As many of you know, I struggled with chronic anxiety for much of my adult life. In February 2015, I wrote in my journal, “180 days to joy. That’s what I want, God. JOY. I am sick of living in fear and anxiety. I WANT JOY.”
Then I promptly forgot about it. But God didn’t. Over the course of the next year, my anxiety levels plummeted through the floor. In the 30 months since I wrote those words in my journal, I have experienced what I can only call a miracle of healing. As I’ve talked with various folks about this transformation from anxious to joyful, I’ve felt nudged to write down a bit of the story. Over the course of the next eight weeks or so, I’ll be sharing several of the practices (now habits) that have aided me in overcoming anxiety and enabled me to live with more joy than I used to think possible.
Anxiety is a complex thing, involving the physiological, psychological, and spiritual. Our problem in contemporary America is that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the physiological aspect of anxiety, which is at best only one-third of the problem. It is a crucial third, of course, and it’s therefore imperative that we deal with it. If you need medication, please be sure you get it! We don’t expect diabetics to roam the world without insulin; we don’t tell them it’s all in their heads and they should just get over it. In the same way, we should not expect people with anxiety to just get over it. It is in part a physiological problem, and medication can be an important part of healing.
Adequate sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition are also crucial components of mental health. We live in an overfed and undernourished culture that is chronically sleep deprived. If you struggle with anxiety, a large part of your work of healing is going to be to take care of these three basic areas. You are an embodied soul. Without your body, your life as you know it ceases. It is imperative that you care for your body. Feed it wisely and well. Get it moving (preferably outdoors). Give it eight hours of sleep every day. These are foundational habits for a happy life and will go a long way toward helping you overcome anxiety.
To reiterate: if you need medication, take it. The habits I outline are not meant to take the place of proper medication. Sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Dealing with the physiological causes of anxiety is crucial.
That said, it is not enough. We are not just bodies. We are spiritual as well as physical beings, and it the spiritual side of things that is grossly neglected in our materialistic culture. Now, simply eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep may have a dramatic impact on your emotional well-being. But healing work must go deeper, and the deepest part of us is the spiritual.
The solution to our anxiety ultimately lies in God. At the very least this means we need to address spiritual reality when we tackle anxiety. For me, medication helped. Talk therapy helped. But it wasn’t until I stopped running about and sat like Mary at the feet of Jesus for hours on end and listened to His voice and gazed upon His face of love that I finally knew a release from anxiety.
Truth be told, I don’t know how beneficial the practices I outline will be apart from God’s grace and help. Certainly they can’t hurt. But the radical transformation I’ve experienced has been largely (almost entirely?) a result of God’s grace upholding and undergirding the practices I’ve undertaken. Faith and trust are the bedrock on which all these practices rest. Without God’s action to uphold and heal, all my work is for naught. At the same time, if I don’t do my part, I won’t be able to participate in the work God is already doing. Faith is the foundation because it causes me to act in certain ways, which in turn opens me to the healing work of God.
The order in which I share these practices in the coming weeks is (with one exception) simply the order in which I discovered them. Each habit led to the next, and together they created a scaffold or trellis upon which I could lean my life so it would grow. I hope and pray that they will prove to be as life-giving for you as they have been for me.
One final caveat: healing takes time. It was a good three months before the habits began to do their work in me and free me from anxiety. And it was almost a year before I realized with a sudden shock of joy that I was hardly ever anxious any more. If you don’t see immediate results, don’t be discouraged. Hold onto hope, and persevere. “We will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The harvest is there, but we have to sow before we can reap, and the growth of what is sown takes time. Be patient with yourself. And when you fall (which you will), remember that you fall into the arms of our loving Lord, who will help you up and set you back on the path and walk every step of it with you.
Here’s to the journey to joy, friends!