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28 March 2022
The courage to change what we can, accept what we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference
Words Jo-anne Brown
After days of heavy rain, homes and roads were flooded, thousands of people were evacuated, and stores were running out of supplies. Our neighbourhood emerged relatively unscathed. Then, one afternoon we heard a crash and found our ‘Shalom’ tile in pieces on the ground.
This broken tile really spoke to me. When my ‘shalom’ [a Hebrew term meaning deep peace and completeness] – my deep sense of well-being – comes crashing to the ground because of events outside my control, it feels like more than just one tile is broken! This shattered ‘shalom’ seemed to reflect all the shattered hopes, dreams, and expectations of a world still reeling from a pandemic, now devastated by far-away war, and close-to-home floods.
More people are experiencing anxiety now than ever before. Research shows anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue that people face – and whether you have a diagnosable anxiety disorder or not, more of us are feeling a general sense of unease and a low (but ever-rising) level of worry.
“Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It’s the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event” (anxiety.org).
Anxiety is part of being human and seems to be hard-wired into our brains. This response enables us to react quickly to threats and dangers. A certain level of anxiety pushes us to achieve what we need to, enables us to flee from danger, and keeps us alert and aware. However, anxiety loses its helpfulness when it becomes extreme or so vague and generalised that it paralyses us and prevents us from living life well.
Diagnosed anxiety disorders are serious issues and need to be dealt with by qualified professionals.
For many people, though, a generalised sense of unease or dread is becoming more prevalent – and more paralysing. Despite all the medical and technological advances of the past 100 years, we find ourselves still reeling from pandemics, battling environmental catastrophes, and unable to control or fix things as easily as we want to. Our natural warning system has gone into overdrive, so we’re no longer easily able to regulate our response to our circumstances.
We’ll never eliminate anxiety, and it wouldn’t be helpful to do so, but we can learn to regulate our anxious responses to life’s circumstances and find a way to live well in the midst of turbulence.
There are many techniques available to help us manage increasing levels of anxiety. Here are just a few:
Since anxiety is a response from our brain that triggers our sympathetic nervous system to action, preparing us for fight or flight, it makes sense to deal with anxiety by soothing this nervous system. One well-documented way to do this is ‘breathwork’.
Anxiety causes our breathing to become fast and shallow, stressing our bodies and increasing feelings of anxiety. By focusing on breath – taking slow, deep breaths from our diaphragm and exhaling fully before our next breath in – we soothe our nervous system and activate the ‘rest-and-digest’ system, which calms our anxiety and puts us into a relaxed state.
Focusing on breathing is a simple way to change how we feel.
As we slow our breathing, becoming more relaxed, we can focus on our thoughts, allowing them to settle down.
We can ask ourselves: Is this anxiety based on a real issue? If it isn’t, can I let it go? If it is, can I do something about it?
We then decide what action we can take or if we need to let it go because there’s nothing we can do about it right now.
Much of the anxiety we experience is triggered by circumstances we cannot change or by vague feelings of unease with no specific cause that can be dealt with. It is important to look clearly at what is making us anxious.
Even if we don’t usually pray, these words may express what we long for and highlight some truths for living well, and peacefully, with anxiety:
God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
(The Serenity Prayer)
Acceptance begins when we look at an issue and decide if we can do something about it or not – like asking the above questions. We need wisdom for this, to see clearly what lies within our power and capability and what doesn’t. We may feel sorrow or anger when we can’t change difficult circumstances, and this is when we need to find a way to let it go, recognising that there are some things out of our control.
We will find that there are some things we can change, and then we need courage and determination. Sometimes we need help to find that courage. The change we’re called to make may not necessarily happen all at once; change often happens slowly.
These wise words call us to acceptance, courage, and wisdom – and help us come to a place of peace.
By becoming aware of what triggers our anxiety, slowing our breathing and quietening our minds, we learn to recognise what we can change, find the courage to do that, and learn to accept and find peace about what we can’t change.
There are many other ways of learning to live well with anxiety, including meditation, mindfulness, and creativity. You can find some helpful resources here:
Headspace.com (website and app) – managing feelings and thought through mindfulness
Insight Timer – an app with guided meditations for reducing anxiety