10 Things to Do When You Feel Anxious
Several months ago, I wrote out this list in a note on my phone. I have found that in the moment of anxiety, I have a hard time remembering to do the things that I know can help me. I tend to panic, worry, and just make things worse.
So I originally made this list as a resource for myself, but I thought you might find it helpful as well in our current crisis.
In my experience, doing these things doesn’t cure or eliminate my anxiety. They aren’t magic pills or silver bullets. But they tend to make my anxiety manageable. They change my perspective and lift my focus from my distress to the Lord. They shift my heart from inward to upward.
Sadly, I don’t always do these things, and to be honest, I don’t always want to do these things. But like a spoonful of medicine, I know I need to do these things. And by God’s grace, the more I do them, the more they become a reflex rather than a last resort.
I pray they help you as well:
Yep, I’m starting with prayer. And not out of some Christian obligation. Like, “Oh I guess I need to pray because that’s what I’m supposed to do.” No, when I pray in the midst of anxiety, it’s because I desperately need to. Prayer is expressed dependency on God. I have never experienced that definition more than when I pray while anxious.
I used to pray, “God take away my anxiety” or “take away this situation that’s making me anxious.” But I’ve learned to pray more often instead, “God help me to trust you in the midst of my anxiety.” There’s a difference there.
I will admit, praying while anxious is usually difficult for a number of reasons. My mind is going too fast. I can’t sit still. Etc. So what I go to here is not some long, rote prayer that will light up my Christian scoreboard. My prayer is these moments is often as simple as, “God help me.”
You also might find it helpful to pray a written prayer, by you or someone else. Sometimes we have the idea that prayers are only sincere if they are spontaneous. But written prayers are not less meaningful or less effective. I have actually found that when I write a prayer or just think through a prayer before offering it, it’s more sincere and passionate. It’s especially helpful in an anxious moment when you can’t find the words.
So write a prayer. Or grab a book of prayers like The Valley of Vision. And do your best to express your desperate need for God in your weakest moments.
2. Read and meditate on scripture.
Yep, Bible reading is next. No, I’m not trying to hit for the Sunday School answer cycle. There’s a reason everyone knows they should read their Bible and pray. It’s because it helps!
If the Bible is God’s Word, and God’s Word has power, then where else would we go? Reading the Bible is not like reading another book or reading the newspaper. It’s the only inspired, inerrant Word of God we have. So reading it has a supernatural effect on your mind and heart that you won’t find anywhere else.
But again, I personally find sitting down and reading to be difficult when I’m anxious. So I often turn to a Psalm for a quick glance and a long meditation. By meditation, I mean focused thinking. Thinking through the words, what they mean, why they mean what they mean, and what that means for me.
Meditating on scripture helps take my mind off the temporary and fix it on the eternal. I discover that God’s Word is true and my anxiety is often not. This clarity brings peace and the ability to endure in God’s strength.
Some of my personal go-to Psalms for meditation are: 27, 34, 42, and 56.
3. Rehearse the gospel.
Receiving good news in a bad situation can change things. And what better news is there than the good news of the gospel?
My gospel amnesia is never worse than when I’m anxious. I begin to think and live like Jesus never existed. Like he didn’t and doesn’t love me. Like he didn’t endure my judgment on the cross. And like he didn’t triumph over the grave.
Ridiculous. What better time to remember and dwell on these truths than in the midst of life’s chaos? These truths are soul-settling. They are mind-mending. They put everything else in proper perspective.
So I think through the gospel. All the details. And I apply it to me. I remember I’m loved. I remember I’m a child of God. I remember Jesus.
4. Practice gratitude.
It’s not a coincidence that Paul said, "do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). This isn’t just any ole prayer. This is thankful prayer.
I try to list out things I have in my life to be thankful for. I try to remember all the good that God has given me. Even my very life is undeserved since I’m a sinner saved by grace. When you think about these things, you can’t help but praise him.
It’s hard to worry and be thankful at the same time. Actually, I think it’s impossible. Try it and see.
5. Remember God’s faithfulness.
Has God helped you through anxious moments in the past? I bet he has.
Has God failed you before? I bet he hasn’t.
Has God changed? I know he hasn’t!
I make a mental list of past situations where I totally freaked, thinking I wasn’t going to make it, but everything ended up working out. I remember how God helped me through those situations and did exceedingly more than all that I could ask or imagine. If God helped me through those situations, then why wouldn’t he do it again?
Don’t let anxiety convince you that this time will be the time God doesn’t show up. It’s a waste of your brain space to think of such impossibilities.
6. Seek out someone who loves you.
Like many others on this list, one of the greatest tools we have in difficult moments is often the one we avoid. For some reason, in moments of anxiety and hopelessness, we tend to shut people out and retreat. What a tragic mistake that is.
We were not designed to endure these things alone. That is a lie from the enemy that has seeped into the very heart of our American identities. Individualism is a major obstacle to healing and help.
Get over yourself. You’re not a burden. You’re not annoying. You’re not the only one who feels this way. And you’re not crazy.
Reach out to someone with a text, phone call, or even better, in person. They aren’t too busy. They do care. They will understand. And they can help.
The greatest comfort and counseling I’ve ever received has been from unplanned conversation with family and friends.
Sure, there’s a place for alone time. Yes, taking a break from the world can be restful. But it’s not helpful if you’re withdrawing to wallow in pity or worry yourself sick. Pick up the phone.
7. Go outside and move.
Being outside, breathing fresh air, and walking have all been proven to make you feel better. It’s science. Google it.
And honestly, it’s just plain common sense. I don’t need a team of experts to tell me this helps. We all feel it.
Walking or running is especially helpful for me because I’m a pacer. When I think, I have to move. So walking enables me to work out my anxiety and think more clearly. I also use this time to pray and meditate. If you’ve never prayer walked, you’re missing out.
Plus exercise has proven mental health benefits. Again, google it. Plus the sun has vitamin D which also makes you feel better. This is not rocket science. Get outside and move.
8. Meditate on the attributes of God.
A huge part of this battle is changing your thinking pattern. From worry to trust. From panic to peace. From doubt to belief. If you can change your thinking, you can change your feeling. It’s not easy, but it is possible. You can’t always control the thoughts that come, but you can choose if they stay.
One thing that has benefited me is thinking about the character of God. You don’t have to get all theology nerd here either. But have you ever taken an extended period of time to think about God’s goodness? What does that mean? Why does that matter? How does that truth affect me?
Find scripture to support that truth and meditate on that as well. Other attributes I go to are God’s sovereignty, God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s love, God’s power, etc. etc. You can find lists online. Surely thinking about God and who he is cannot hurt in a moment of need.
If you search online and read any secular article, blog, or book on what to do when you feel anxious, every single one will tell you to breathe. And not just to breathe, but to breathe rightly.
Sometimes you see some weird stuff like "breathing in positivity and breathing out negativity.” Or “channeling inner strength.” I’m not into all that.
I’m just talking about simply breathing. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that breathing is important. From what I understand, it actually keeps you alive. Who knew?
God designed us to breathe, and he gave us lungs to be filled with oxygen. But have you noticed? When you get anxious, your breathing goes bananas. It becomes short and quick and choppy. Which makes your anxiety worse.
(As a side not, it is downright cruel that one of the key symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. So anxiety causes shortness of breath, which makes me think I have COVID-19, which causes more anxiety, which causes more…you get the picture.)
I don’t have time to get my sources, but trust me, the facts are out there. Deep, slow breathing calms you down. It’s the one thing you can regulate and control. It stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down and helps you relax. Your heart rate and blood pressure go down, which is good from what I’m told. Thank you, Internet.
If God made us to breathe, then we should try to do it well. Our bodies are his vessels, and I believe we glorify Him by being good stewards of those bodies. Man...now, I feel guilty for my poor eating habits during quarantine.
10. Do something you enjoy.
It is unfortunate that many Christians think the only spiritual things they do are go to church, read their Bibles, and pray. Enjoying God and His gifts is spiritual, too.
Ecclesiastes 3:13, "I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.”
It’s ok to have fun and do the things you like to do. These things are especially crucial when you are anxious. Take a break, cast your cares on God, and enjoy something. A book, a physical activity, your family, a hobby. Something that brings rest to your soul.
I’m sure there are many more things you can do when you’re anxious that might help. I am certain my list will continue to grow over time. Praise God that He gives us relief when we need it most.