"Don't worry, be happy!" So many of us have heard Bob Marley belting out those words before and probably sang along. Is being happy really that easy? Mind over matter! Can our anxiety be managed with a simple directive?
As a therapist, and more importantly a person, I'd argue (for most of us), being happy is not quite that simple. Even if we manage our worries for a moment, a permanent, long-term change can be difficult. When another stressful circumstance arises or something unexpected occurs, we will likely return to anxious ways of thinking. Yet, knowing you are not alone can sometimes be the beginning of developing skills that help manage anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Some of you may be wondering what the definition of anxiety is. From a broad perspective, I consider anxiety to be carrying the burden of worry in a way that affects your ability to live life to the fullest. When we look at anxiety from a clinical and diagnostic perspective, I address anxiety as an excessive amount of worry and preoccupation or mental dwelling that inhibits your ability to function effectively. Clinically, this can show up in a variety of mental health disorders: OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), separation anxiety, social anxiety, and adjustment disorder to name a few. However, I believe anxiety really takes place on a spectrum and runs from mild to more extreme and most people will fall somewhere on that spectrum at some point in life.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 18% of Americans currently struggle with anxiety. That's almost 1 in 5 people and that only refers to a clinical diagnosis of anxiety. Beyond the clinical, many deal with the burden of worry. Despite the common ground, sometimes we can think we are only one. Be assured, you are not! While anxiety manifests in different ways for different people, it is something most of us have wrestled with in some capacity along with knowing loved ones who have struggled too.
What does anxiety look like?
Though anxiety is a broad term, it truly is expressed in a range of ways from mild to more extreme. Here's an example of severe anxiety: 62-year-old Susanne was a schoolteacher for years, but started to work virtually from home. She had to retire early when classes went back in person because her anxiety was so high. She started to have panic attacks out in public and in order to avoid that again, Susanne stopped leaving home and now she hasn't left in a month. This would be a severe case of panic disorder with associated agoraphobia (an extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one's own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult).
A milder example of anxiety might be 17-year-old Harvey who struggles with getting out of bed certain mornings because he worries about taking tests at school. He may feel a sense of dread, but is still able to get himself to school and function well in other settings.
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of different ways. Most people think of worry and nervous thoughts as part of anxiety, and these are definitely significant components. While thought patterns are a big part of anxiety, there are also physical, spiritual, and emotional components. Physically, anxiety can show up in a multitude of ways: racing heart, excessive sweating, chest pains, headaches, and stomachaches to name a few. Anxiety as an emotion can also show up as anger, sadness, or increased irritability. Spiritually, when struggling with anxiety, it may lead to feeling disconnected from God or frustration with His plan. Anxiety really takes place on a wide spectrum.
Am I going to be anxious forever?
On top of feeling anxious about any number of things, you may also feel anxious about, well, being anxious. That phrase again, “don’t worry, be happy!” is easier said than done. And while we find encouragement in Scripture, leaving our anxieties behind can be challenging. Are we doomed to live under this heavy burden? My answer to that would be a resounding NO! While the load can be troublesome, you can learn new coping techniques. Multiple research-based studies have shown that anxiety can be significantly reduced by getting appropriate therapeutic care. There are also a great multitude of coping skills that can be learned and lifestyle adaptations that may be beneficial like regular exercise, deep breathing, therapy, and even leaning into healthy spiritual habits of reading Scripture and prayer. We can share our struggle with God and help and healing are possible!
The Wrap Up
One of my favorite Bible verses is Exodus 14:14, which says: "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent." What a comfort to know a God who fights for us in all of our struggles and that includes our battles with worry or anxiety. Another beautiful verse is Matthew 11:28 where Jesus tells us this: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." What I find particularly precious about this verse is that Jesus invites us to bring our burdens to him and promises to exchange them for rest.
Perhaps it is not as simple as "Don't worry! Be happy!" but take heart, friends. There is still plenty of hope on this journey. For more information on anxiety, coping skills, and the Bible, check out “Facing Anxiety” by Jonathan Pokluda
on RightNow Media. And if you’re new to the blog or have been reading for a while, we encourage you to Just send us an email
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