Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

How to Take an Emotional Stand-Part 2

Photo by andresumida CCA 2.0


In Part 1
, I shared what I have learned about taking an emotional stand. I defined taking an emotional stand as being able to say what I feel and what I believe in a non-anxious way. That post was mostly about technique: using “I” statements, not blaming, giving others the freedom to disagree and keeping anxiety in check.

This post goes deeper.

According to family systems theory, if you find it difficult to take an emotional stand, it has its roots in your family of origin. Ask yourself, is there a relationship that makes you anxious? If so, it’s very likely that if you learn to take an emotional stand in that relationship, you will be able to do it in other situations.

Here’s my story.

I encountered family systems theory in seminary when I was 30. As I reflected on my family of origin, I realized that growing up I had difficulty taking an emotional stand with my mother. My mother is an amazing woman. She wasn’t mean or demanding. She was, and is, a strong, determined woman. If she asked or told me to do something, I would just go along, even if I disagreed or didn’t want to. Kids are supposed to listen to their parents. But not every kid just goes along without saying a word.

Recall that in the last post I shared that I had trouble expressing my feelings elsewhere, as well. I avoided conflict. I stuffed my feelings. I was unable to take an emotional stand. As I looked back on my childhood, I realized that this was not just related to my inability to take an emotional stand with my mother. It was because of it.

Here is what is important. It was MY problem. Not my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t take an emotional stand with her. The problem was in me.

That changed in 1991. I sensed my call to ministry in 1989 and by 1990 I had made the decision to enter the pastorate. I delayed telling my mother until it looked pretty certain that I would receive an appointment to pastor a small church while I went to seminary. I could no longer delay the inevitable.

I called my mother to tell her that I felt called to the pastoral ministry and that I would likely begin serving a church, as well as attending seminary, that year. She didn’t yell. She didn’t scream. But she WAS concerned. And I could tell that she didn’t want me to do it.

We had several conversations over the course of the following month. She asked me about my beliefs, whether it was the right financial decision and whether it was the right decision for our family. It felt like a full-court press.

If this was any other topic, I would have folded on the first conversation. Instead, I remained calm and was able to remain firm in my conviction. I believe this came from outside of me. It came from God because I was being called to ministry. It’s only because of this, that I was able to remain firm in my emotional stand.

At the end of that month of conversations, she wrote me a letter. She said that if I really believed this was the right decision, she and my dad would support me fully. She eventually made me a quilted wall hanging with the nativity. That meant the world to me.

You see, my mom is not a Christian. But she kept her word. She has been supportive in everything that I have done in ministry. She told me a few years ago that she feels closer to God because of me. I’m so grateful for my mother.

Over the years I have gotten better at taking emotional stands. I believe this is because I learned to take an emotional stand with my mom. It’s also taken a lot of work over the years understanding myself and my relationships better. But it started with the emotional stand I took in 1991.

Questions for Reflection:

In what relationship in your family of origin is it most difficult to take an emotional stand?

What would it take for you to rework it?

What’s stopping you?

How to Take an Emotional Stand

Photo: Jon Eben Field (CCA 2.0)

For the first three decades of my life, I had difficulty taking an emotional stand. I define that as being able to say what I feel, what I believe, in a non-anxious way. I would just stuff my feelings. I thought it was no big deal, but what happened was at some point I would blow my top. All the pent up feelings would come out in a fit of rage.

The anger wasn’t necessarily directed at the people who deserved it because it was an accumulation of things. My boss did something to make me angry and I stuffed it. A family member did something to make me angry and I stuffed it. A clerk in a convenience store gave me poor customer service and I stuffed it. Unfortunately, it was usually my wife or one of my children that triggered the blow-up. They weren’t the reason for all the anger. But I would unload on them. It’s always easier to unload on those closest to you, even in unhealthy ways.

Why does this matter?

I’ve found that in families, churches and organizations, people have a hard time taking emotional stands.

This is unhealthy. When people aren’t able to articulate how they feel and what they believe in a healthy way, it results in the kind of outbursts that I described. Or passive aggressive behavior. Or blaming and conflict. It makes it challenging to communicate in healthy ways.

In the church, it is almost impossible to lead change, unless you, as a leader, can take emotional stands in a healthy way.

Here are four suggestions to help you do it better.

Say what you believe, using “I” statements.

This is communication 101. By saying “This is what I believe. This is what I think we should do. This is how I feel about it,” you are taking responsibility for yourself. In family systems theory, we call this self-defining. If you can’t do this, you are sunk.

Don’t blame others for the situation or how you feel.

The opposite of taking responsibility for self is blaming others. This usually comes in the form of “You” statements. “You always get in the way. You don’t understand how I feel. You are SO inconsiderate.” In family systems we call this defining others. Somebody may have made a mistake, may have hurt you or may even be in the wrong (at least in your opinion), but blaming is counterproductive. It will only make the other defensive and will lead to a hardening of their position.

Give the other person the freedom to disagree.

The point of taking an emotional stand is NOT to convince the other person to agree with you. That can lead to conflict and defensiveness, just like blaming. Nobody likes to be told what to do. If you define yourself, but require the other to agree with you, explicitly or implicitly, then you are trying to define them, as well. By saying, “This is what I believe. You may feel differently, but that’s how I feel,” you give people the emotional space to deal with their own feelings. You’re not trying to define them, just yourself. This is healthy. People who are emotionally healthy will appreciate that. They may not agree, but they will have a conversation. People who are not as healthy will react in unhealthy ways called sabotage, but that’s for another post.

Keep your anxiety in check.

I don’t consider it an emotional stand if you are yelling and screaming. And it’s certainly not when you are blaming. When you can’t check your anxiety that’s how it usually comes out. Of course, you can also deal with your anxiety by not saying anything and stuffing it, but we’ve already shown why that’s not a good thing.

By defining yourself in non-anxious ways, you help keep the entire conversation in a better place. You may feel anxious inside, but if are aware of it, you can do something about it. I have found that role-playing the conversation in my mind or with others is helpful. This helps to anticipate the rough spots and to be able to act less anxious when taking an emotional stand. It doesn’t mean you won’t face anxiety from the other, but it does mean you will be better prepared to keep your own anxiety from causing a problem.

I believe it is the responsibility of a leader to be able to do this. Leadership is about influence and inspiration. This is how to lead in a healthy way that helps your family, church or organization grow or change. It starts with you.

Questions for Reflection:

How do you deal with your own anxiety?

What do you do when you need to take an emotional stand?

What can you do to get better?

Does Your Family Make You Anxious? (And Why It Matters for Leadership)

I was once at a meeting of mostly clergy colleagues. There were eight of us sitting around a table. It was August and the leader asked everyone to share about what they had done that summer. As we went around the table, the answers were pretty consistent.

“I just got back from a week of vacation with my family, Ugh!”

“I vacationed with my family and I survived.”

“Our family got together and it was pretty good for a few days, but then it got ugly.”

Actually, only about half of the responses were along these lines, but it was startling to me. I never realized vacationing with family was such a problem. Since we’ve been married, that’s pretty much all we do. We vacation every year in Cape Hatteras with my wife’s family and we get together at least every other year with my family, including my mom’s sisters and my cousins.

In fact, when one of my kids was young I was asked, “Dad, when I grow up and get married, will my (spouse) be a part of the family?”

“Of course,” I said.

“No. I mean, will they be able to come to Hatteras with us?”

For my children, being family meant vacationing together, in a good way. I’m not saying we’re perfect. Like any family, we have our issues. Vacationing together is not one of them. So, I was surprised by the responses at the meeting.

So here’s the question: Does your family make you anxious?

I’m not talking about just your immediate family. I’m also talking extended family. This is what family systems theory calls your family of origin. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

I would say that if there isn’t something about your family of origin that makes you anxious, then you are unconscious or in denial.

The primary factor in this kind of family induced anxiety is surrounding togetherness pressure. This is the pressure to conform to existing, mostly unspoken, family norms. These surrounding togetherness pressures show up in things as basic as how you celebrate holidays and birthdays and how you do vacations. They extend to how children are raised, how money is handled and how you deal with conflict (or not). Anytime you feel the pressure to conform in your family of origin, you are feeling a surrounding togetherness pressure.

Here’s the thing. The problem is with you.

If you are feeling anxious about pressure to conform, that’s not anybody else’s fault. That’s how your family rolls. If you don’t like it, then it’s up to you to do something about it. In family systems, we call this taking an emotional stand. There are two components to this.

First, own your own position without blaming others. Say, “This is how I feel. This is what I believe. This is what I would like to see.” If you are blaming others for the way you feel, that’s not taking an emotional stand, that’s being childish. The key here is to be able to state your position while giving others the freedom to have their own position, as well.

Second, stay connected emotionally in a non-anxious way. This is called being a non-anxious presence. Taking an emotional stand is meaningless, even harmful, if you withdraw from those in your family. It’s not really taking responsibility for your own condition, it’s running away. Conversely, staying connected while you spew your anxiety over everyone around you is not helpful either.

So how do you do this?

Do your own work. Reflect on your family of origin and start to unpack the unwritten rules that make you tick. Anytime you feel anxious, ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is especially true if you are anxious and you don’t handle it well. If you spew anxiety at others and blame them (reactivity), if you get passive aggressive or if you just stuff it and get resentful (adaptivity), then you are not taking an emotional stand.

It’s likely that if you are anxious, there is an unresolved issue with someone in your family of origin. There is someone with whom you have never been able to take an emotional stand. Or someone has hurt you and you haven’t been able to forgive them. Or a host of other possibilities. This is not easy work. It may even require a therapist.

Why does this matter for leadership?

Because any time you feel anxious in a given situation, whether in your family, church or organization, the anxiety is your issue, not anybody else’s. More importantly, the source of the anxiety is not the situation you are in, but your inability to deal with it. And that goes back to your own family of origin. If you want to be better able to handle your anxiety in ANY situation, you need to do your own work in your family of origin. Deal with the unresolved issues. This is especially important if you know your anxiety creates problems because you get reactive, passive aggressive or adaptive.

Effective leaders are able to take emotional stands in non-anxious ways. This does not mean that they don’t listen to others. It means they are able to say what they believe and own it, while giving others the freedom to do the same. Effective leaders deal with surrounding togetherness pressures in their family, church and organization in helpful, healthy ways.

You will get anxious. We all do. I get anxious all the time. But I work on how to deal with it. I’m conscious of it. I work to be a more healthy member of my own family of origin, as well as my church and the ministry I serve. Some days I’m better at it than others. But I try to be aware of my anxiety and deal with it appropriately. That’s all we can do.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you deal with it?

What would help you to take non-anxious, emotional stands with others?