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As I was heading out the door to take my husband to the train station, I grabbed my cell phone. Immediately a cascade of anxiety washed through my body and with it the remembrance that a friend was angry with me. I stared at the phone in my hand, remembering our interaction the night before.

In years past, I would have fallen asleep with that phone conversation gnawing at me, replaying it over and over again in my head, and I would have woken up with it weighing on my chest. I am a people pleaser, highly sensitive to other people’s responses to me, and I do not like friction in my relationships. Of all causes of anxiety, relational friction (whether real or perceived) has always been the most common for me. But I’ve experienced so much healing from anxiety in the past two years that it wasn’t until I picked up the phone that I even remembered about that unpleasant situation, and by the time I’d dropped my husband off at the train and was headed home—a mere ten minutes—I was fine. The anxiety was gone.

*****

Three years ago, I found myself directing my homeschool co-op. I had zero leadership experience, and I realized pretty quickly that if I didn’t want to fall flat on my face or ruin the co-op and my relationships there, I was going to need some help. So I turned where I always turn when I need advice or encouragement or wisdom: to books. The book that matters for our purposes here is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which I’d read in my 20’s and which still sat on my shelf. Re-reading it in my late 30’s created a paradigm shift from which all the other habits I’ll discuss fairly quickly cascaded.

Covey’s first habit is “Be Proactive.” Part of that chapter is a discussion of Viktor Frankl’s discovery in a German concentration camp that in a dire situation in which he was cruelly and brutally mistreated, abused, and even tortured, he still had control over one very important thing: himself.

Reading Frankl, I was reminded of an old Buddhist story I’d heard in grad school about an army general bursting into a monastery and finding an old Zen master sitting calmly on a rock in the garden. The master remained unperturbed as the sword-wielding general advanced. “Why aren’t you afraid?” the general demanded as he sliced his sword through the air. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the man who can cut off your head!”

“Yes,” the Zen master replied. “And I’m the man who can let you.”

At the time I both marveled at and was appalled by the story. But it’s a story similar to Jesus’s—He Himself said He could call down a legion of angels to deliver Him, but instead He let the Romans crucify Him. His choice was harder than the Zen master’s—He had power to fight back and win, and He chose instead to submit to what looked like loss and suffer all that entailed.

How, I wondered, reading Frankl’s words again, how do you get to be like that?

Covey, following Frankl (and countless others), insisted that there was a gap between stimulus and response, that you could choose how to respond. This was not new to me. For years—decades, even—I had been told, “You can’t control what happens to you. You can only control how you respond to what happens to you.” And while I acknowledged the theoretical truth of that claim, my understanding remained only that: theoretical. I had little, if any, experiential understanding. It seemed to me that I was already responding before I ever had a chance to choose how I would respond.

When I picked up my phone that morning, anxiety flooded my body before I could even think about choosing a response. So how exactly did one access that supposed gap between stimulus and response? For me there was no gap. The stimulus and my response to it were simultaneous.

And then it dawned on me: I wasn’t responding; I was reacting—and my reactions were knee-jerk, reflexive, emotionally overwhelming ones. I was right: there was no gap. I was immediately anxious or angry (or whatever). I couldn’t stop a cortisol or adrenaline response in my body—that reaction was so tightly bound up with whatever prompted it that I was in the middle of it before I even knew it had begun. I couldn’t choose that reaction.

But—and here’s where the paradigm shift happened—I could choose how I responded to that reaction. I could not choose not to have those emotions—but I could choose how I responded to them. And the craziest part is that as I consistently chose my responses to these unwanted emotions, the emotions themselves gradually lessened!

At first, it was hard. I would often be well into an anxiety reaction before I even realized what was happening. I was on auto-pilot, doing what I’d habitually done for years: being anxious. Often it would take hours before I clued in. But when I did, that was the gap. At that point, I had a choice to make. Would I continue to react in this anxious way, feeding the anxiety with frantic activity or worried thoughts? Or would I breathe deeply and give the anxiety to God? (More on that next week.)

As I practiced noticing my emotional reactions and responding to them in a thoughtful, rational manner, I began to see a fundamental shift in my way of being in the world, a shift from knee-jerk anxiety to calmness, collectedness, peace, and joy. A shift that enabled me to experience victory the morning I picked up my phone: I felt anxious, yes, but there was an “I” greater than the anxiety, who was able to quickly, easily, and effectively respond to that anxiety and move forward with joy into the rest of my day.

That is the first habit for a happy life: Mind the gap. It might not be where you think it should be (or where you want it to be), but it’s there. Once you find it, pay attention! That’s where your power to choose lies. At that gap, you can choose how you will respond, whether to the stimulus itself or to your own knee-jerk reaction to that stimulus. Either way, there’s a gap. Mind it.

{Next week we’ll talk about what to do once we’re aware of the gap. For now, simply practice being aware of it.}

 

 

Photo by Anders Adermark, Creative Commons via Flickr.

trumpeter_swan

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, I struggled with chronic anxiety for much of my adult life. In February 2015, I wrote in my journal, “180 days to joy. That’s what I want, God. JOY. I am sick of living in fear and anxiety. I WANT JOY.”

Then I promptly forgot about it. But God didn’t. Over the course of the next year, my anxiety levels plummeted through the floor. In the 30 months since I wrote those words in my journal, I have experienced what I can only call a miracle of healing. As I’ve talked with various folks about this transformation from anxious to joyful, I’ve felt nudged to write down a bit of the story. Over the course of the next eight weeks or so, I’ll be sharing several of the practices (now habits) that have aided me in overcoming anxiety and enabled me to live with more joy than I used to think possible.

Anxiety is a complex thing, involving the physiological, psychological, and spiritual. Our problem in contemporary America is that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the physiological aspect of anxiety, which is at best only one-third of the problem. It is a crucial third, of course, and it’s therefore imperative that we deal with it. If you need medication, please be sure you get it! We don’t expect diabetics to roam the world without insulin; we don’t tell them it’s all in their heads and they should just get over it. In the same way, we should not expect people with anxiety to just get over it. It is in part a physiological problem, and medication can be an important part of healing.

Adequate sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition are also crucial components of mental health. We live in an overfed and undernourished culture that is chronically sleep deprived. If you struggle with anxiety, a large part of your work of healing is going to be to take care of these three basic areas. You are an embodied soul. Without your body, your life as you know it ceases. It is imperative that you care for your body. Feed it wisely and well. Get it moving (preferably outdoors). Give it eight hours of sleep every day. These are foundational habits for a happy life and will go a long way toward helping you overcome anxiety.

To reiterate: if you need medication, take it. The habits I outline are not meant to take the place of proper medication. Sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Dealing with the physiological causes of anxiety is crucial.

That said, it is not enough. We are not just bodies. We are spiritual as well as physical beings, and it the spiritual side of things that is grossly neglected in our materialistic culture. Now, simply eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep may have a dramatic impact on your emotional well-being. But healing work must go deeper, and the deepest part of us is the spiritual.

The solution to our anxiety ultimately lies in God. At the very least this means we need to address spiritual reality when we tackle anxiety. For me, medication helped. Talk therapy helped. But it wasn’t until I stopped running about and sat like Mary at the feet of Jesus for hours on end and listened to His voice and gazed upon His face of love that I finally knew a release from anxiety.

Truth be told, I don’t know how beneficial the practices I outline will be apart from God’s grace and help. Certainly they can’t hurt. But the radical transformation I’ve experienced has been largely (almost entirely?) a result of God’s grace upholding and undergirding the practices I’ve undertaken. Faith and trust are the bedrock on which all these practices rest. Without God’s action to uphold and heal, all my work is for naught. At the same time, if I don’t do my part, I won’t be able to participate in the work God is already doing. Faith is the foundation because it causes me to act in certain ways, which in turn opens me to the healing work of God.

The order in which I share these practices in the coming weeks is (with one exception) simply the order in which I discovered them. Each habit led to the next, and together they created a scaffold or trellis upon which I could lean my life so it would grow. I hope and pray that they will prove to be as life-giving for you as they have been for me.

One final caveat: healing takes time. It was a good three months before the habits began to do their work in me and free me from anxiety. And it was almost a year before I realized with a sudden shock of joy that I was hardly ever anxious any more. If you don’t see immediate results, don’t be discouraged. Hold onto hope, and persevere. “We will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The harvest is there, but we have to sow before we can reap, and the growth of what is sown takes time. Be patient with yourself. And when you fall (which you will), remember that you fall into the arms of our loving Lord, who will help you up and set you back on the path and walk every step of it with you.

Here’s to the journey to joy, friends!

Warmly,
Kimberlee

 

Photo by David Bush, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Miscellany

Dear Friends,

I am hereby giving you notice that you will be hearing from me weekly for the next two months.

Beginning next week, I will be running a weekly series called “Anxious No More: Habits for a Happier Life.” If you struggle with anxiety as I have, this is for you. Even if you don’t struggle with anxiety, you’re welcome to read along; these habits are healthy for everyone!

For today, I wanted to let you know of two essays I wrote last month that are now available for your reading pleasure:

“Come, Taste and See,” a reflection on joy, a children’s novel, and the goodness of life, is over at Grace Table.

“Consider the Birds,” a reflection on Ordinary Time, is over at Velvet Ashes.

Also, if you are a writer, and particularly if you live anywhere near Ohio, please take a look at the Refine Writers Retreat. It’s next March, and I will be one of the speakers. Other speakers include my dear friend Kris Camealy, exquisite wordsmith Christie Purifoy, writing coach Ann Kroker, novelist Vinita Hampton Wright, and the prolific Christin Ditchfield. If you are able to come, it would be lovely to see you there!

As the fall lengthens and night falls ever earlier, may sunshine find you and brighten your days.

Until next week,

Kimberlee

 

 

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