Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

Photo by Olu Eletu

“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?

Three Ways to Meditate to Connect with God

I’ve included the following links to help you go deeper.

Here is a great explanation of Contemplation or Christian Meditation

This explains contemplating scripture in the Ignatian tradition.

Here is the transcript. Even though it is lightly edited, it will still read more like a discussion and less like formal writing.

I’m Jack Shitama. I’m going to share with you about meditation and how it can help us to connect with God. We know that even as little as 10 minutes a day of meditation can increase our ability to focus. It can reduce stress and anxiety. It can help us to better control our emotions and help us to think more creatively. In the Christian tradition, meditation, or what is often called contemplative prayer, is really a way that we deepen our connection to God.

Each of the three ways I’m going to share with you today has two common elements. One is deep breathing. Deep breathing is a practice that actually can be helpful throughout our daily lives. Any time that we might feel anxious or frustrated or angry, we can stop and breathe deeply for just a little while. It actually has a physical effect on us and helps us to release stress. So deep breathing is breathing deeply into the diaphragm, filling the belly and then exhaling fully. Meditation or contemplation includes deep breathing however you do it.

The other element is having an objective of reaching a deeper state of consciousness that goes outside of ourselves. It helps us, ultimately, to see things as they are, not through our own biases. It’s trying to see things as God sees them. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the meditation time. It may, but the more that we meditate in this way, the more that we are focused on God and able to see things outside our own biased viewpoint.

The first type of meditation is called centering prayer. It’s sometimes called breath prayer because as we’re breathing out we’re uttering a phrase. So you chose a short phrase that’s focused on God. It might be, “Lord, have mercy” or “Not my will, but yours.” As you’re breathing in, you’re breathing in God. As you’re exhaling out, you’re exhaling out yourself and you’re uttering the phrase. You do that over and over and again. You breathe in and then as you’re breathing out you utter your phrase. You can do that silently or you can do it audibly. Depending on where you are, you may feel comfortable with doing it audibly or you might just do it in your mind.

Either way, you are focused on God. And you’re saying that phrase in an intentional way that’s really connecting you more deeply to God. If your mind wanders it’s okay. That happens often in meditation. The idea is that when your mind wanders you bring it back to your phrase, to focusing on God. This is actually a form of meditation called mindfulness. It’s designed to help you focus more effectively.

The second form of contemplation or meditation is called contemplating scripture. When I did the last post about intercessory prayer and meditation, my wife said “What about scripture? Scripture is also a foundation of leadership.” This is where scripture is included in meditation.

One of the more well-known ways to do this is called Lectio Divina. It’s contemplating the word of God. The way you do it is to start by reading a passage of scripture. You sit silently breathing deeply and you contemplate that phrase, looking for a word or even a sentence that jumps out at you. You contemplate the passage and you’re looking for that word or phrase that jumps out at you. You don’t have to interpret it; it’s just what stands out.

After you do that, you read the passage again. This time as you’re listening to it you are asking, “What does this mean to me now? What am I hearing God say to me?” You can stop there or you can read it a third time and you can ask the question, “What will I do with this now? But in either case, however you do it, you’re focusing on the scripture and, as you’re breathing deeply, you’re asking God to enlighten you, to help interpret the scripture for you.

Another way of contemplating scripture is called Gospel contemplation. This is a little different in that you’re trying to really enter or engage the passage. I actually did this practice at a retreat that I was leading a few weeks ago. Another pastor led the exercise. We started with five minutes of silence, then we read the passage. We listened to the passage and then spent 20 minutes of silence entering into or engaging the passage. Depending on who you are, you may view the passage like a movie. We were doing a passage with Jesus and Peter in the boat with Peter’s fishing nets. I was picturing it like I was watching a movie. Or you might actually enter into the story and be in the boat with them. You might be in the passage with them. In either case, you’re engaging the scripture in a way that invites you to really experience it and then take away meaning from it.

Finally, the third form of meditation or contemplation is called practicing the presence of God. The idea is not to focus in on a particular thing but to really open up and just let the presence of God be with you. It’s really about surrender. It’s about surrendering yourself to God. Hopefully, you are creating a deeper awareness of the greatness of God and the presence of God in your life. Instead of avoiding thoughts, you’re allowing thoughts to come into your mind. When they do you offer them to God.

This is actually the form that I practice most often. When something comes into my mind that enlightens or illuminates me I say “Thank you, God.” When something comes into my mind and I realize maybe I messed up or something that I need to do but I’m not sure, I say “Help me, God.” And so in those ways, I’m offering those things back to God. It really helps me in discernment. It helps me to have my deepest and most creative thoughts in a way that helps me to attribute them to God and to help me follow God.

In all of these ways, even though people practice in a certain way, you need to find a way that will work for you best. I’ll confess to you that I actually do the third one, but I do it while I’m running. My eyes aren’t closed, but I’m breathing deeply. I am focused on my breath. It’s  the time that works best for me. We’re all busy. This happens to work best for me. My wife, Jodi, does it while she’s in her car. She has an hour commute each way to and from work. She doesn’t close her eyes but she does allow God to enter into her thoughts.

Whatever works for you is what’s going to make the difference. Because if it works for you, that means you’re going to be able to do it regularly. And when you do it regularly that’s when it’s going to be most effective.

This is a hint about the next post, which is going to be on synergy. Synergy is when you’re able to do two different things that have two different purposes and bring them together at the same time. For me, running has the purpose of helping me physically and emotionally. But, because I’m meditating it’s helping me spiritually, as well. Until next time, I hope you can take the time to meditate daily. I know you’ll find it makes a difference. Go with God and be with God.

The Spiritual Foundation for Leadership

I mentioned a blog post in the video about developing habits. Here’s the link.

So I’m doing more video, but I realize that some of you may prefer to read the post. So here is the transcript. Please keep in mind that it is verbatim, so it won’t read like a term paper. Thanks!

Hey, it’s Jack Shitama. Today I want to talk to you about the spiritual foundation for leadership. I’m going to read to you from Luke, Chapter 5 verses 15-16.

“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

So here is Jesus, his ministry is expanding, people are flocking to him to hear him preach and to be healed. And what does he do? He takes off to pray. So if Jesus decides that he’s not going to try to do it all, what makes us think that we should? What makes us think that we can do it all? If we’re honest with ourselves we can’t. When you get up in the morning and your feet hit the floor are you go, go, go, go, go because there is so much to do and you’re trying to get it all done? Well that’s a natural feeling that we just have to move faster to accomplish everything.

Martin Luther, the reformer, famously said “I’m so busy that I’m going to have to pray for three hours to get it all accomplished.” See prayer is counter-intuitive. Stopping and connecting with God doesn’t make sense to us because we have so much to do. So when we get up in the morning we’re just drawn to get going, when really we should be stopping to connect with God.

I want to talk to you about two specific kinds of prayer today that I believe are the foundation for spiritual leadership. The first is intercessory prayer. Now most of us pray and when we pray we often are asking for things for ourselves. And that’s okay, but intercessory prayer is lifting others up, is asking on behalf of others, it’s interceding for others.

Picture Jesus when he’s gone off to pray. Do you think he’s saying, “Lord please take these people away from me, I just can’t handle it.” Or is he saying, “Lord, I feel for these people who are hurting and broken?” You see that’s what intercessory prayer does. When we lift others up, it gives us the heart of God. It takes us outside of ourselves and makes us less absorbed. It makes us more grateful for the people in our lives and puts our own situations in perspective. Intercessory prayer gives us the heart of God.

Another form of prayer that I think is practiced less by Christians is meditation. And if intercessory prayer gives us the heart of God, meditation gives us the mind of God. There are many different ways to do meditation but essentially meditation is about listening to God. It’s about opening ourselves up and allowing the Holy Spirit to overtake us, to work in us and to guide us. So that we know, we can discern what we should be doing, what God what’s us to do.

Podcaster Tim Ferriss’ most recent book is Tools of Titans and over the last couple years he’s interviewed over 200 top performers from all over the world. And what he says is that almost without exception each of these top performers meditates daily. The Harvard Business Review has an article that helps us to understand actually what goes on within us and how meditation can actually help us. This article tells us that meditation reduces anxiety and increases our ability to handle stressful situations. It increases our ability to control our own emotions, so that when something frustrates us or angers us we are better able to cope and instead of responding with our own anxiety and anger we can respond with grace and with love. Meditation actually encourage what’s called divergent thinking, where we are considering multiple opportunities, multiple possibilities and it opens up the possibility for the, “Aha!” moment. And meditation increase our ability to focus, so that during the rest of the day when we’re actually trying to accomplish task we’re actually more effective, we’re more focused. And most importantly when we meditate daily, because we’re more able to focus, we’re better able to be present in our relationships.

You see, I believe that God created us in this way. God created us so that when we stop and take time to connect with God we get the heart and the mind of God. And if these top performers, many who are not Christians, have figured out this spiritual practice shouldn’t we who are Christian leaders be doing the same?

So if you are interested in figuring out how to incorporate these practices into your daily routine you’ll find a link in this blog post, about a blog that I did, on developing habits and incorporating them so that you can be more consistent.

And if you want to know more about actually how to do it, how to pray or how to meditate leave me a comment in this post and I’ll do something in a later blog post.

Thanks a lot. And go with God. And be with God.