As I write this, it is December and close to Christmas. For me, the stress rises at this time of year and I have to be intentional about keeping my mind and heart focused on truth. If you are feeling overwhelmed or more anxious, here are some practical things you can do today to help your body, mind and spirit reduce anxiety, connect with God and experience more joy.
No matter what we are facing, we can experience the joy of the Lord and we can choose to support our bodies and minds in ways that calm our systems and renew our minds.
Write it Down
When I work with clients I encourage writing because it is so helpful in reducing the overall load our minds and emotions are carrying and it helps us recognize lies, separate stressors and come up with an action and prayer plan.
Take out a piece of paper or notebook (actual paper is recommended not an app on your phone). Brainstorm a list of things that you feel stressed about. Tasks you need to do, things you think you "should do", relationships, work, family commitments, events- anything that is on your mind.
Next, go through these things and pick out one or two things you could take action on so you can get them off your list. Then, look at anything you feel you "should do" or feel pressured by and test your thoughts a little by asking if this pressure is from you or others, based on truth or an expectation and try to re-frame the lies or negative thoughts. Remind yourself you do not have to have the perfect holiday or year and a calm you is a much better gift for loved ones than anything you feel you have to do.
Look over your list and write down 3 things you can pray for and then pray about them right after you write those prayer requests down.
Finish by writing down 5 things you are thankful for. These can be things in your life, things in nature or attributes of God. There have been times in my life when I was so overwhelmed I couldn't think of what I was thankful for in my life so I thanked God for things He did in the Bible and throughout time. Then I praised Him for his character.
When we practice gratitude and praise, our brains shift reducing those chemicals responsible for fight or flight and increasing positive brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. (Brain Balance has an article about the neuroscience here.)
God knew what He was doing when He called us to come before him with thanksgiving and praise. He created our bodies and knows that we can actually reduce anxiety and help our brains when we practice gratitude. Worship helps our bodies get out of the fight or flight response. (Read more on this study here. ) We can then be filled with joy as we connect with the Holy Spirit through worship and praise.
2. Move Your Body
In order to reduce anxiety we need to support the brain as mentioned above. Physical exercise is crucial to the brain's ability to balance neurotransmitters and help you feel less stressed. You can walk, dance, play pickle ball, run, swim, or do any activity that will get your heart rate elevated for at least 20 minutes. This level of activity helps your brain produce endorphins and helps your body get out of fight or flight allowing you to experience less physical anxiety.
Quite often when we are overwhelmed with a long to-do list we can feel there isn't "time" to exercise. But if you make time for 20-30 minutes of exercise your brain will be functioning better and you will be able to accomplish more and get perspective on that list of stressors you wrote down.
So as the lemurs so gleefully sang in "Madagascar", you've got to "Move it move it..." :)
3. Take Deep Breaths
As a therapist, clients were often resistant to this practice at first but those who tried it saw how it actually helped their bodies relax. As we go about our day we are often taking very shallow breaths. When we get anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is activated triggering all kinds of physical responses intended to help us respond to danger. When we are stuck in the fight or flight state, deep abdominal breathing can help our bodies activate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring us out of fight or flight and back into a calm state or rest.
I recommend clients start with two different types of breathing. First, you can breathe in through your nose for the count of five then out through your nose or mouth for the count of 7. Increase each as you repeat a few times. If you are really feeling anxious you can help interrupt fight or flight further by trying a breathe in-hold-breathe out method like breathing in for 5, hold for the count of 6 then out for the count of 7. If these feel too long, adjust so you can safely practice this and increase as you are able.
There are different versions and types of deep breathing techniques. You can also add a calming phrase like "Jesus loves me" or "Ocean Breeze" as you are breathing to keep your mind focused on a positive thought.
4. Write and Say a Bible Verse
God has given us concrete ways we can take thoughts captive and fight the battle of our minds. In Ephesians 6 the Word is referred to as the "sword of the Spirit" because it can cut right through the lies and false beliefs in our minds with Truth.
Write down a verse in the Bible and then say it out loud, even if you don't "feel" like it. There is power in our words and in the truth of the Bible. When we choose to focus our minds on what the Lord says is true and we choose to speak it out loud we take action against those thoughts that are causing us to feel more anxiety and go down negative roads.
Psalm 42:11 “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.”
If you want more specific Bible passages and tips on how to use them to stop negative thought cycles you can get my free anxiety verse guide "10 Bible Verses for Christians with Anxiety and How to Use them to Stop Negative Thought Cycles".
5. Watch What You Eat
What we eat and drink can have a big impact on our brain's ability to produce serotonin and other neurotransmitters and can impede our ability to get out of fight or flight. There are a lot of changes you can make in your diet to support your brain but if you can avoid sugar, caffeine and alcohol you will help your system. Decreasing or avoiding processed foods is also recommended. These foods have been shown to increase anxiety symptoms, impact blood sugar and energy levels. Eating healthy fats and lean proteins will help your metabolic health and give your brain more of what it needs to function at it's best. Avocados, salmon, eggs, fermented foods and dark leafy greens are some of the foods rich in nutrients the brain needs to balance brain chemicals and reduce anxiety.
Vitamin B12, Folate and Vitamin D can be essential for your brain and body to reduce anxiety so it is good to have these levels checked and discuss any other physical symptoms, medical conditions and brain chemical imbalances you might have with a medical practitioner so you can support your body and get what you need to reduce anxiety symptoms.
Start by reducing sugars and caffeine and getting your body moving while you breathe deeply and focus your mind on gratitude and the truth of the Word of God!
As you support your mind and body, ask God to fill you with joy. When we read the word out loud and focus more on truth, we usher in the fruit of the Spirit. We can have the joy that comes from God no matter what stress we are dealing with on our lives.
"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Romans 15:13
Bonus Tip: Focus on Others
Send an encouraging text, note or call someone to let them know you appreciate them. Serve someone in need by giving your time or, if able, a gift card or meal. When we take our focus off ourselves and love our neighbor we walk into who God created us to be and spend less time in our heads.
I hope these steps are helpful for you. You can start today and integrate them into your weekly routine.