You will never be good enough”, “You are not loved”, “You will never amount to anything”, “You are weird or stupid”, “Your past is what defines you”, “You are not pretty enough”, “No one is interested in your life.”

Now, call those labels what it is. It’s false. It’s not true. It doesn’t match reality. This is what that passage in Psalm 139 tells us to do. What you are asking God to do for you right now is to search you, deep inside, and to know what is in your heart; to know those anxious thoughts. You are asking God to lead you to a way that’s everlasting, filled with joy, freedom.

Don’t just generalize the though. Specifically label exactly the messages you’ve been told and that you’ve bought into. Zero in on it. Breath. Focus.

The messages can range from “I’m worried about an exam, about my future”, “I always tend to do the same stupid thing over and over again, therefore”, “I’m to blame because of x, y, or z” , “I’ll never measure up to what my parents expect of me”, “I’m not as good as him or her at whatever it is.”

Capture those messages and call it what it is.

Now, with your eyes still closed, release that negative message, and replace it with a specific, positive ones. Think about something that brings you joy. Listen to these words from Psalm 139… “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well…How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”

Think about what God has done for you. Think about the truths of Scripture. Think about specific moments of joy in life that just warms your heart. Replace the negative thoughts with these things. Say to yourself, “your grace covers me when I fall down”, “you love me no matter what”, “This season of pain will not last and something good will come out of it”, “The voices of judgment are coming from people who are broken just like me”, “my worth is not determined by what others say”, “I don’t know the future but I know that it’s in your hands God and that’s good enough for me.”

Now, open your eyes. Breathe.

I want you to do this exercise a few times a day, for the next six months. When you find yourself in those tense moments, you need to step aside, find a safe spot, and do this. You need to take care of yourself. You cannot pour into the lives of those around you if your reservoir is empty. You cannot love if you do not feel loved.

Much of what I’ve written here is taken from J.P. Moreland’s Finding Quiet

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