Anxious Habits (Hope and Anxiety Series)

At Gateway Church in Austin, John Burke kicked off our series called Hope and Anxiety.

We have become an increasingly anxious people and developed many habits that can keep us mired in anxiety. But God gives us the groundwork to develop good habits that will help to alleviate those anxieties and bring us peace. Finding God’s peace—one that “transcends all understanding”—requires trust in Him. Do you trust God to remove your anxiety and bring you peace?*

*Consider professional help if your anxiety has been severe or prolonged.

The Hope and Anxiety series included the following messages:

With your family, roommates, or life group, work through the Message Next Steps:

Anxious Habits Next Steps

Listen to the message I shared at Gateway in South Austin:

Here are the notes from the message by John Burke:

Golf like any sport can be a great analogy to life.

Let’s say you wanted to get good at golf. You could start reading about golf, watch golfing tutorial videos but never really played. That wouldn’t work! What’s missing?

Practice, practice, practice!

But here’s the thing: If I go practice with bad form in my stance or wrist or hips, with enough practice I’ll just make that slice into a permanent habit.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent
– so practicing the right things matters.

As we talk about replacing Anxiety with Hope and peace, it takes practice. And this is a major missing piece of the puzzle that confuses many well-intentioned Christians.

How many Christians come to church to hear a message, sing worship songs, maybe even read the bible or spiritual books daily, but they fail to practice, practice, practice these spiritual principles in daily life—then wonder why they don’t experience the Love, Joy, and Peace God promises for those who follow him?

Too many of us call ourselves Christians, but we are not actually following Jesus and experiencing the life He created us to live!

So today, we’re going to get practical about practice.

In that Philippians passage we’re digging into and looked at last week, it says:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:6-9

God does not promise we won’t have any anxiety, but a peace deeper than you’ve never understood will guard your hearts and minds.

BUT look again in this passage …To experience peace that overwhelms the anxiety we have to put it into practice.

In addressing anxiety, it’s very important to train one’s mind in a certain way since the mind affects the feelings and body.

  • Certain habitual patterns of self-talk trigger anxiety.
  • If my mind constantly entertains fearful thoughts about the future, this will affect my emotional faculty by creating anxiety, eventually wiring it into my body—my brain–so that it becomes not just habit, but character.
  • That’s when it feels out of our control.

Last week we talked about how anxiety must be attacked holistically.

  • There are genetic and early childhood chaos or trauma that can make anxiety more prevalent—but if we attack it spiritually, mentally, and physically there’s Hope.
  • We are whole people—Spirit, Soul, and Body, and we talked about how they all interact.
  • As a quick reminder, the Spirit is where you interact with God. It’s your intuitive center—your deepest beliefs. Which influence your soul’s thoughts and feelings and interpretations of reality. Your Soul is your mind and emotions—thoughts and self-talk happen in your soul, but affect your body.
  • Your body physically is changed by your thought life, so mental habits, mental practices, get grooved into patterns in your brain—and the habits of anxiety then make anxious reactions so natural it feels out of control.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a cognitive Neuroscientist. Listen to how she explains it in Switch on Your Brain:

What you are thinking every moment of every day becomes a physical reality in your brain and body…These thoughts collectively form your attitude, which is your state of mind, and it’s your attitude and not your DNA that determines much of the quality of your life. This state of mind is a real, physical, electromagnetic, quantum, and chemical flow in the brain that switches groups of genes on or off in a positive or negative direction based on your choices and subsequent reactions. Scientifically, this is called epigenetics…The brain responds to your mind by sending these neurological signals throughout the body, which means that your thoughts and emotions are transformed into physiological and spiritual effects, and then physiological experiences transform into mental and emotional states. It’s a profound and eye-opening thought to realize something seemingly immaterial like a belief can take on a physical existence as a positive or negative change in our cells.” Switch On Your Brain, Dr. Caroline Leaf

Ideally, our Spiritual Life with God forms beliefs that are congruent with how God created us to view ourselves, God, each other, and life.

  • That increased alignment is called spiritual growth.
  • But we can be physically alive, yet spiritually dead to God, where God’s view plays no part in our thoughts.
  • And even if you believe in God, faith is actually choosing to trust and act on what God says is true despite what anxious thoughts or feelings say.
  • That’s important because spiritual beliefs matter as Dr. Leaf noted.

God created you to be able to stand outside your thinking, observe it, and change it—Spirit is meant to rule Thoughts in the Soul.

If you believe God loves you, forgives all your wrongs because Jesus took on evil by dying on the cross and defeating death by rising from the dead, and if you believe that God is in control and lovingly guiding you—and actually doesn’t want you to worry about the future, but experience peace from God–That Spiritual Belief affects how you think, feel, interpret life (in your soul).

And those repetitive, practiced thoughts and emotions actually make physical changes in your brain. Neuroplasticity is the scientific term for how your brain can be rewired by your repetitive thoughts.

  • Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.
  • We said we are whole people, Spirit, Soul, and Body, so to address anxiety we must address all three.
  • Practices over and over lead to habits. Habits are things you do without thinking or exerting effort.
  • Character is the sum total of one’s habits, good and bad.

Right Habits Lead to Strong Character

With anxiety—don’t think you can just do some one-time or one-month deal and then be forever fine.  It’s like golf—you keep practicing the right habits in your mind, aligned with God’s Spiritual beliefs about you, and you’ll find the peace of God, the joy and love of God, experienced more and more.

So how does one develop a good golf character?

  • Not simply by a weekly golf video, coupled with motivational golf music, or even daily golf readings—you have to practice, practice, practice.
  • You must present your body and mind to a golf instructor at a driving range to form golf “righteousness” instead golf “unrighteousness” that’s habitual in your flesh, your body.
  • By presenting one’s members, one gradually gets rid of bad golf habits and replaces them with good ones.
  • If the greatest golfers on the planet still need a coach and still need to practice, then we need a spiritual mentor and we need to practice!

The parallels with becoming good at life (e.g. having a steady life of peace, joy, and little or healthy level of anxiety) come the same way. You can’t just stop being anxious, you can’t just will yourself to peace, or joy—that’s like trying to correct a bad slice by telling yourself “Stop Slicing” over and over.

When you think about not slicing, you are going to slice because it is what you are thinking about!

Too often, we try to stop worrying by focusing on not worrying. “Don’t worry! Don’t worry! Don’t worry!” Now you are worrying about worrying!

We need to change our habits.  And there are some things you can do to form new habits around anxiety that change character.

Another passage I memorized early in my walk with Jesus was Romans 12 which says:

“Give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you…This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Romans 12:1-2.

Like you present your body and mind to a Golf Instructor to help you practice to form new habits that develop good Golf Character – Make God your Life Coach.

When you present your body, it involves not only a one-time act of dedication, but a habitual, repeated bodily exercise involving specific body parts like

  • Breathing
  • heart-rate
  • letting God change the way you think by replacing anxious thoughts with His right thoughts
  • this eventually forms new habits that come to reside in your brain.

This is called meditation which we will talk about more in depth next week.

Eventually, what you couldn’t do—stop feeling anxious, or be at peace—you’ll find more natural to your character—literally, it’s rewired your default mode so your brain helps you with Hopes habits rather than Anxieties Habits.

Rewiring Your Brain

How?

Here’s a 4 Step practice, adapted from Dr. JP Moreland (who we talked about extensively last week—listen if you didn’t) and Dr. Leaf that will help if you actually practice it every day—Dr. Moreland says for 2-6 months at least.

So get that common anxious scenario in your mind that I had you reflect on last week.  What happens?  Something triggers the anxiety—usually a thought or several thoughts.

  • “I’m never going to get married”
  • “This situation’s never going to change.”
  • “He’s always going to be like that.”
  • “I’m going to fail”
  • “I’m going to end up needing surgery.”

And suddenly you’re in a negative rut with anxious feelings fogging your mind.

Maybe it’s financial “the stock market dropped—and since financial worry has been a habit, your brain has a muscle memory it automatically goes to—”the economy’s going to crash – I’m going to lose my job—my family will be on the streets” down you go as you keep playing the Anxiety song out of that well-worn groove in your brain.

So Anxiety is a Habit, but now change the habit with a new practice.

With every anxious thought…

  1. Catch the Anxious Thought.
  2. Name it and Frame it
  3. Go to Your “Happy Place”
  4. Learn from it

Step 1: Catch the Anxious Thought

You have a panicky or anxious thought, don’t just let it groove this bad habit deeper and deeper in your brain. Dr. Leaf says “Picture yourself grabbing that thought.” This is practicing what the bible teaches

We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5.

Anxious thoughts are speculations about the future.

A study in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy found that fully 85 percent of the things we worry about never occur. 85% of our fearful, worrisome, anxious speculations never happen. Yet they destroy our happiness and peace. So take every thought Captive—grab it.

“I’m going to be ruined financially.” Grab it, and tear it apart, Dr. Leaf says. Imagine tearing it into 2 pieces the emotion from the idea—then set the emotion down (you don’t deny the fearful, panicky emotion, you just say “I’m going to come back to this sickening feeling in a minute” but set it down, and look at the content of the thought “I’m going to be ruined financially.”  Or “I’m never going to be loved.” And you call it what it is. “This is a deceptive, destructive, speculation my brain is sending me—it’s not the truth. It’s Speculation about the future. The truth is I don’t know the future, only God knows the future.”

Todd White said: “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want.”

Consider this command from Jesus who said:

do not worry about your life… Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?… Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness [God’s will and ways], and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:25-34.

 This is amazing!

  • God is a good Father, who is in control of the Universe, God created you to be loved, and He doesn’t want his kids worried and anxious about life.
  • He wants you free from worry and anxiety.
  • In fact, God commands you not to keep entertaining these lofty God-like speculations about a future that you can’t see—you’re not God–so stop playing God like you know the future.
  • Instead, be His Child, trust in a Good Father so you can have peace.
  • See that’s the “knowledge of God” but as the 2 Cor passage says, these speculations and lofty-God-imposter-thoughts about the future are trying to keep you from experiencing God’s Peace and Joy. Don’t let them.

You may feel resistance to this idea, like, “Doesn’t this produce lazy, lack of action, or not taking responsibility?”

Not if done right.

“Today has enough trouble” Jesus says.

  • He’s pointing out a truth—you can only live today.
  • You can only act to influence the future today.
  • So we can ask God for wisdom—what can I do today about something in the future, then do it today, but leave the future worries to God.

One other thing—remember you are Spirit, Soul, and Body.

  • So these anxious, speculative thoughts are residing in your body like bad habits—that’s why one little trigger and the barrage of associated thoughts and emotions cascade down.
  • So in your Soul (your mind, your will) you’re going to put new good practices in place to sew new habits in your brain.

But you may feel powerless.

  • That’s where Spirit comes in—Spirit is where God communes with you.
  • Spirit is meant to lead and guide Soul, so don’t do this alone.
  • Invite God’s Spirit to guide Your Spirit as you capture Anxious Thoughts.

Here’s a great passage to pray and meditate on:

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts…You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” Psalm 139:1-5.

Think how great this truth is…

  • God knows, God understands, and He is blessing you.
  • God is for you, wants his peace to guard you.
  • God loves you, is a better Life Coach, Therapist, Friend than anyone.
  • God alone understands all your thoughts and has compassion on you.

With that in mind pray what comes next:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 Point out anything in me that offends you [that’s against Your ways], and lead me along the path of everlasting life.  Psalm 139:23-24.

So Catch the thought, and this happens in an instant. You realize you’re sinking “This will never change—I’m always going to be stuck like this.”

Let those anxious thoughts prompt prayer, “God help me with these thoughts—show me Your ways.”

Catch it, rip the emotion from the idea, call it the speculation it is—it’s not the truth about the future (only God knows the future).

Then…

Step 2: Name It and Frame It.

With repetitive thoughts, it helps to become so aware of the thought and its associated feeling that we can give a name or label to the thought. Among other things, this gives us a genuine sense of power over it. And it reminds us that we are not alone in suffering from this habit of thinking.  It’s common, it fits a category that many other people struggle with.

Here is a fairly standard list of distorted thinking traps:

  1. All or nothing thinking (If you’re not perfect or get anything wrong, you’re a total failure.)
  2. Overgeneralizing (“I always do that.” “Nothing ever goes right”)
  3. Negative filter (You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it.)
  4. Discounting the positive (If you did a good job, you tell yourself that anyone could have done it.)
  5. Mind reading (Interpreting others actions in a negative way—or mind reading—“They’re thinking I’m a lost cause” – you don’t know that unless you check it out, you’re mind reading)
  6. Fortune Telling (anything predicting a negative future—an anxious future thought. You’re not a fortune teller.
  7. Catastrophizing (You exaggerate a negative quality or event, and minimize the good.)
  8. Self-labeling (“I’m a loser.” “I’m a failure” “I’m repulsive”)

There are many others, come up with your own label, but you’re trying to identify the lie or distorted thinking that’s creating Toxic grooves in your brain—and call it a lie, then speak the truth.

Jesus taught this:

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples [followers]. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31.

 It’s engraved on the UT Tower—you thought UT made that up, nope, Jesus. And what it means to follow him is to align our thoughts with God’s spiritual truth because our truths can be lies (85% of our anxious truths are lies).

Jesus goes on to point out lies are spiritual too—it’s how evil manipulates us through fear to keep us its slave. There are dark spiritual forces at work in our world and in our lives. The Scriptures use words like the Deceiver, the Accuser, the devil, or Satan is the source of these lies. Jesus says that these lies are evil:

When he [satan] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44.

So we have to see lies as evil, trying to keep us in destructive habits, and label the lie so we can focus on the truth.

Things do work, things can get better – Don’t discount all the positive data.

Is there something I can do TODAY to positively affect this? Then I need to do it, then I trust God with the future.

Step 3: Go to Your Happy Place

Refocusing: Phil 4:9 passage we’re dissecting says.

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:9

You have choice—you can choose to dwell on the 85% of negative, anxious, worried thinking that will never happen, or you can choose to dwell on good things—find a thought, memory, person, place, pet that makes you happy and dwell there for a moment.

This is critical—you’re rewiring your brain’s default.

You’re re-associating a trigger thought with new neural-pathways.

You’re changing your swing with practice, so you don’t keep slicing off into the sand trap of anxiety emotionally.

“Going to my Happy Place.”  When I was really struggling with negative, depressing thoughts, I put pictures on my screensaver that reminded me of good, positive, happy memories—blessings God has given me.  I would use those pictures to Refocus.

That Philippians passage says dwell on what’s true, right, lovely…and it says

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:7

Thanking God for the good instead of just dwelling on negative, speculative, mostly lies about the future.

Science is telling us this actually works. You may have a genetic predisposition for anxiety, but the DNA doesn’t unzip or cause RNA to produce proteins until your thoughts unlock them.  And we can reverse the brain damage from toxic thought patterns.

So Refocus your attention on something good or something that distracts you and gets you into a flow—move on.

The key is not to ruminate about the negative message, the goal is to dismiss the message that is disempowered by steps 1 and 2, and dwell elsewhere.

Step 3 may be the most important one for tapping in to the neuroplasticity of the brain and changing its negative, toxic grooves to healthy, positive ones. You’re re-wiring a new groove for that trigger “financial ruin is coming” to be associated with a positive memory—so it doesn’t get embedded in your flesh—your brain.

You say to your distorted thought, “I know who you are.  You are just a habit, a false habit that I can actually name.  You have nothing to do with reality and I am not going to waste my time entertaining you.  I’ll dwell on something good God’s done for me. I’ll do something else”

Then do it.

And after a while, you can return to the dismissed and out-of-mind message and emotion and…

Step 4: Learn from It.

After the emotion is gone and when it is safe to go back and reflect on steps 1-3, and be strengthened by what you did well (tell yourself what you did well), learn from your mistakes (I’m going to catch it sooner next time), and recommit yourself to doing this repeatedly throughout each day it a habit.

Next week, we’re going to talk about Hope’s Habits—because we can be proactive and develop habits that increase Hope joy and peace. So don’t miss it.

If you’ve ever read the Psalms, God doesn’t have us ignore or pretend life’s not hard, or bad negative things don’t happen—it’s gritty reality—but ever notice has it comes back to the positive of what God has done, or says is true, or will happen good in the future?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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