How to Unpack Chronic Anxiety

I’ve dealt with chronic anxiety for most of my life. In fact, when I was a little girl, it was so bad I developed stomach problems. Later in life, almost a decade ago now, I sought the help of medication and therapy just to survive.

I’m so thankful those resources were available to me and helped me get back on my feet. But, I’ll be honest. I would never want to go back to that season of my life. It was awful.

photo: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons
photo: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons

These days, I don’t deal with anxiety nearly the way I used to. But I have noticed how, during stressful seasons, or when I’m really tired and run down, or just extended outside of my comfort zone, anxiety comes back to me in smaller doses, and it reminds me how out of control I felt.

When these moments come, it’s tempting to think this will be an obstacle I’ll never overcome. But instead I remind myself of the progress I’ve made, take a deep breath and continue to lean toward healing and freedom.

I thought I’d share a little bit of that process with you.

Disclaimer: I am not a trained therapist. I’m simply sharing from my experience. Anxiety can be difficult and dangerous. If your anxiety is a threat to your health, please seek the help of a professional.

A few weeks ago I was at a conference.

I was attending the conference — not even speaking. In fact, I was invited to this event as a guest, and it was supposed to be a short time of respite between one long travel season and the next. My husband got to come with me, and we were excited to see our friends over the weekend.

But 12 hours into the event, I couldn’t hold it together.

It was so strange. I didn’t have anything to be stressed about. No messages or meetings to prepare for. No flights to catch. Nobody to impress. In fact, just the opposite. This was supposed to be restful. But still, my heart was racing, and my body felt like it had been taken over by an alien entity of adrenaline.

I couldn’t get my mind to turn off for long enough to have a conversation.

I was so frustrated.

So, out of pure habit, I asked myself this question: Why do I feel guilty?

My dad is a clinical psychologist and this is something he’s told me from a young age. He says, “Anxiety is often a symptom of guilt. When you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself what you feel guilty about, and you’ll usually find the root.”

At first when he told me this, it didn’t ring true to me, mostly because my anxiety didn’t feel connected to anything. Often I would have anxiety attacks when I was doing the most mundane things, like checking e-mail or doing the dishes. It felt like something was simply occurring to my body.

But the more I started to explore my dad’s suggestion, the more truth I found in it.

For example, years ago in therapy, I realized there was a secret I had been keeping completely outside of my conscious mind that was the root of much of my anxiety. Things would happen that seemed totally disconnected from the anxiety I felt, but they would “trigger” the memory (in a nearly unconscious way) and I would have an anxiety attack.

I didn’t know this, or didn’t realize it, until someone knew the right questions to ask to get to the root of my guilt.

And, of course, it wasn’t until I realized where the guilt was coming from that I could give myself permission to let it go. What happened was not my fault.

I had no reason to feel guilty.

So when the anxiety came at this conference recently, I started by asking myself the question, simply out of habit: “What do you feel guilty about, Ally?” Nothing came to mind right away, but the more time I spent in thought and prayer over it (like peeling back the layers of an onion) the more I realized I did feel guilty about something.

Something so stupid…

So stupid I was embarrassed to admit it…

But it was true…

I was feeling guilty about my e-mail inbox.

My e-mail inbox? I said to myself. Really? Something as stupid and mundane as e-mail is powerful enough to send me into a fit of anxiety? That doesn’t even seem logical.

And of course it isn’t logical, but this is the crazy part about anxiety. Anxiety is rarely logical or productive. Was my guilt or anxiety about e-mail helping me to make any progress or fix a problem? No, but once I pinpointed the source of the guilt, I could take care of it: first, by reminding myself that I’m not responsible to respond to every e-mail that comes my way.

And second, by scheduling a time that day to get caught up.

The second thing I did that day was take a hiatus from alcohol and caffeine.

Actually, that’s not totally true. I fought myself on this one for awhile, because I love coffee and wine. I start every single day with a cup of coffee, and end about three days each week with a glass of red wine.

But, for me, the bottom line is this: I’ve realized how these two things are substances that altar my body’s chemistry (sugar does this too) and a huge part of anxiety is my body’s chemistry. If I want to attack anxiety from all sides, I have to attack the physical as well as the emotional.

In order to overcome the physiological aspects of anxiety, I have to get my body chemistry in balance.

Sadly this means, when I’m going through a particularly “high anxiety” period of my life, I choose to give up alcohol, caffeine and most sugar to get myself back to a place of balance. I also drink a ton of water, I exercise, and I try to sleep for eight hours a night.

There are so many verses in the Bible that talk about anxiety —

But when I’m honest, I have to say that during the times in my life when the anxiety was the worst, these verses didn’t help. In fact, hearing God tell me to “fear not” over and over again made me feel like a failure, like I could never live the kind of life God wanted me to live (more guilt, more anxiety).

Part of me wants to include those verses here, all the beautiful words that feel like encouragement to me these days, words about how we don’t have to worry or spin because God will clothe us in splendor like the flowers of the field (Matthew 6).

But instead I’ll just say this: God is the one who takes care of our guilt. In fact, He may be the only one who can put it to death forever.

Unpack your guilt. But don’t leave it spread out on your living room floor. Take it to Him.

I know as well as anyone that anxiety is not an easy-fix, so please don’t hear me saying that. But talking myself through this process has helped me a ton.

I hope it helps you, too.

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

19 thoughts on “How to Unpack Chronic Anxiety”

  1. Timely post for me. I realized I was dealing with anxiety, fear yesterday over an trip my husband and I are taking without our girls. Among other things I am realizing are feeding my fear (beliefs I have had since childhood), maybe I also feel guilty about leaving the girls. Thanks being transparent.

  2. Your article made so much sense. Thank you for sharing. I have chronic anxiety too and it is only recently I am learning to come to terms with it. I only wish I had the tools that I have now years ago . Next time I am in a flutter about something when there seems to be nothing much happening I will remember what you shared in your article.
    Thanks again,
    Kay

  3. thank you for sharing about your abuse. i just finished listening to “packing light” (thank you for the free download, so very much!!), & to know that the beautiful woman who wrote such a story & is & was so aware of her life & its inner workings could go through something so traumatic as abuse & come out on the other side so whole is just, well, the purest example of God.
    your story gives me great hope.

  4. Thanks for posting this today. I’ve been actively dealing with my anxiety for a couple of years now and feel like I had pretty much recovered from the darkest parts of it over the last year, but it has reared its ugly head over the last few days. So this is perfect timing to read and to know that I’m not alone in the fear that this may be something I never overcome. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I’ve lived with anxiety for a little over 40 years, and have been struggling somewhat with mild “attacks” over the past few days, especially this morning, so this was indeed timely. I had never thought consciously about guilt being at the root of it, though it is quite understandable.

  6. Ally,
    Thank you for being so real and authentic in this post. It’s so easy to think that you walk alone in something like this, but that is so not true. I am thankful to have insight from others as how to combat this from all sides, with the strength of the Lord and the heart of a follower. I appreciate you, sister!
    -Jennifer
    @jmitch08

  7. I’ve attacked anxiety from the standpoint of fear and control, but I’ve never heard it connected to guilt before and that makes so much sense. Giving me much to process today!

  8. As others have said, this hits home for me right now. Before my trip home to visit my folks on the other side of the country, I experienced anxiety for weeks and it would come and go in waves. In prayer and journaling, being truly honest with myself, I recognized that I felt guilty because of things that had happened in years past, interactions where I had treated my family terribly. I brought all of those things to God and said, please do with it what you will, I don’t know what else to do. Following my trip out there, I realized just how much healing occurred within my family and myself during that trip. God used the anxiety for good, as I recognized and was able to lay down all that baggage.

  9. I have to admit, I read a lot of blogs but I don’t connect or resonate with many. This post was one of the special ones that struck a chord somewhere in my soul. Thanks for your words, you did well articulating complicated feelings and thoughts. I really loved “But when I’m honest, I have to say that during the times in my life when the anxiety was the worst, these verses didn’t help. In fact, hearing God tell me to “fear not” over and over again made me feel like a failure, like I could never live the kind of life God wanted me to live (more guilt, more anxiety).” It’s such an accurate description of the anxiety spiral.

  10. Thanks Allison for your vulnerability. I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life but wasn’t really aware of it until about 10 years when panic attacks arrived out of the blue.

    I’d never made the connection with “guilt” before and yes handing it over to Him is the only way I seem to be able to let go of it.

    It’s interesting that in some roundabout way it’s a good forcing device for we anxiety sufferers to keep hanging onto Him.

    Grace and peace,

    Ian

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Having faced the same obstacles with chronic anxiety, thank you for making me feel normal- or at least ok- and that I’m not alone in this. you are awesome.

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