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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Payne

Anxiety Hijack: When Worry Takes Over Your Life Part I

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

...worry often gives a small thing a big shadow... {Swedish Proverb}

Sometimes I don't know how to not worry. Hundreds of poetic quotes and all the scripture references about "fearing not" (I hear there are 365) are excellent, but many days the struggle persists. Whether it's world events, future question marks, or how I can possibly keep both myself and this toddler alive today, the worries threaten to take over more than I'd care to admit.

Diagnosable anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, affect as many as 40 million adults (If you are one of them, you are most certainly not alone!) Most of us are aware of how the experience of anxiety takes a mental and physical toll on our lives; it can be debilitating. Even though worry and anxiety are different things by definition, we're using them interchangeably here. Both unrelenting and chronic worry/anxiety can totally hijack our lives, negatively impacting physical health, straining relationships, and stealing joy. Understanding how it works and what role it plays is the first step to managing anxiety and taking your life back.

Why Do We Worry So Much?

Dr. Barry C. Barrmann at the Center for Anxiety and Chronic Worry suggests our worry often stems from a fear that we won’t be able to handle a bad event or situation that comes our way. An intelligent mind then thinks, naturally, if I can anticipate a possible bad outcome, then I can prepare effectively. So we start worrying about all kinds of things our brains tell us would be helpful to consider. But is it really?

Some things are actually worth worrying about. In fact, if you aim to be a productive member of society, we need a certain level of emotional response (stress) to function. If you’ve ever been in situation that triggered your fight or flight response, you have your limbic system to thank for that. This is the part of the brain involved in emotional response. We're created with this survival instinct, however, we’re not meant to live in our limbic system. Ruminating on the fear that somebody is going to suddenly bust in and burgle your home is, likely, unhelpful. However, securing your home after news of a nearby home invasion (and then going about your business) is a smart response to a real possible danger.

When things do go right, we may look back and think that, because we worried so much beforehand, we avoided a negative outcome. Is the reason why you pulled off an event so beautifully because you stressed over every single detail? Did worrying in the wee hours of the morning over that big work presentation contribute to its success? We'll challenge these questions more in Part II...

How to "Productively" Worry

The term "productive worry" is really counterintuitive, considering the definition of worry is "to allow one's mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles" (thanks google!) Worrying by definition is not productive. However, Dr. Barrmann offers guidance again with his explanation of how the energy spent worrying can be converted into productive action.

Ask yourself, is my focus on a present, realistic concern? The night before a big exam you’re reviewing the test material and experiencing the heart-sinking realization that you are not ready for this test. (Example based on many true personal events.) This begs the question, what can be done? What is within my control here? You can’t rewind time and implement more effective study habits. You also can’t run away and hide from the reality of the exam (well, this isn’t the best long-term solution anyway.) But you do have control over how you respond to this stress. You can choose to give up, pace around your room and cry, or come up with a game plan. This gives way to the final question, how can I problem solve? What are some practical steps to take? Figure you have two solid hours of reasonable time to dedicate to reviewing the material. Hunker down and focus, then close the books and give yourself the chance for a solid night's sleep.

I realize the bulk of the things you find yourself worrying about may not be as simple and straightforward as the example above. But the system applies to the big things, too. A scary medical diagnosis, relationship strife, trouble at work, grief over a loss, or raising tiny humans may be contributing to seemingly unbearable anxiety in your life right now. And while the major life stressors should be explored and processed through, be wary of wasting precious time and energy dwelling on your worries. Is worrying about _____ going to change the situation? Sometimes, the answer is yes, if the worry is converted into action and problem-solving. Most of the time for me, the answer is no. Before you get trapped in the worry vortex today, pause to ask yourself if the concern is relevant and realistic, examine what is within your control, and explore what practical action can be taken to prevent a complete anxiety hijack.

Emergency Signal for Change

I used to have breathing problems I called episodes that started somewhere around high school. It felt much like small-scale suffocation, a sudden desperate signal in my brain that I can’t breathe, and It would often lead to a concealed panic. A slew of doctor appointments resulted in dead ends until someone finally suggested anxiety/stress/worry as the culprit. As soon as this diagnosis seemed to settle in, the abdominal pain showed up. Again, special diet considerations, exercises, and homeopathic solutions were pondered before we reached... anxiety, again? A month before my wedding I made an emergency dentist appointment to investigate some mysterious jaw pain. The dentist revealed that I likely had been carrying stress and tension in my jaw. The solution, I was told, was to try not to clench my muscles and relax more. Anxiety strikes again.

--> Other indications that anxiety is taking precedence in your life include chronic fatigue, sleep difficulties, headaches, frequently thinking in worst-case-scenarios, irritability or trouble concentrating. Even if a handful of these describes you to a tee right now, it doesn't mean you're doomed. Quite the opposite- sometimes minor life changes can make a big difference. 

Clearly, our bodies cry out for help when our minds are in turmoil. Just like touching a hot stove signals our brains to get away and avoid injury, this is an emergency siren declaring that something needs to change. Proverbs 12:25 notes that “An anxious heart weighs a man down...” and boy, this could not be more true! At times it has been a daily battle as I tirelessly try to untangle a complex network of worry and concerns. Funny enough, I am not even qualified to bear this burden. I am His child, reminded that while the war rages on, He never tires of me running to Him, however battered my condition.

“The Lord protects the unwary; when I was brought low, He saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” -Psalm 116: 6-7, NIV

Taking Action Against Anxiety

Ask Him for help! No concern of mine is too small a care for Him. Journal your thoughts, find a friend who will lend a listening ear, keep record of times when God brought you through a storm (and by no power of your own worry!) Don’t let that anxiety hijack your life! Take some time to examine the nature of your worries and evaluate for yourself.

One strategy I've implemented in the past is to jot down a "worry list." While it may not be helpful for everyone, I find it helpful to see my big worries written out on a piece of paper. Not only do they seem far less intimidating scratched in a notebook, but it allows them space to be acknowledged and evaluated for a few minutes. Another exercise I've even tasked a few past clients with is to create a non-worry list. Write down everything you can think of that you're not worried about right now. Maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised by how extensive the non-worry list in comparison to what you're worried about today.

For a quick anxiety self-test, helpful resources, or to get connected with professional help, check out Mental Health America.

Stay tuned for Anxiety Hijack: When Worry Takes Over Your Life Part II when we identify some deeply-rooted beliefs and debunk myths about our anxiety!


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