Dr. John Delony
The world has become an anxious, worrisome place. Anxiety has been escalating on a near-vertical trendline— currently, 40 million adults in the U.S. alone are struggling.
Make no mistake: Even if you don’t struggle with anxiety, it is real, and it’s powerful. I know I’ve been weighed down by anxiety and the runaway train of fear and compulsion. But I also know that healing and peace is possible when we decide to change our identity, take ownership of our thoughts and actions, and partner with anxiety instead of going to war with it.
Anxiety is like a smoke alarm. It goes off when it detects a threat in our bodies or our environments — like when we feel we’re in danger, alone or out of control. In most cases (though not all), anxiety does not mean something is wrong inside us, but rather, it means there are fires in our environment — like disconnection, safety concerns, overstimulation or past trauma — that need to be addressed. Sometimes, it’s as simple as drinking way too much coffee and not getting enough sleep.
Healing our anxious minds and bodies is a daily and lifelong journey, but it’s one worth taking. As you learn how to deal with your anxiety, I want to encourage you to start by focusing on these six key things:
1. Stop using anxiety as an identity
Millions of people have been labeled as disordered. They have anxiety and believe they’ve got a disease. Hear me say this: You are not your anxiety. Instead, anxiety is a learned physical and mental response to a world full of threats and disconnection — real or not. It’s your body’s way of trying to take care of you. And since you learned it, it can be unlearned.
2. Honor the alarms
Learn to pay attention to your personal anxiety alarms and what makes them go off. Maybe it’s running into a certain coworker in the hall or being ignored by someone you care about. Or maybe it’s when you arrive home after a long, exhausting day and feel afraid to step inside because loneliness is waiting to greet you. Maybe it’s a past tragedy, deep trauma or hyper-stressed mind.
Yes, the alarms are loud, and your thoughts might spin out of control. But the longer you ignore the alarms, the longer you go without getting what you need. Pay attention to what your anxiety alarms are telling you instead of running from the noise.
3. Take an inventory of your life
All change begins with owning reality. You must ask yourself: What’s going right for me and what’s not? To begin healing, you must take inventory of how things are going.
Here are some questions to help you begin. Write down your answers to see what you learn and what needs to change.
- Am I safe and valued in my current environment?
- Have I dealt with past traumas and painful relationships?
- Where do I feel anxiety in my body?
- Do I have a friend or a community I can count on?
- Do I find purpose and meaning in my work or family?
- Am I eating well, exercising, and getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night?
- What forms of distraction or comfort am I addicted to?
- What stimulants am I consuming (caffeine, sugar, etc.)?
4. Make a habit of identifying your thoughts and emotions
An anxious mind can feel like your brain is filled with chaos. Writing your thoughts and feelings on paper gets them out of your body and often takes their power away. Instead of chaos, your thoughts become just words on paper. From there, you can sort through the truth and the lies of what’s on the paper. You can demand evidence from the thoughts and learn to challenge the critical voice or worst-case scenario death spiral inside your head.
5. Go from controlling your thoughts to changing your actions
When you look at your thoughts on paper, you can begin to identify what’s within your control and what’s outside of your control. For example, let’s consider your workplace. Say you’re overwhelmed and burned out at work. You can’t control the decisions your boss and coworkers make, but you can decide how you will act at work — how you show up early, work with integrity and excellence, and respect others. You can choose to avoid gossip, delete obnoxious group texts, and speak up when necessary. You can also choose to set boundaries, or maybe even look for a different job.
Learning to control and direct your thoughts and actions takes time, strength and practice — just like working out a muscle. But we can all do it.
Now, if you’ve taken to the steps to address the things within your control and you’re still struggling, you might be considering anxiety medication. I want to be clear: As a society, we are way overmedicated. But for a season, medication can help you dial down or “turn off” your anxiety alarms. But silencing the alarm won’t put out the fires, which means, in almost every situation, medication is not a long-term solution.
Years ago, anxiety medications were an important piece of my healing puzzle. They didn’t solve or take away my anxiety, but they did help turn down the volume on the alarms so I could meet with a counselor, address my work and home life, and begin to take better care of myself. I haven’t taken them in years — but they served their purpose for a season. Don’t let anyone tell you that all medications are evil. And don’t let anyone tell you that medication by itself can cure anxiety.
Before taking medications, I recommend working with a counselor and a doctor to examine your diet, sleep, relationships, trauma and family histories. If you do end up taking medicine for a season, it can be a remarkable support as you heal and change your thoughts and actions. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be — and almost never should be — a part of your story forever.
6. Connect with real people in real ways
Our bodies can’t be well without regular, connected community. We biologically, spiritually and emotionally need others — and we need them in person. Don’t turn to a screen after your alarms start to sound. Don’t text unless you have no other options. Don’t run to social media unless you truly have no place left to go.
Call someone. Go visit someone. See a real face. Hear a real voice. If it’s safe, touch a real hand. Have a real hug. Find a way to talk to or see a human. Connect with people you love or who you can be vulnerable with. This might mean calling a therapist, a pastor, your neighbor, a hotline, a friend or an old college buddy you haven’t seen in forever. Make true human connection a critical and essential part of your life.
Practical Tips for Anxiety Relief
The next time the alarms start ringing, pause. Ask yourself what the alarms are trying to tell you. Remember: You have tools to deal with anxiety. Reach out to someone you can trust. Breathe deeply and intentionally. Challenge your thoughts and lean into healthy actions. You can do this — and you are worth the work. You are worth being well.
Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with PhDs in Counselor Education & Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior leader, professor, and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma.