How to cope with anxiety - even during a pandemic

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist and cognitive behavioural therapist with extensive experience helping people with anxiety.

I’m a passionate Christian and a clinical psychologist. For many years now, I have been speaking publicly about and treating in my private practise, a range of anxiety conditions – which frankly come out of my personal journey with the thing!

While anxiety is a common issue, it is has shifted up several gears with the COVID-19 pandemic. There is fear in the air, fear in the news, fear on our faces.

In these extraordinary and challenging circumstances, I still like to keep things simple. At least, I like to boil them down to their fundamental components. So, my working definition continues to be: Anxiety = Listening to Fear. Fear about the future and fear about myself.

We have choices in what we let our minds listen to and believe in. For those with anxiety conditions, we have tuned our minds into the “What if?” radio channel of fear. It is just our normal setting – to anticipate every possible catastrophe, to wonder about what people could be thinking of me, to ruminate over my words and decisions, to torment myself with recrimination and doubt.

The good news is: we don’t need to continue with these habits. They only achieve negative things – lowering self-confidence, increasing panic and dread, draining physical and emotional energy. Very often, they start to feed a depressive reaction, where I feel and believe I am powerless to do anything about it.

To help you combat those feelings – even during the coronavirus crisis – here are some of my principles for coping with anxiety:

1. Don’t feed fear. Check the news headlines once a day but don’t gorge on them! Coach yourself to not play in this zone of fear – you just don’t help yourself or your family.

2. Do what you can. Be clear about hand-washing, social distance and sneeze etiquette, and be satisfied with actively doing that.

3. Feed positivity and thankfulness. They are the antidote to fear). See the OPPORTUNITIES we have in these days at home and embrace them creatively.  Prioritise time in God’s Word to keep a Kingdom perspective.  Practise relaxation and Christian meditation.  Take time for deep stillness in His presence.  Take up possibilities to express care for friends and neighbours.

4. Develop routines and structures in your day and week, to balance work, chores, exercise, relaxation, worship and family fun.

5. Focus, focus, focus. As C.S.Lewis reminds us in The Screwtape Letters, we should focus on today and eternity, rather than fearful possibilities for tomorrow. Relax and enjoy this day.

Believing there is another way

Christians cam compound the misery of anxiety with thoughts that they are failures because “I should know God’s love and peace, and be a radiant representative of him, but I am anything but …”

As I have searched the scriptures over the years, I have discovered a wonderful thing – they talk about fear all the time (see Genesis 3:10, Isaiah 43: 1-5, or John 14:1). With more than 280 references to “Don’t be afraid” or “Fear not” (thank you, Dr Google), the Bible reiterates there is only one thing that we are to fear – and that is God himself.

It might help you to imagine a big, red stop sign between you and fear. Or you could try talking to yourself : “Don’t do that!” “Fear will take you 1000 places you don’t want to go.” “You have a choice.”

It helps to remember a few more things:

  • I have developed these habits over years, so it will take some time to replace them.
  • I need to gently coach myself, without the severe berating.
  • Anxiety is not God’s design for me.
  • These are habits I have developed, not some fundamental weakness in me.

We want to whet our vision for the opposite of anxiety. To help ourselves to see how attractive and healthy and good it is to have healthy self-confidence, gentle assertiveness and be able to enjoy being the person God has made you or I to be.

“I will take each step at a time.”

To pursue these positives helps us move away from the negative. And when I have turned 180 degrees away from fear, I suggest an alternate focus: “Trust. Enjoy. Relax.” This is not only distracting myself; it is preaching to myself that “when, not if, but when, God calls me to walk through some tough things, then I will take each step at a time.”

I don’t help myself at all by imagining and anticipating all the horrible things that could happen to me ahead of time. I need to reassure myself and strengthen myself. “I am a sensible person. I make sensible decisions.”

Be proactive and practical about taking small steps towards solving some of the concerns/problems you see in your world. You can do things to help yourself. It is a lie (from the Evil One) to believe that you are powerless, or helpless, or useless, or worthless.

Entering the Throneroom

What we need to keep doing is to preach truth to ourselves. Soak in the scriptures. Remind yourself that God is 100 per cent good, and 100 per cent wise.

The sanctuary available to followers of Jesus is, what I like to call, The Throneroom. This is the most emotionally safe place in the entire universe, where I am fully known, fully loved and fully purposed by the Eternal Father. Because of Jesus death on the cross, all my junk – all my shame, guilt, punishment, self-disappointment, all the lies I have believed about myself – are finished, gone, dealt with, removed, done.

I visualise the joy on the Father’s face as I approach …

I am now warmly welcomed into the Father’s Throneroom, into his very presence with joy and delight (Hebrews 4:16, 10:19-22).

The one thing that has deepened this reality for me over the years is to let my imagination explore. Visualising the joy on the Father’s face as I approach (like in the parable of the Prodigal Son). Seeing the warmth and love and liking in his eyes that he has for me. Soaking, resting, relaxing, enjoying this most delicious place.

There is no better basis for beginning a journey of self-acceptance and self-enjoyment than to begin to believe in the possibility of the Father’s delight in me.
If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact Emergency Services on 000.

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