Manage Your Anxiety

“During these uncertain times…”

I hear this phrase often.

Uncertainty. The great unknown. For some of us, that idea sounds like fun when it means venturing into a new city, in a new country, ready to explore and discover new things.

But when that new country is the land of coronavirus we are talking about something decidedly not fun.

If this is my new country, what does it look like after being here for one month?

In Stanislaus County, we have seen only four deaths at the time of this writing, so the medical aspect of the pandemic has not deeply affected the layperson on the street. It is the laws of the land that seem to govern our experience.

  • Everyone stays home except to buy groceries.
  • No one gets near each other.
  • No one shakes hands or hugs those outside their immediate family.
  • Food is delivered to our homes.
  • In this small town, people exhibit this look of relief at the sight of a new face and engage in 6-foot-apart chat.
  • Families go for walks.
  • Parents see their children.
  • Parents become the primary educators of their children.
  • We work from home.
  • We cook at home.
  • We entertain ourselves at home.
  • We spend less.
  • We become resourceful.

There is an opportunity here for good, the shutdown of the country becomes like a deep breath, a pause in our everyday lives.

Still, the uncertainty remains and when faced with an unknown danger

the natural response is fear or anxiety.

You know the feeling. Physically, muscles tense, breathing gets shallower, our heart rate increases. Mentally, we jump at new information, obsess or avoid information, we ruminate replaying ideas again and again. Relationally, we might snap at our loved ones, be more distracted than usual, more protective than usual.

Since the thing creating so much anxiety in our culture right now can be identified, let’s call it for what it is:


Ask Yourself This

Next ask, “what do I know about this?” It is important to check that what you know aligns with credible sources like WHO or the CDC. Avoid sensational titles and click-bait eager for your eyes to get them more advertising dollars.

“What don’t I know?” Perhaps there are some questions you need to get answered. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding this novel coronavirus, but sometimes, even when we are told information from a credible source, we still do not believe it.

Usually, there is a reason for this. When that happens the biggest question becomes, “what am I afraid of?” Name the fear.

Check your fears against what you know. Check it against what you do not know. Look for answers to the latter if answers are available.

Now, “what can I do?”

Do what you can. Handwashing, limiting outings to essential tasks, social distancing. Check. You have made a good defense.

Go on the offensive if you need to. Maybe you fear for your parents. Talk to them about a plan if they get sick. Maybe you fear for yourself. You can take steps to optimize your health now to make you stronger if you do get sick.

Is the fear related to finances and the future? See if you can order those ducks, access the help that is slowly becoming more available, write down your expenses and track your spending.

When you have done what you can, step away from it all. Distract yourself, practice gratitude, find an activity you can engage in that energizes you and benefits others. For me, writing, reading to my kids and gardening. They are the small things I can do in short spurts that keep me connected and keep me sane.

Make sure every day has some non-coronavirus thoughts and some non-coronavirus talk.

Then, finally, practice acceptance and letting go.

The thoughts will come to mind during your off-hours from corona-worrying. Address them with some mantra that helps refocus you. It could be the wisdom of the ages,

“this too shall pass”

or a right-now reassurance,

“I am doing all I can. It is enough.”

It may sound morbid, but what helps me is the phrase

“death comes to us all”

Having faced the death of my daughter to anencephaly three years ago, it helps me to remind myself that death is part of life. We should try to live long and well, but it is not so foreign as it feels. It is heartbreaking, but if I know that death of part of life, I know the grief will not be insurmountable.

And as the signs and t-shirts tell us,

we will get through this, together.

Seeing Beyond the Storm Cycle of Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most-widely common mental illnesses in the United States. We live in an age of anxiety. While often referred to as an illness, it functions more as a thought and feeling response to physical or circumstantial conditions. Some walk around with low-grade anxiety all day, every day; while others, normally calm, experience full-flung panic attacks in the face of traumatic triggers.

A little stress can be good, but when stress becomes an inappropriate response (disproportionate or present without normal life stressors) we begin to have a problem. Stress that hinders your normal activities by causing you to lose sleep, change your appetite or avoid people or circumstances because of the anxiety you will feel, needs to be addressed.

Today I write directly to those who experience anxiety. Even if you do not personally struggle with it, I invite you to read on to better know the experience of those who do.

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

Anxiety is a monster that makes the anxious feel small and powerless, throwing us around, knocking our heads against doubts and insecurities, whispering fears and threats into our ears until we can no longer see straight.

With each doubt, we begin to analyze and analyze, look for evidence, think if we can just find answers, we will find peace. Then the monster whispers…or shouts louder.

We analyze again, go back in time, mark up a tally sheet of all the interactions we had with a person until we are wiped out, exhausted and have pushed everyone away who could not cool the rage of the anxiety monster inside us.

The analysis gets us nowhere. Like tinted sunglasses, anxiety makes us see things through a filter. We cannot tell if it really happened the way we remember because it was so long ago no one else remembers.

Emails and phone calls begin to come out of nowhere. In such detail, you outline, “I did, she did that.”

What we walked with peacefully for so long becomes a cloud that takes hold of us. Did it always make us feel this way?

No, the spotlight of anxiety is on it now.

We want to know if our fears match up with what really happened. You try to find something stable to anchor yourself while being tossed around. It feels like a storm.

But it is a monster.

The cycle continues as you try to find some evidence to validate impressions or make it so you do not have to tear yourself apart in the condemnation which comes from anxiety.

It wants you to tear yourself apart.

But you know what, it is not healthy. It is not healthy to dig up little moments two to five years ago and say, “see what you did” to a friend. It can only lead to bitterness, resentment or insecurity.

Anxiety will not give you all the evidence. When something happened so long ago , the person can only remember it as well as she can. There might be missing details and you would never know because no one else remembers it. Memory is faulty.

Things that are long past do not make for good evidence toward the conclusion your anxiety suggests.

Memory is often unmerciful. Mercy makes excuses for others. “She was in crisis”; “She was stressed”; “She gets impatient easily”; but does not draw conclusions from them.

To be able enough to say “no” to those thoughts is part of freedom.

A lot of time anxiety will not let us.

In the midst of it, it seems impossible to see any other world than that which is storm-tossed. But there is help. Learning about how anxiety works can help you divert the storm as it brews. Therapeutic techniques can help mitigate its effects. For some, medication can help you get your bearings so that you can implement the things you have learned.

The monster is not you.

The battle is not between you and your neighbor, but between you and anxiety.

We are meant for freedom.

Life can be more than this.

Life can be good.

Reflections from Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

It isn’t often an introduction keeps you thinking. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, written by Elizabeth Scalia, is a wake-up call to our way of life. She wastes no time. The introduction sets the stage and opens up the reader’s understanding that those passions and pursuits of our life, on dangerous ground, dancing a dangerous line which can tip the scale into idolatry.

She sets the stage then spends the book helping us to unmask those idols.

First, ease us into understanding:

“Idols are not like opinions or even convictions. They don’t ask for consensus or even strong advocacy—they demand worshippers.”

“If God created humankind in his image, we humans tend to create gods in our own image—or perhaps more correctly, we humans create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.”

I have read about this before. The sin of Adam and Eve was not that they ate an apple, but rather that, having heard the commandment of God, they decided for themselves what would be good. This is how they would be like gods. Scalia rightly points out that when the modern Christian-mind thinks of idolatry, we think of golden calves and silly looking orgies from Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. It is a concept so far removed that it becomes easy to gloss over the commandment. Of course we would not worship another god. That commandment must reference some other culture where that might be more likely to happen.

Recognizing where we’re at, Scalia leads us another step in understanding:

“We stop and think of what it means to have something “before God”? It means to put something “first,” yes, but more fundamentally, it means to put something “in front” of God, as one might put a screen in front of a fireplace and therefore place it “before” the fire…it stands before God and us; it separates us from him.”

What is an idol in every day life?

St. Gregory of Nyssa said “ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

An idol is an idea, fleshed out. It takes on a life of its own. Her definition will help us identify them in our own lives. They will be creative, deep, well-formed and multi-faceted. They will reflect a need we have, a need projected outward but points inward to ourselves.

A pretty weighty introduction indeed.

To carry her introduction, Scalia related the story of an incident she witnessed in an online forum where Scalia saw unfold a love of security that seemed somewhat deeper and close-minded than it ought to be. She looked deeper into the words of those on the forum. Could this be a form of idolatry?

“Rather, I decided, it was the anxiety beneath it—lying coiled like a snake under the mist—that the America they had known might be over. It was in service to this strange god of anxiety—which hissed of threats to everything familiar, sure, and safe, and played to naturally protective instincts—that our rural friend was chased away.”

A god of anxiety? My reflection becomes personal.

Coming from one direction to my thoughts: I have struggled with anxiety. The struggle continues. It is an ongoing effort to maintain a calm so I will not get too near the edge.

Coming from another direction: I am alarmed by the atrocities committed by ISIS. I’ve written on that only once, in “The Christian Mission“, but it stays in my thoughts and prayers. My husband and I watched the The Pianist. The parallels of what I imagine the innocent suffering at the hand of ISIS and what the Nazi’s did in Poland and other counties were undeniable. ISIS is moving and their goal is to destroy Christendom. They have stated goals to attack the US, the President, destroy Rome and Pope Francis. Is the world as I know it being destroyed? Do my children face a radically different future in the US, in the Catholic Church, without the security I have known all my life?

The feelings Scalia describes following 9/11 reflect my current fears. Fifteen years ago, I was a teenager when the towers were struck. I mourned the loss of countrymen, but living in California, was so distant that my world was not shaken, only my heart. I am older now and better see the bigger picture, and with that comes questions.

Coming from, yet another direction: the four-year old son of a family we hold dear to our hearts died last week. His funeral was yesterday. As I reflect on the pain of my friend, I think to myself how we never have the hold on our children we imagine we have. She may have understood it better than I, as he was born with a heart condition. Perhaps she daily made the prayer to God offering her son to his protection and love. I am the one under an illusion that these children are mine. In trust, they can be snatched away in an instant. I had to learn this when I miscarried, but in the economic, environmental and philosophy stability I wonder if I have grown complacent.

I am pondering all these things. Scalia’s words act as a scale by which I can weigh them. Do I put my fears before God? Have I offered them to God, essentially putting them behind him so I see only him? Can I come to place of trust, a willingness to endure the storm should the storm arise, from whatever direction? Or do I make a god of my fear, willing to sacrifice to its appetite, willing to organize my life around its worship?

I will trust. As Lent evolves, my health improves and I can think productively again. I have begun praying through the meditations and art provided in Mark Haydu‘s beautiful work, Meditations on Vatican Art. Day 1’s meditation on St. Helena, dressed in fine robes, pondering a vision of the Cross, reminds me that holiness is possible in stability, I can trust God even though we do not suffer as we did when we were un- or under-employed. What are my treasures?

Thirty minutes into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the man says he lost everything. He has a son with him. It does not seem to me that he lost everything if his son is still with him.

Let me always remember where my treasure is. Let me find my security in God.

And all this from only the introduction.