Healthwatch: What if I feel anxious, but don't have an anxiety disorder?

By Dr. Michael Jacobson, D.O., M.P.H., CHM Medical Director

*Editor’s note: This information was published in the July 2022 issue of Heartfelt Magazine, CHM’s monthly magazine that provides CHM membership-related tips and tricks, medical advice from doctors, testimonies from CHM members, and more. Please refer to the CHM Guidelines and applicable web pages for the most up-to-date information regarding CHM membership, sharing eligibility, and ministry news.*

As I wrote in a recent column, to be properly diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a person should meet DSM-5 criteria, which usually requires sustained symptoms on a majority of days over at least a six-month period. In response, a reader asked [my paraphrase], “What if I don’t have an anxiety disorder, but I still feel stressed out or anxious about a stressful season at work, project, or change coming up? What might help me pull in those thoughts, calm my nerves, and rest in Christ’s peace?”

What a great question! I think all of us can relate. Thankfully, there are some very practical, low-cost steps that one can take to rein in out-of-control nerves.

Direct confrontation

The first place to start may be to ask yourself simple questions: Why am I feeling anxious? What’s making me nervous or afraid? You’re nervous for a reason. Bringing that to the surface of your conscious thought often removes the threat and relieves the associated restlessness. This is why counseling can be so effective. Proverbs 20:5 (ESV) says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”

If it’s an important exam, competition, or presentation, have you done your part to prepare? If not, that’s the place to start. Along those lines, imagine what it must be like to compete in the Olympics. Besides the training, elite athletes develop a pre-performance routine to keep themselves relaxed. This is nearly as important as the event itself.

In their book The Gap and The Gain, Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy share the story of Dan Jenkins who, although he was considered the best speed skater alive at the time, repeatedly failed in securing Olympic gold. Before his very last Olympic race in an event that wasn’t his strongest, he made a significant decision to shift his mental focus away from achieving his long sought-for gold medal to simply enjoying the moment. He looked back at everything that he had gained through a career that was the envy of many. Filled with gratefulness and joy, he settled into the moment, ran the race with a smile on his face, and came away not only with a gold medal, but a world record. Anxiety and fear are future-based. Sullivan and Hardy point out that our performance is best when we are truly relaxed and fully in the present.

Relaxation Techniques

Numerous techniques have been developed to aid in relaxation. A simple routine is to consciously focus on breathing slowly, drawing in each breath for three seconds, holding for three seconds, and slowly exhaling over the course of six seconds. Repeat this five times.

There is also the “Five-Sense Rule.” When you’re feeling nervous, focus your mind on your senses. What are five things that you are seeing right now? What are four things that you’re feeling right now (such as the clothes you’re wearing, the blowing wind, and so on)? What are three things that you’re hearing, two things that you are smelling, and one thing that you can still taste from something you may have eaten earlier?

Healthy lifestyle

For some, dietary changes can make a significant difference. Start with eliminating stimulants, especially caffeine, sugar and its substitutes, and evaluate your medications to make sure nervousness is not a side effect.

Getting adequate sleep is of immeasurable importance, and poor exercise habits are also associated with increased problems with nervousness. Research has shown tremendous benefits to getting at least 20 minutes of intense exercise three times a week. Vigorous exercise that elevates your heart rate to at least 60% of your target rate actually “burns off” adrenaline, the neurotransmitter hormone that tends to be elevated when we are experiencing “fight or flight.”

Turn to and ‘press into’ Christ

Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of the WWII concentration camps, said, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” Having endured such suffering, Corrie knew the truth expressed in Isaiah 41:10 NKJV: “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

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