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Understanding Anxiety




For years I have struggled with anxiety. There was a point during this journey where it turned into a much more severe symptom. It felt like something bad was going to happen and there was a physical pressure on or in my chest. Understanding more about this emotion has been helpful in focusing on the best ways for me to help deal with this emotion.


When you are anxious it is a feeling, a warning of something not being right. While helpful if you are in the woods and getting too far from the trail, or in a meeting and it's not going the way you thought, feelings need to be paid attention to.


Anxiety is just a feeling


Psychologist Karyn Gordon PhD has spent years working with children and adults on dealing with anxiety. Dr. Gordon describes a feeling or emotion as one word (sad, angry, etc.), while thoughts are a sentence.


Anxiety is just an emotion. A feeling, it’s how you and I feel. Our thoughts drive how we feel. We can’t control our feelings, but we can control thoughts.


Our thoughts drive our feelings


You 'feel' anxious, but what’s the thought that’s driving it? Our focus is generally on the future, which we cannot control.

Pay attention to what you feel, recognize the anxiety. What was the train of thoughts that came before the feeling?


You can challenge thoughts, you do not challenge feelings. Validate your feelings while challenging your thoughts.


You cannot ERASE your thoughts.

You have to REPLACE them.


There is a triad of anxiety, THINKING, FEELING and DOING. While you cannot control what you feel, you can control your thoughts and actions. Your thoughts can be a trigger event for anxiety, but this can also be from your environment, a sensation such as a sound or smell, even an action or response to an external stimulus. 

The consequence of a trigger can be an emotion and/or a behavior. Here is an example; a co-worker makes a comment that is not meant to be hurtful but for you creates a trigger. This trigger causes anger (emotion) followed by a slammed door (behavior). Being able to stop and challenge your emotion to determine where the trigger lies can give you insight in how to deal with emotions in the future. Asking yourself, "Now why did I feel that way?" "What was the trigger?"



What habits can you focus on?




Taking your thoughts captive, challenging them. 2 Corinthians 10:5 How can you do this? You cannot erase a thought, you have to replace it.


Toxic thoughts are something we want to identify, "I am NOT enough. I am good enough IF".




This idea of 'enough-ness' is linked to 3 areas that we identify with or create self-worth from; our appearance, how we perform, and/or our status.




If my self-worth is wrapped up in my performance, perfectionism, a job review that is not 100% attacks my self-worth. 

Our brains focus and attend to negative stimuli and feedback much more than positive feedback. This makes it harder to take criticism, and much more damaging emotionally if our self-worth is associated with that criticism.


Read John 3:16. This is an example of ultimate acceptance of who you are as a human being. Your worth, your value, is SO MUCH that He gave...


Here is the difficulty, success is typically set by our world around us and If we do not define what success is for ourselves then we will never reach contentment. The target is always moving. While having a faith does not shield us from anxiety (remember, anxiety is just an emotion), our faith does tell us that we are enough and accepted for who we are by our Creator. 




We get fixated on the future, which we cannot control. We can control our actions and ourselves, attitude, and we can take responsibility. We need to accept the results. Did you give your best?


Strive for EXCELLENCE, not perfection


For perfectionists this is a tough one. We are the ones that have our self-esteem wrapped up in our performance. Craig Groeschel, a pastor with Life Church, spoke on this idea and coined the phrase GETMO, Good Enough To Move On. Excellence is getting your project >90% of the way there (perfection by definition or 100% is not attainable) but spending the most effective amount of time to achieve excellence. Sometimes taking more time can actually limit your effectiveness. Say this out loud with me all you perfectionists... GETMO! And then move on.




Feedback from trusted sources as well as colleagues and your boss if you know they have your best interests at heart. They do not have the same emotion that you are feeling and can be much more objective as to the reality of the situation.




“I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.” Clayton M. Christensen, cancer survivor


I have seen and experienced this truth so many times. It is this truism that helping others comes with a sense of purpose. Too many times we isolate and spend too much time focusing on our problems, limiting us in our effectiveness to help others.


"Worry about the individuals that you have helped become better people."




Focus on what you can control, not the results or outcomes necessarily, and this will reduce your anxiety. 


Control and anxiety are connected


Sometimes a sense of anxiousness occurs when we have too much on our plate. I have a problem of 'biting off more than I can chew' and this creates stress and worry.

If this is you, creating a plan is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety. Even just collecting your thoughts and writing them down can change your state of mind. The idea of setting up a plan, even if that is all you do, can reduce your anxiety.



  1. Purpose of your project? Does your project or idea align with your purpose and core values and behaviors?
  2. What does success look like? What’s the WIN?
  3. Brainstorming, getting the ideas out.
  4. Organize your ideas. Identify key milestones, ‘mission-critical components’.
  5. Next actions steps, what can you do next? What is the next physical action that you can take with your project?

'Getting Things Done' by David Allen


This last step is very important as it gets you focused on what is the next physical action that you can do next. This is the first domino as it were. Take that next step and it will lead to others.




This is an exercise used by psychologists to address toxic or anxious thoughts. For 20 minutes a day write down as many anxious thoughts that you currently have. Set a timer and work hard to get as many thoughts on paper that you can.

Following the 20 minutes shred, tear up, and throw in the trash what you have written down. YES, get rid of these thoughts! The rest of the day is yours to do with as you please. You have taken the time to validate these thoughts and emotions in this exercise. The rest of the day is now for you.


Now here's the trick. You will still have anxious thoughts or emotions interrupt your thinking. You have two choices in how to respond; one, "I have already recognized that anxious thought", or two, "I will deal with that thought tomorrow".


"In 1 month, patient's are not driven by their anxious thoughts." Kelly Orr PhD, Trauma Psychologist


What can be daunting is taking the 20 minutes out of your day to do this exercise. If you are like me this can create some anxiety thinking about carving out time to focus on this activity. Here's something to think about though. How much time do you spend worrying right now? Each day? Probably a lot more than 20 minutes.


I have already recognized that anxious thought


I will deal with that thought tomorrow


A good length of time to work on any replacement behavior type therapies is 21 days. But even if you can only accomplish a week, there should be noticeable, measurable changes, in how your brain is working. You should notice a difference. That is the reward that can keep us motivated to continue.






If you are having poor or interrupted sleep, or sleep disturbed breathing, this can affect your anxiety. Find out if you have a sleeping problem, get an accurate home sleep study, over multiple nights.




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Reviewed by Kelly Orr PhD, clinical and research psychologist

Dr. Orr has over 40 years experience in injury and trauma psychology including EEG mapping and LENS therapy.

Liberty University Department of Psychology


Understanding Anxiety