Tag Archives: anxiety

Is more anxiety in the air? Or do we measure it better?

Is this really the Age of Anxiety? Maybe it is. On the Trinity Broadcasting Network a few days ago, former pastor and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee opened his most recent episode by saying if former president Trump loses the 2024 election because of the many indictments grand juries have handed down concerning his behavior, “it is going to be the last American election that will be decided by ballots rather than bullets.” That makes me anxious!

Maybe the “spirit of the air” right now is named Anxiety and the media spreads it like a virus. It seems like therapists, teachers, parents and all sorts of authorities are moving with this zeitgeist. They may being seeing and naming anxiety where little is actually present. They might proactively drug anxious-looking behavior when it is not really necessary. They might be creating the atmosphere they fear by overdefending against it.

Even though there is plenty to be anxious about right now, maybe our better-therapized society is only slightly more anxious than usual. Maybe we are just more aware and more prepared to talk about how we feel.

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Are you monitoring your anxiety?

A junior college professor in Utah starts his class each day by having students open up a Canvas page where they give themselves an anonymous mental health rating. The poll is a 10-point scale—modeled loosely after health care’s 10-point pain scale—with a 10 being the best and one being “I’m just pressing buttons today.”

The professor has a conviction. He says, “At the end of the day, the student who is coming out of the pandemic and coming back to our institutions just wants to know they matter, just wants to know that somebody knows their name and just wants to know that somebody will genuinely ask them how they’re doing.” He sounds like a great professor to have.

It also sounds like he is training his students to monitor and rate their anxiety (and everything else) every day. His attempt to pay attention might backfire. Back in the 2010’s it became popular to attend to “key performance indicators.” The saying goes “What gets measured gets done.” Managers wanted regular measurement and reporting to keep workers focused. The use of the idea expanded. For instance, a client who is successful in business took tracking indicators to heart. He had charts to rate his anxiety from 1-10 every day. Once he had a solid month of no “over 3 days” and found it miraculous. I was ambivalent about his technique, but I rejoiced in his improvement. He needed to wean himself from the anxiety indicators and start measuring positive things until he could stop measuring so much altogether.

Do we all have a report due?

As school gets rolling it is good to know that someone is attending to the possible epidemic of anxiety infecting the student body. I’m not sure all those authority figures have good solutions to the problems, but at least people are being inspected. One survey in 2021 reported 72% of female students and 51% of male students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. 59%/48% reported feeling things were hopeless. Those are astounding percentages! I meet those people in my office and online. It does seem like the overwhelm is making it hard to settle down these days.

Haidt’s controversial book

But it is possible that some of these statistics are being created by survey makers who imply you might be out of the mainstream if you aren’t anxious or hopeless. One inspector, Vicki Phillips,  pushed back on Jonathan Haidt’s criticism of Gen Z stats. He called the generation “too soft” and “coddled.” As a result, he said they were unable to stand up to the challenges they face. On the contrary, Phillips says, “Gen Z is drinking lesslearning more, and embracing a spirit of global agency and impact that prior generations could not even imagine. Which raises the question: what were later Boomers and Gen-Xers of Haidt’s cohort doing when they were 15, 16 and 17?” I think it makes a lot of sense to assume, like she does, the younger generation reports a higher percentage of anxiety than previous generations because they recognize and admit they have mental health issues.

They tell you about their mental health issues on TikTok. I am not much of a TikTok user. I deleted it because it soaked up so much time and offered so much misinformation. But I took a cursory look to see what creators were saying about anxiety. They are admitting it. There is a lot of mental health tok to find! I especially appreciated the young man who made a small song about his anxiety and the what ifs.

It is always time for development

Jumping into the argument the media is having about mental health can be confusing. Experiencing what the social media producers share about their health can be discouraging. Therapists could be swayed by it all to assume that most people entering therapy fit the stereotypes being passed around about whole generations. We could unwittingly conform the clients to an untested fad, to the latest temporary solution, or to a medical solution that promises more than it delivers (as this TikTokker reported).

Therapy clients are likely to resemble the general ways of humanity and the trends of the zeitgeist, of course. There may even be “best practices” that apply to them. But rather than assisting them to acclimate to the present atmosphere, or just teaching them to cope better, we all could help one another to be conformed less and enabled to form more. How my therapist sees me can shape me. A teacher’s survey also instructs as it collects info. A parent’s lens can tell a child how to view themselves. Love discerns the best in someone and nurtures it.

Each of us is on a unique journey. It is not singular, since we are in relationships with other people and with God, and those relationships and systems shape us. But in the therapy dyad, especially, we are given a unique chance to explore our own story, experience deeper attention, and make actionable decisions and goals. Teachers, relatives and spouses can all give similar attention.

It may be an age of anxiety, but each of us comes of age into whatever developmental stage we are entering in our own time and way. No matter what is happening, it is hard to keep us from growing. It is a privilege to witness, affirm and encourage healthy development. And if things aren’t moving along as desired, it is an even deeper privilege to come alongside with hope. If what gets measured gets done, let’s measure our love.

What to do about worrying “what if”

What if I catch Covid-19 and don’t pass the test I need to pass in order to get on my return flight home? That’s an example of a “what if?” question. It is bouncing around in the back of my mind and surfaces periodically. You might have a whole set of what ifs bouncing around, some familiar and some old stand-bys. A few of you might feel disabled by them.

If you follow what if thoughts down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole, it can be trouble. It might  difficult to focus on daily life and tasks. The thoughts might even keep you up at night.

For example:

  • What if I can’t pay the mortgage this month? (money-related)
  • What if I lose my job because I have needed so much time off? (work-related)
  • What-if my dad gets COVID? (health-related)
  • What if I never get this weight off? (image related)
  • What-if my partner cheats on me? (relationship related)

These thoughts can lead to anxiety. But the pattern can lead to what ifs about the pattern!

  • What-if I have a panic attack when I’m driving?
  • What if I shut down and can’t finish my presentation and they fire me?
  • What if I can’t stand leaving the house and my coach finds out?

When are these thoughts problematic?

What-if thoughts are not all bad. They serve a vital purpose.  We have to ask questions about what is coming our direction to decide what to do! Our minds are geared to protect us from danger. That includes considering, “What if something jumps out of the woods while I am driving through this forest?” The other day on our trip, I was fortunately ready to slow down when a mother and father wild boar and at least twelve piglets were huddled by the road, ready to cross in front of us. Things happen!

But intrusive thoughts may start to take up too much space in your mind and overstay their utility. Chronic what if thoughts are a habit we may have learned from a traumatic experience but go over and over again in every possible what if scenario in case it happens again. Or we may have formed our what if habit from some other  thoughts we keep repeating.

What if scenarios can spiral out of control and cause anxiety, worry or stress if they get rolling. If worry-filled thoughts distract you constantly or interfere with productivity and relationships, these ruminations could be a symptom of a disorder with which your therapist can help.

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can involve intrusive thoughts like the what ifs but also include:

  • not being able to stop worrying or being nervous
  • knowing you worry too much
  • having a hard time relaxing or concentrating
  • trouble falling asleep
  • constantly feeling on edge

Anxiety can also take a toll on your body, and you may notice physical symptoms like:

  • having a hard time staying asleep
  • being tired all the time
  • unexplained pain
  • headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches
  • sweating a lot for no reason
  • breathlessness
  • needing to go the bathroom often

You probably noticed that a few of these symptoms are also Covid-19 symptoms. Which leads me back to “What if I don’t pass that test and can’t get on the plane?

What can we do about the “what ifs?”

Remember, you’re not alone

Many of my clients are consumed by what ifs. It is such a common issue someone wrote a children’s book about it.

What if thinking is so common, Jesus taught about it.

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! – Luke 12:22-24

No matter how you choose to deal with your what if worries, you are one of many people in the world feeling the same way right now. At one time, as many as 6 million people in the United States reported having intrusive thoughts.

Note your what ifs, don’t assess them

Reserve your self-criticisms about your thoughts and just note them. If a what if crosses your mind. You could write it down in a notebook your are carrying and get it a step away from what you’d rather turn into. This is a researched way to help lower anxiety.

Call the what ifs what they are

It may be tempting to accept what if thoughts as inevitable truths, something you must suffer or are obligated to consider. They aren’t. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go. What you do with the thoughts gives them power. We can manage ruminations if we name them as they come and allow them to pass.

Check your triggers

Once you can call out a what if thought, it can help to take a moment to see if you can pinpoint the source of the unwanted thought.

You might ask yourself:

  • Is something going on right now that often causes me to collect what ifs?
  • Do I feel an old, anxious thought about what’s going on right now?
  • Do I feel unsafe right now in a way I have felt unsafe before?

If we keep mentalizing, we get better at expecting certain situations to get the what ifs going. Like meeting with the boss (“What if I get all nervous?”) or going to a doctor’s appointment (“What if I have cancer?). If you know ahead of time your anxiety could be triggered by a particular situation, you could reach into your anxiety “go bag” and use some of the anxiety reduction strategies that work for you.

Use the three questions

1 — Ask yourself, “What is the worst-case scenario?”

Often, our feelings help us recognize we are caught in the spiral of what-if thinking. We may feel angry, sad, anxious, worried or stressed. Work on tuning into those feelings and you may be able to see the what if thoughts behind them and turn away from them. When you recognize that you are going over and over the what-ifs, stop and ask yourself (out loud often helps): What is the worst-case scenario here?

By doing this you are stopping the re-run of the what-ifs. Usually, it is the re-run after re-run of the thought that causes the anxiety. It is like poking a bruise. If you keep poking it and poking it, it gets worse and never heals.  So, by facing the worst-case scenario you are, in effect, no longer beating yourself up.

Often we find the worst-case scenario is not as bad as what we were thinking. But even if it is worse, at least now you have stopped beating yourself up by going over and over a bad scenario in your mind.

2 — Ask yourself, “Could I handle this?”

The answer is always Yes!  No matter what life throws at you, you can handle it. It may not be pleasant, and in some cases, it may bring hardship, but whatever it is you have the ability to handle it. And if you are walking with Jesus, Jesus is walking with you. Peter taught us, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

What do you think of this example? A woman who had two children was pregnant with a third. She had very bad anxiety over an issue at work. She was re-running scenarios over and over in her mind to the point where she had convinced herself that she was not liked or wanted by her team. To demonstrate how to ask this question her therapist came up with the worst-case scenario: the team forced her out and that she would lose her job.

Then he asked, “Could you handle this?”  Her immediate reply was “No!  How would I be able to afford to live and with another baby on the way!” He pointed out, because she had two dependents and another on the way was exactly the reason why she could handle it.  It would be hard, but she would find a way because she would have to feed her children.

Whatever it is you are facing you can handle it. It may be overwhelming if you decide to face it alone or you are trapped in an unbearable situation, but you probably have more resources than you think you do.

3 — Ask yourself, “What is the best-case scenario?”

This is something we rarely do. Unless we are daydreaming about winning the lottery, or are in the throes of first love, we rarely go into what if scenarios in the positive sense. But just like we have formed the habit of creating what if situations in the negative sense, we can get into the habit of creating what if situations which are positive.

When you take the scenario, you have been playing over and over in the negative, take the same scenario and see the best possible outcome. Then notice how you feel doing this.

The aim is to feel good.  Initially, since we are not in the habit of thinking positively, it might take some practice. I have client who feels guilty for being dishonestly positive when they try this! But the effort is worth it. We need to remember how much control we have over our thoughts. We can’t control what others will say or do, or what circumstances come our way, but we can choose how we react to them. Our thoughts do not need to control us. We can get into the habit of turning into our best-case scenarios and moving with the Spirit into blessing.

I matter: The terrible, wonderful I AM

do i matterI have talked to clients, both in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, who look me in the eye and say, “I am sorry for wasting your time.” That’s always interesting to talk through, but still tragic whenever I hear it. It’s like they spent enough time in a safe place to realize they don’t think they matter – mainly because they have a hard time accepting they matter to me. They don’t have enough evidence our time together matters even though I think it does. They don’t think they are changing enough to deserve therapy or coming up to a standard that deserves direction. What is their “I am” statement? – “I am a waste of time.”

We all have a lot of messages roaming around in our inner dialogues, don’t we? A lot of them tear us down, even convince us we do not matter: “I am weak. I am the worst. I am found wanting for what I lack.”

Those messages need to be countered:

  1. You don’t matter because you are more powerful.
  2. You don’t matter because you are better.
  3. You don’t matter because you can demonstrate how effective or successful you are.

You are a unique “I am” connected to the terrible, wonderful I AM.

It is hard to hear the voice of God for most of us, but in many ways Jesus is delivering a new message about who we are — and how who we are right now matters. That message is terrible because it makes us so much more than we can imagine and so responsible for our frailty and glory. It is wonderful because it makes us safe in our true home.

You matter because God made you and called the creation good. You matter because you have always been loved by God and by many others, too. There are other things I could note, but I want to concentrate on one verse in the Bible, especially, that has helped me remember I matter.

You matter because you ARE.

The “I am” of Jesus is a revelation to us, but it is also an example.

When Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8, he gives us an example of mattering, among many other things that famous statement reveals. He is having a public debate about who he is and where he comes from. The ancestors-honoring Jews of the time are understandably irritated that he says they are not truly descended from Abraham, as they say, but are descended from the devil. Jesus insists Abraham looked forward to the day the Savior would appear, but they reject him appearing before their eyes speaking the truth and backing it up with signs. The Lord’s detractors are incredulous when Jesus implies he has known Abraham. Then he says it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” He’s saying, “I existed in God’s dimension, about which you know little, so I am revealing it to you.” Most people assumed he was putting himself in the burning bush, where God told Moses, “My name is I am. Tell them ‘Who I will be sent me’ when you get to Egypt.”  That made them want to stone Jesus for making himself one with God.

I think what Jesus said makes a big difference to our theology. But His action in the face of what pushed him to hide himself is deeper than the words. Jesus asserts he matters.

Likewise, there is a movement in me to declare “I am,” to attach to eternity backwards and forwards. In that one moment Jesus is before Abraham, honors Abraham and is greater than Abraham. In every moment Jesus is purposely subordinate to God as he identifies with us and eternally one with God as the risen Savior. Jesus takes his rightful place in the Abraham story and encourages me to take my rightful place in the story of how grace is being revealed now.

I matter because I am. All through the Bible you can see God calling us to rise up and be our true selves — God the ever-humble Lord, who keeps insisting he makes a difference while people debate whether she even exists! Likewise, we face pressures that push us toward meaninglessness. We can be convinced we don’t matter, that we shouldn’t even exist, that we shouldn’t be wasting the time of people who love us, or use the body we have. Among the many things Jesus is teaching us with this one wonderful chapter in John is to keep insisting to ourselves and everyone else, “I am.”

Feeling the truth about me

We have to acknowledge that some people have been deluded and believe they are Jesus. We can assert a fantasy “I am” as well as a reality; we’re humans and creative in good and perverse ways.

But even with the danger of feeling inauthentic in some way, I think Jesus is calling us to assert, like he does, “I don’t need to show that I am more powerful so you will worship me, although I could. I don’t need to prove myself a better moral person or better arguer than you, although I am that. I don’t need to demonstrate how effective I am or successful I am in all the ways you judge important in order to have value. I matter because I am. My connection to my Father makes me someone and we can move on from there, but I don’t need to go farther, just because you love lies.”

How do we get to the place where thinking things like that, and even saying them, doesn’t seem strange to us? The people Jesus argued with in John 8 were angry and defensive. The story is so brief, we don’t come to understand all the reasons they ended up that way. But you are angry and defensive, and I often am, too. It is no surprise that our hearts get hard to the love and truth Jesus keeps bringing every day.

I think feeling comfortable as our true selves is mostly bolstered in silence, where we meet with God spirit to Spirit. Study, worship, relating to loved ones in the Body of Christ are also crucial. But at some point we need our naked “I am” to meet God’s “I am.” And then WE are.

We get invitations, every day, to reimagine ourselves as part of the story Jesus is telling. Here are three moments that recently helped me take hold of the life that has taken hold of me and be who “I am.”

1) The moment I let “I am” be central. I keep telling the story of singing “I am” as a breath prayer during the meeting in March we named “Move through the Pain.” That “breath song” was one of my favorite moments. We invited everyone to slowly sing “I am” and sink into the moment with God. Then a couple of people started speaking into our silence: “You are the beloved of God” (We sang, “I am”). “You are loved by God as you are right now” (We sang, “I am”). “You are being welcomed into eternity, right now” (We sang, “I am”). They piled up elements of our true selves and could have gone on all night. It went on long enough that my heart remembers to sing it.

2) The moment I did not let criticism define me. This past week I got a couple critiques of some teaching I did. The responses were not uniformly positive and I felt defensive. I think I was already worn down from the lockdown, so I felt myself getting a little depressed. Criticism can be deadly, if it is wielded to injure. But most of the time it is instructive. I need to change and grow from it. But what I did not need to do is let the criticism taint the sense that I matter. I was tempted not to teach at all and deprive people who want to receive my gift. I was tempted to list all the ways I blew it and color myself as a flawed, bad person. Being who I am often means changing my mind about me and usually means rejecting lies that condemn me.

Float Therapy for Anxiety, Stress and Sleep - Milwaukee Therapist ...

3) The moment I let the anxiety float away and rested in grace. Gwen and I have been living in one room for a month as our new home is rehabbed (after over 8 months of trouble with that project!). The trouble feels like a dark cloud is following me, ready to cover the sun and chill my heart. So every day I tend to wake up to the anxiety that has arisen from my unconscious during the night. When I go to prayer, I take time to let it go, consciously, and experience my heart. It is not always easy to get there, but it is always wonderful. When I say experience my heart, I’m not sure all that means, but it feels like light shining through water, like a story that brings tears to my eyes, like the truth of what I mean to God invading resistant territory, like gentle pressure to surrender to goodness. Silence broken by prayers softens me to Jesus and others – even the ones who abuse me. I think we need to spend enough time to let the realization of who we are rise naturally. Often we gulp God’s love like we’re parched. But prayer is more savoring grace like a connoisseur, knowing we’ll have another meal.

I hope the time this took you to read it allowed you some rest in a safe place to ponder how you see yourself and how you see God. The story of God’s love in Jesus, fighting to be himself to us in John 8, should convince us we matter. Maybe more important, I hope this brief time gave you another moment to say “I am” to the terrible, wonderful “I AM” and feel love and truth making you you.

Anxious children: Help for the long days of the stay-at-home

4 ways to help your anxious kid
Nan Lee in the NY Times

Now the quarantine seems like it has gone on too long, and April 30 may not be the end of it! People with jobs are longing for them. People without jobs might be getting more anxious all the time. And the children don’t know what to make of it all. People even report disoriented pets who have trouble finding their own space with everyone home all the time!

Hopefully last night’s soothing music and meditation helped.

The breath prayer in today’s Daily Prayer has many applications: (inhale) Cause me to see (exhale) beyond the cross. We are definitely getting better acquainted, every day, with the “cross” and more of us are literally facing death in our relationship circles. Resurrection may seem like a long way away and it might seem silly to mention it. But hanging on to the life we were given and the life we’ll be getting is the core of health.

People are saying lots of good things that Jesus followers can use to help their families cope. Here’s a bit of advice adapted from the New York Times.

Build on the foundations you have

What the parents bring to this situation is what the children will get. Doing fun things and having a creative, consistent schedule is important. But the most important thing is you, the parent, and you all, the marriage, and everyone, the relationships beaming in on the screen and nurtured in the imaginations.

“The most important thing is for children to have caring adults that they’re engaged with.,” — Sherrie Westin (president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street)

Long-term studies on children in England found that kids who were separated from their parents during World War II (to keep them safe from bombings in London) were more likely to have insecure attachment styles and lower levels of psychological well-being decades later, compared with those who stayed with their parents, even while being bombed.

Children who are prone to anxiety may find this period especially challenging. But all the experts emphasize that stable routine and simple affection make a lot of difference. Even in the healthiest families, “You’re probably going to see increased tantrumschallenges with sleep or behavioral issues as folks acclimate to a new normal for a while,” said Dr. Rahil Briggs (Psy.D., national director of Zero to Three’s HealthySteps program). But, we need to “trust in the foundation we’ve built with our children,” she said. “It will help us to ride this out.”

Dandelion and orchid

You are probably familiar with the “dandelion and orchid” metaphor to describe children. It was developed by Dr. Thomas Boyce, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher. labels are always dangerous, but they can help us consider how to love our child as they are and not according to who they should be. The theory says the vast majority of children are “dandelions” — meaning they are pretty resilient and able to deal with stress as it comes. So worrying about them too much might actually diminish their resilience and make them overly dependent on you. The balance takes discernment, so we might need to help each other see how we parent.

Dr. Boyce estimates about 20 percent of children are “orchids.” As he described them on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2019, “the orchid child is the child who shows great sensitivity and susceptibility to both bad and good environments.” They may be more sensitive because of a combination of biological and environmental reasons. No one really knows why we turn out how we do, everyone needs the Savior.

If you are caring for an orchid (and some of them are fully grown and you married them!) he or she may be struggling more than usual right now, with all of the changes this pandemic has wrought on their daily life. Plus they are watching inspiring dandelion stories on TV all the time. Dr. Boyce’s research shows that orchids thrive on regular routines — routines that have had to be rejiggered considerably in the past month or two.

Help for the orchids that helps dandelions, too

Experts have some common sense ideas to help your anxious children right now. Though these methods are geared toward orchids, they can work on your upset dandelions as well (and maybe your mate!).

 Label what’s happening. Just acknowledging the recent changes to your children’s lives can feel validating. With young kids, you can keep an ongoing list of things that have changed and things that have stayed the same. Brainstorm this list verbally with your kids — for example, “You used to go to a school building, that has changed, but you still have Mommy tucking you in every night, that’s the same.” By doing so, it will make them feel less alone in their feelings, because they’ll know they’re not the only one noticing that things aren’t the way they used to be.

When we were zooming with the grandchildren the other day. I wondered how Paul was doing with all these changes. Not only did his day-to-day get disrupted, he actually moved to a new apartment in the middle of it all! That is a lot for a six-year-old to feel. I thought he seemed a little tired and it took a while for his ebullient self to emerge. Seeing his grandparents (with whom he had been living) and being with his cousins was good tonic. Dad needs to help him label it all.

 Resolve your own anxiety. This is ongoing, good advice. It needs to be said again because  parents’ anxiety can make kids feel unsettled.

“Our kids are brilliant emotional detectives of their parents.” — Abi Gewirtz (Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the forthcoming book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids)

If you are showing your anxiety it leaches into your relationships. The Times put together 10 tips for easing your anxiety, but our church has tons more in Daily Prayer: WIND and WATER every day and all through the Way of Jesus. Plus you can call up you cell leader or pastor and avail yourself of Circle Counseling. We don’t need to go it alone.

Teach children to meditate. Basic mindfulness techniques can be learned at a young age. Progressive muscle relaxation — where you tense and then release individual groups of muscles — can be helpful for anxious kids. The University of Washington has a progressive muscle-relaxing script just for little ones that you can read to your children. Here is a YouTube video that does the same.

Some people have been actively including their children in the Holy Week offerings, including the breath prayers. If they don’t get the prayers intellectually, they can probably get the breathing physically. Learning how to consciously breathe deep is helpful in itself. Having Jesus with you as you do is much better. Try teaching them, “I am loved…by God and my family.”

Create a schedule with pictures. Predictability is very important for anxious children. One way to soothe kids who don’t read yet is to make a schedule that has images depicting the routine of the day. Really detailed schedules are not necessary or even helpful. We’re all overwhelmed right now, so don’t worry about making some elaborate plan that would be impossible to execute.

The schedule can be as simple as, here are four things we do every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, cuddles. You can add in special events like walking the dog, watching another episode, playing a game, Zooming with Papa (A must! He’s feeling stuff too!). We want to have a simple life. Here is our chance, for a bit. It is OK to slow it down.

We’ve been doing a good job at sharing our good ideas (leave some comments here of on the Parents List). But now the quarantine is losing its novelty and our first bursts of enthusiasm are growing thin. Now is when we develop that great patience God has with us all as we make our way through our natural lives.  Faith, hope and love make it through the fire and into the age to come. Providing an environment for those core characteristics to develop, in the middle of a pandemic, when anxiety is rising, is something we can all do as we keep turning toward Jesus and His people.

Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus


Why does it seem like so many people are anxious? Some researchers say an increase in reporting issues with anxiety is due to greater access to treatment. So an actual increase in anxiety may not be proven yet. But there certainly  has been a lot of talk about anxiety in the past few years. And one researcher, among many, says there are common reasons people report more anxiety now than in the past.

The United States is breeding anxious people:

  • Society has shifted. Kids are set for “extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status and away from intrinsic goals, such as community, meaning in life, and affiliation. Motivations are drifting away from the community and onto the individual.”
  • More people are living alone. Some people like to live alone. But many more are forced to live alone — and loneliness increases anxiety. In 1960 under 7 percent of U.S. adults lived alone; by 2017, that figure had soared to well over 33%.
  • We live in a chemical bath. Nobody knows just what is going to happen to us as a result of constant exposure to chemicals. Studies suggest that the cocktail of plastics and other pollutants children drink daily may contribute to their future anxiety.
  • The introduction of social media platforms changed things. The onslaught of social media has changed relationship structures. Studies show, all over the world, that the more one uses it, the more likely they are to be depressed and anxious.
  • Life, in general, seems more stressful. Are jobs more stressful? Is commuting to blame? When we tell kids that they can “achieve anything if they try hard enough,” are we setting them up to fail? Is our self image being driven into the floor by the constant bombardment on our senses of perfectly filtered, digitally altered models? Has capitalism shifted our attention to vastly unobtainable personal desires, leaving us with a gaping chasm we know we can never fill? Climate change, nuclear apocalypse, Ebola, flesh-eating viruses, antibiotic resistance, ever-growing economic inequality, dictators, fake news…the list is endless.

Then we start talking about all these things on all our media, and the reverberations amplify our anxiety!

Last Saturday at the thirtysomething retreat, we boldly talked about the anxiety-decade.  If you are thirtysomething, a naturally challenging time of life is happening when the world itself provokes anxiety

So I offered a prayer that might help us find some peace. This outline is commonly used and I adapted it for our purposes.

O.P.E.N. to your Newness — the true you in Jesus

The next time you find yourself over-thinking past situations or feeling overwhelmed by life’s stresses, try this prayer that leads you to cooperate with God’s compassion and restore your attention to the present moment.


Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Notice how your body feels—tension in the stomach or heaviness in the shoulders, for example. Then notice the thoughts you’re thinking in the moment or are dwelling on from the past, and name them, such as, worrying, fearing, replaying, or planning.

When we notice where our bodies are carrying stress, we can focus our attention and relax our body parts. When we observe our thoughts, we’re able to choose which to believe and which to let pass, which are condemnation and which are freedom, which come from anxiety and which come from love. What are knee jerk reactions of your old self, what are death-defying traits of the new you in Christ?

We’re going to try it in a minute, so this is just an overview to get ready.


Now that you have identified the stress or seen the battlefield from a helpful perspective, let’s find peace. When you are ready, invite peace to your body and mind by saying things like, I am deeply hurt and it is okay to feel the way I do. (Receive comforting words to ease your distress about a specific situation or feeling).

Some other sentences that may deepen you peace: Even if other people judge me, I don’t have to judge myself. What other people say and do is about them, not me. I am angry but angry is not me. Jesus, guard my heart.

Cooperate with the peace of God.


Take a deep breath and take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness. If you are using the Bible as part of this process (as I suggest below), enjoy the words or enjoy the pictures the words bring to mind.


Say to yourself: The moment has passed and now I am at peace. I am new in Christ. The God of peace is with me.

Let the goodness rise in you. More times than not, returning to the present moment — in which you can attend to yourself and to God, is an anchor, a solace in the midst of chaos. You can always come back to the place where you meet Jesus in the here and now.

At the retreat, we used a familiar portion of Philippians 4 which is a comfort of millions of people around the world. It could be read in an anxiety-provoking way: If I am worrying, I should not be. My heart is unguarded, so something terrible is going to happen to me. I can’t think straight, my mind races too much to dwell on something good. I am so inconsistent, God must not be with me. I can’t do it right, so I should give up.

Much of the Christianity in the U.S. runs according to the anxiety-provoking ways of the U.S. But I don’t think Paul, much less God, calls us to anything but the basic peace of Christ, moment by moment, forever. We kept affirming this : God is for me, in this moment and the nextMemorize that line so it is ready to recall when you need it — like when the police stop you, when the baby is crying inexplicably, when your husband is late, when the doctor’s diagnosis is iffy, when there is a midterm election, when you don’t know why you feel so fearful.


Why don’t you try this O.P.E.N. prayer right now? It is a prayer of opening our clenched fists and our knotted hearts to the healing, hopeful love of God. You wouldn’t have to use the Bible to do it . But Philippians 4 enriches the process. 

Observe – Note your body and thoughts. Let the tight parts of your body relax. Choose the thoughts you need to hold on to and let the others go.

The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Peace – Invite peace into your body and mind by saying the honest truth about you and God

 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Enjoy – Breathe. Take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body. Dwell in goodness.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Newness – Let the goodness rise in you. Be anchored.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:5-9

It would be great to hear about how you experienced this prayer!

What to see it as a video? Here it is:

Basics ways to work with all that anxiety

I was at a conference two weeks ago and one of the common maladies being considered was the “panic attack.” They are more common than ever, it seems. You may have experienced your heart racing and your mind filling with doomsday visions as you worry about everything around you, including whether you’ll have more panic attacks or not be able to stop them.

About 40 million people eighteen or older in the United States, that’s 18% of the population, will suffer from an anxiety disorder this year. David Rosmarin, the director of the Center for Anxiety at Harvard says, “We’ve seen a massive increase in services in New York City in the last six months. From North Korea to hurricanes, we live with a greater degree of uncertainty. What it boils down to is: How much can people tolerate it when they don’t know what’s going to happen next?”

To make matters more anxiety-provoking, there’s an overwhelming number of methods to which you might turn to help you manage life in these uncertain times. (Coping might not be  a DIY situation for you, so you might need to contact Circle Counseling).

Check your thinking: just because you are anxious does not mean you’re disordered

There’s an important distinction between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress — it’s not necessarily pathological or dangerous. There’s the point where it becomes a “condition.” It depends on the level of persistence, the severity, sense of distress, and if it’s impacting day-to-day function.

So, for example, if you feel anxiety while watching the news, you probably don’t need to do anything about that (except maybe turn off the TV, go for a walk or take some deep breaths). But if your anxiety is interfering with your concentration, ability to focus or sleep (or, as the DSM-5 says, if you have worry for more days than not for at least six months) — those things point toward disorder and you should find a counselor. But for anyone who has some nervousness, anxiety or stress, there are many coping strategies you can try on your own.

Even at extreme levels, anxiety is uncomfortable but generally does not result in death. (Even if it doesn’t feel like that at the time.)

Get out of control

Anxiety is an excessive focus on something that might happen in the future. It is always related to a perceived lack of control.

Jesus followers started following Jesus because they saw the truth that they were not supposed to be in control and could not manage the authority of being so, so they returned to a proper relationship of trust in God.

When things feel “out of control” we can do very practical things to put ourselves back in an appropriate track. Rather than focusing on what we can’t control, we can focus on what we are given to manage. Think about how you can contribute, do things, make progress. Just walk outside — even that does wonders. Talk therapy is rarely a bad thing.

You might think about “editing” your life to help bring back a sense of empowerment. This means giving up things that contribute to anxiety.

Medication can have its place

Many doctors urge caution, however, with regard to prescriptions, as well as indulging too heavily in “self-medicating” with beers or rosé with friends. Keep in mind, however, that there’s an increased association between anxiety and alcohol and other substance abuse. And drinking too much can ultimately make you feel even more anxious. So turn to rosé cautiously.

Meds do have a role for some people either short or long term as they are generally safe under the care of a doctor. A person should use them only so far as they help deal with the problem, Ultimately, people have to face their fear. To get a person to that place, that’s the art of therapy.


Even people who don’t care about God think praying is great. It doesn’t have to be scary. Begin  with a very simple daily practice in the beginning of the day. Keep it to five minutes, or do five breath cycles if five minutes causes anxiety. For example, breathe out anxiety, breathe in goodness, strength, or whatever you’re trying to cultivate, all in the safe presence of the Holy Spirit.

If you sit down and enter a space you’ve decided is safe and healthy and healing, it sends a message to the rest of your system that you are not just at the whim of all the other things that are going on.

This is also where you might work in gratitude, or the practice of being grateful for what you have. I have a friend who keeps a list of things on her iPhone that make her feel good (reading a few of them made me feel good, too!). Others write in journals or think of a positive thing — or several — before going to sleep at night.

Go into more natural settings and attend to the trees, the weather or the ocean. It will refocus your attention away from the worries and toward God. Going to the cell and the Sunday meeting, getting out to help somebody else or protest, provides ways to be among good human nature.

Control the phone

Lots of people sleep with their phone, or right next to it. It’s generally the first thing they look at in the morning, and the last thing they look at before they go to bed. That’s asking for anxiety. Try turning off your ringer and all alerts so you don’t immediately respond to texts or calls. The Moment app might help you, since it tracks how much time you are looking at apps on your phone. Get off the devices and try to spend time with people you care about and restrict how much you interact with anxiety-provoking topics.

Get sweaty

The exercise, dance, sports are not guilty pleasures or luxuries, they are ways to take care of oneself so you can engage more meaningfully. Even if you don’t feel that great when you are there, plod to the gym. The endorphins are nice, and the process gives you a sense of mastery over your situation and your body. That reduces anxiety.

Say no

Packing our schedules with activities and obligations takes a toll, no matter how much we want to do them. Maybe you need to get over your “FOMO issues” — Fear of Missing Out. Anxiety creeps up when we let demands — even fun distractions — from the outside have their way with us When we say no it feels like we’re reshuffling the decks so we are a priority and not “the things.”

Try working backward. What do you want your life to look like? What do you want your day to look like? Whenever you come up against the feeling of dread, instead of saying “I have to do this,” say ‘I GET to do this, what will this GET me?’ If what you are asked to do does not align, then stop doing that.

… But say yes to the right things

“Self care” has become a suspicious phrase because it’s often a marketing strategy for things that feel frivolous. But we should not throw the baby out with the scented bath water.

Need some ideas? I collected some the other week. But here are some more:

  • Do a sheet mask (it requires you to lie down motionless);
  • adopt an anti-inflammatory diet;
  • sleep at least eight hours a night;
  • read poetry or fiction and don’t read all the latest articles;
  • watch the best TV, including escapist favorites like 30 Rock, or The Great British Baking Show;
  • ride a roller coaster every few weeks. North Korea may be beyond your comprehension. But being upside down at 60 miles per hour is not is a fear you can handle.
  • Spend quality time with friends, both furry and human;
  • Be with kids, yours or borrowed. They can really help put things in perspective.

Ask for help

Panic often leads to isolation. The shame of not feeling completely, personally capable is part of our original sin. If you need to press the numbers through tears, that’s OK. Call someone. Spending time with people who you find supportive, professional or otherwise, is one of the most protective things.

Suggested by Jen Doll NY Times

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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We need evangelized: 3 things that show it

evangelized rodents

Every day, I need evangelized. Like Paul said of Abraham, the faithful friend of God:

“He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).

I am also not wavering. But I need to be strengthened. I need to be fully persuaded that God has the power to do what he promises. This strengthening and persuasion happens every day.

To be honest, we, as a church, need to keep the spark of evangelism stoked among us and through us or we might “waver through unbelief” like Paul fears the Romans might waver (or why bring up Abraham, right?). If Paul looked over our church, he might be writing a letter to our leaders and to all of us when he saw the kinds of things we do rather than persuading people that God has the power to do what he promises through Jesus Christ.

Here are three things we tend to do these days that show we need evangelized — no judgment, just things to think and talk about.

We manage lovelessness

This week, all sorts of people are going to bring out the four horsemen in their relationships at home, in your cell and with the leaders. We are going to be tempted to manage the symptoms of their lovelessness rather than teach a better way. Rather than reconcile after our teaching causes conflict, we will be tempted to keep things calm by not confronting the life-sucking lack of love and keeping our mouths shut. We try to manage the lovelessness. This managing rarely succeeds and the territory of the loveless expands rather than stays in the boundaries we set. Basically, we spawn a dysfunctional family like that from which many of us came.

Continue reading We need evangelized: 3 things that show it

The different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious church

Why did I miss diving into the Divergent series until now? It is totally my kind of thing: anxious twentysomethings/teens forced by the government and their colluding parents to choose an identity that doesn’t fit them. Watching Kate Winslet (symbolizing the authorities) have her hand nailed to a computer screen by a well-thrown knife — what could be more interesting?

There is just so much to talk about here! So much of what the movie’s (and books’) characters face is exactly what people are thinking and feeling in the church all the time.

For instance, in Divergent-world, people are assumed to be pre-programmed. So far, it looks like Tris just isn’t. And it looks like Four/Tobias doesn’t want to be. Isn’t that just what we are all talking about — am I just who I am, or can I be someone more? “Can I choose? Do I have to choose? What if I choose wrong? Who decides the choices? Can they make me choose?”

In that kind of atmosphere, people have a lot of questions about the church, too — which is all about choosing, after all, and all about taking on a new identity. For instance: “Are the pastors a bunch of Kate Winslets with secret plots to use us for their own purposes?” That’s a good question. But, more likely, the question is about choices. “Should someone else choose what I choose (like Jesus)? Are they just programmed differently? Can I say what the choices are? I like choosing more than I like what I choose — what about that?” There is a lot to think about.

A couple of weeks ago, we revved up the survey monkey and asked people to choose seven words they thought other people would use to describe Circle of Hope. One group of words (in the order of incidence) were “different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious.” Many of us were delighted at this result, since we think anyone who doesn’t describe Jesus with those words isn’t looking at Him carefully. So if people think of us that way, great! Other interpreters were dismayed. Being all those things doesn’t look very user-friendly. People avoid people who seem strange, don’t they?

Tris bravely being the first over the edge.

Those are, again the kind of questions Divergent is exploring. “Is ‘being myself’ all that great?” But then, “Is being what others think I should be really that important?” And “Will I be left out one way or another?”

On the one hand most of the young people in the dystopian Chicago of Divergent seem totally ready to go with the program; they choose to take on the arbitrary labels assigned them and allow themselves to be trained into stereotypes. If you want to be a successful church, wouldn’t you appeal to that sensibility to get some butts in the seats? It works! Some people thought the survey responders were unhappy that our church is so different. They would never bring a friend to be a part of the meeting because it would be “weird” for them — it would be better if it were just like what everyone is already choosing. Even if they love the weird meetings themselves, they still think the majority of people would find them strange.

On the other hand, the only two people we really like in Divergent, in the sense that we would like to be like them, are Tris and Tobias. And everyone, including themselves, thinks they are “different.” The powers that be are hunting people like them down to kill them, they are so threateningly not conformed. Isn’t that exactly what the first church was like? The early Christians eventually got hunted down by a few Roman emperors because they were so divergent. (Veronica Roth, the author of the Divergent novels, is a Jesus-follower, so she might be channeling that reality). So if people think we are strange, that might be uncomfortable (especially if they try to kill us!) but it is better than the alternative – chosen for mindless drudgery, manipulation by the man and being part of something that is going nowhere fast.

All these choices make people anxious or irritate the anxiety they are trying to keep in check. We are afraid to be different and afraid we can’t be different at the same time. I bring up the anxiety people are bringing to the questions because I think it might be the unnoticed psychological disease that keeps infecting our life and work together. Anxious people tend to think things (like how people might label our church) are much worse than they are. They also tend to be highly conformist, even though they fear the powers that press them into molds. They tend to be perfectionistic and don’t choose to do things they can’t do well. They are critical and fear criticism. So being part of the  different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious church can take a lot out of a person.

Tobias being led upward to face his fear.

If any of this applies to you, congratulations! Like Tobias facing his fear of heights, you are facing your fear of being different, weird, strange, confusing, and mysterious as you follow a Lord who is  different, weird, strange, confusing, and mysterious. Face it.

I hope you can say, with Peter, who answered back to Jesus that time, ““Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” That was Peter’s response when Jesus was at his “weirdest” and truest. The Way, the Truth and the Life will always seem different, because He is different, thank God! Be brave.