Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life (Matthew 6:25).
The afternoon unfurled ahead of me as quiet and uncluttered as a deserted country lane. Settling into the sofa, I opened a novel to the first page, eager to immerse myself in rest and relaxation.
Two minutes later, however, I realized I’d read the same paragraph three times without absorbing a single word. Distracted, I picked up my smartphone, scrolled through Facebook, then turned back to the book in my lap, only to repeat the same cycle five minutes later.
My body hummed with restless energy, and my brain clanged like a pinball machine.
I was, in a word, anxious.
Increasing anxiety in the U.S.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million adults in the U.S. struggle with anxiety, and the problem seems only to be worsening. A 2018 poll by the American Psychiatric Association revealed that 39 percent of Americans were more anxious that year than they were the previous year.
Our increasing work demands, the divisive political climate, our ever-expanding to-do lists and crammed calendars, and the relentless noise of social media all take a toll—not only on our physical health but also on our mental and spiritual well-being. Even when we have the opportunity, many of us find ourselves unable to unwind.
That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to think intentionally about practices and habits that can help us keep anxiety at bay. Here are five simple tips for reducing anxiety when it shows up uninvited on your doorstep:
Elijah heard the voice of God not in the chaotic wind, fire and earthquake but in silence, stillness and solitude (1 Kings 19:11-13). Try integrating five or 10 minutes of quiet into each day. Resist the urge to scroll through social media or fill the emptiness with music, a podcast or television. Instead, simply be present to your surroundings. Notice the sights, sounds and scents in your midst. Pay attention to how your body feels.
Like any good habit, sitting in silence, stillness and solitude takes intentional practice, especially if you aren’t accustomed to it. Be gentle with yourself if you experience restlessness or wandering thoughts. Know that the more regularly you practice, the more easily you will be able to still yourself over time.
Despite its long, dark winters, Norway was named the happiest nation in the world in the United Nation’s 2017 World Happiness Report. Many Norwegians attribute their satisfaction, at least in part, to what they call friluftsliv, which literally translates as “free air life.” In other words, Norwegians make a point of spending time outside, no matter what the weather is.
Numerous scientific studies point to the physiological and psychological benefits of being in nature, including measurably reduced cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and a healthier immune system. But there are spiritual benefits to spending time in nature as well. Being outdoors reminds us that the God who cares for the wildflowers in the field and the sparrows nesting in the sycamore cares for each of us and our many concerns too.
By integrating some simple practices into our daily routines, we’ll be better able to experience the breadth and depth of God’s peace.
One of the more insidious aspects of anxiety is that it drives us inward, fixing our attention on our own seemingly unresolvable problems. The more we perseverate on our anxiety, the less we focus on God and others. As Benedictine nun Joan Chittister wrote in The Rule of Benedict (Crossroad, 2010), “Agitation drives out consciousness of God.”
Simply turning our energy and attention to someone else in need can help quell our anxiety by offering us a different perspective and allowing us to shift our attention away from ourselves. Our anxieties recede into the background as we extend compassion to a grieving friend or deliver soup to a struggling neighbor, focusing on their needs instead of our own.
Connect with community.
A growing body of research reveals that small talk with acquaintances and strangers can contribute to day-to-day contentment by increasing our empathy, helping us find common ground and creating a sense of belonging.
“In true community, we are windows constantly offering each other new views on the mystery of God’s presence in our lives,” theologian Henri Nouwen wrote in Making All Things New (Walker, 1986). Anxiety can blind us to God’s presence. Reaching out to connect with a loved one, a friend, a co-worker or even a stranger can offer us a window through which we glimpse both God and our own belovedness in him.
When our anxiety begins to get the better of us, we would be wise to pursue help from a professional mental health counselor. Seeking professional help is not an admission of spiritual immaturity, weakness or lack of faith—just the opposite, in fact. One way we can move closer to the health and wholeness God desires for us is by asking for help when we need it along the way.
The pace and demands of our society will undoubtedly continue to increase. But by integrating some simple practices into our daily routines, we’ll be better able to experience the breadth and depth of God’s peace, even amid the busyness of our days.