Anxiety. It goads us to prepare for the worst, but usually does more harm than good.
Whether you’re suffering from anxiety because of current circumstances, or have a predisposition to disordered anxiety, or even if you just find yourself often anxious for no good reason, you know firsthand how anxiety steals the joy and meaning from your life.
So how do you snatch your life back from the anxiety monster?
There are perhaps as any methods as there are sufferers, from taking care of your physical health with sleep, exercise, and natural supplements to journaling your way through the darkness, but allow me to suggest a powerful method that has helped me:
Work on a Great Project.
In the 600s BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon pounced on the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Judah, razing it to the ground and taking its survivors captive.
Years later, a descendant of the Judean exiles named Nehemiah returned home to find Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, in dire straits. The city walls had been destroyed and squatters had moved in.
As the new governor of the pitiful nation, Nehemiah decided to rebuild the walls. But his enemies gathered to ridicule, threaten, and attack him and his workers. They thought harassing Nehemiah would make him stop.
But they underestimated him.
In spite of the ridicule, underhanded tricks, and threats of violence, Nehemiah and his team rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in a mind-blowing 52 days.
(To give you an idea of how incredible this is, it took the Ottoman empire four years to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in the 16th century)
How did he do it?
Living With Anxiety
Sometimes living with anxiety is like trying to build a wall while keeping a lookout for deadly enemies.
Anxiety is always lurking, ready to eat you alive if you aren’t careful.
It makes living day-to-day highly inefficient — even seemingly impossible, at times. Sometimes the difficulty is so high you just want to die. Or crawl into bed and ignore everyone and everything.
But there’s another way.
When Nehemiah was building the wall, his enemies sent him a message:
“Come, let us meet together…It is reported…that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt [against the king]”
In other words, the enemy was saying: “We are spreading these lies about you, you better come down here and defend yourself or else!”
This was a serious charge. If true, Nehemiah could be killed for rebellion.
Of course, if Nehemiah did what they wanted: a) they could kill him much easier on the ground and b) the work on the wall would stop.
But did Nehemiah take the bait?
Instead, he said, and I quote:
“I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?…Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”
That last line always makes me smile. You are making it up out of your head!
And that is what the Anxiety Monster does in our heads: It makes stuff up.
So how do we deal with it?
Talking back to it often gives it more power.
Going down to fight it gives it the opportunity to hurt us even more.
Instead, we should do as Nehemiah did, and shift our focus from the Monster’s threats to our Great Project.
What is Your Great Project?
Anxiety often beckons to me, reminding me of things left undone, potential future pain, anything to get me off balance and force me into the black hole of pain and uselessness.
But the times when its cries are the least potent are when I am working on a Great (writing) Project.
When I am writing something important, it’s as if the Anxiety Monster’s voice is dialed WAY down. When I am not working, its voice is much louder, much more demanding, and I succumb.
Other people have found this to be the case as well.
Dr. Ian Osborn, a writer and psychiatrist describes one young patient who found a way to silence the dictator in his mind by doing chores for others.
When the young man didn’t feel good, he would ask his family and neighbors if there was anything he could do for them: chop wood, paint, clean, rake the lawn, anything.
He became the most helpful person in the community, and few knew the real motivation behind his helpfulness was actually his mental illness.
For this young man, doing physical community service work was his Great Project. For me, it’s intellectual/communication work.
But what is your Great Project?
What makes a project a Great Project?
There are two keys to a Great Project:
1. Your Great Project uses your gifts and talents
Everyone has specific gifts and interests.
I love the written word. I love learning and transforming ideas into stories, songs, and articles.
But ask me to, say, build a house, and I’m not interested. Sorry. That task does not have the same absorption power for me.
Other people, however, adore carpentry. Or chess, ball sports, watercolor painting, cooking, etc.
So to figure out what your Great Project is, consider what you are naturally drawn to, what you are good at, what you love deeply and inexplicably.
Then combine that with this second point:
2. Your Great Project can help someone else
You may love movies, but trying to defeat the Anxiety Monster by holing yourself up in a room binge-watching shows won’t help you get your life back.
Because the second key to a Great Project is that it contributes to the well-being of someone other than yourself.
When Nehemiah was building the wall, he wasn’t just thinking of himself.
Those walls were necessary for the safety of his countrymen. They needed protection from wild animals and murderous neighbors.
Nehemiah’s work was important, not just for himself, but for everyone else. It is this factor that made Nehemiah’s wall-building a GREAT project, not just “a project.”
When I write my articles, I usually think about a reader who thinks like me, suffers like me, but may be a few steps behind me. Someone I can help.
I write for that person.
I write to let that person know that whatever (s)he is going through, (s)he is not alone, and here are some thoughts and perspectives that have helped me and will hopefully help him/her.
Dr. Osborn’s example of the young patient is also a great illustration of this. If the young man simply liked physical activity, he could’ve gone to the gym.
He could have raked his own leaves and painted his own house. But he didn’t. He did those things for others.
Somehow, for some reason, helping others increases the Anxiety-Monster-Killing-Power of your Great Project by 1000%.
Many people who have suffered from awful things, have used this thought to encourage themselves, even in the midst of the worst darkness:
So for those of us who suffer from anxiety or any other life-sucking condition, why not let that “one day” be today?
“I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down”
Here’s one more thought that may help — your time is limited.
Nehemiah & Co. didn’t pick daisies while they were building their wall.
Because every day they delayed was another day that their enemies could a) kill them off, b) spread lies further, c) twist the king’s arm and make him stop the work.
They could not risk losing momentum. The walls had to be finished, ASAP, or they might be left unfinished forever.
You and I also don’t have a lot of time.
If the average lifespan is 80 years, That’s only 29,200 days.
And if you are reading this, you have already used up several thousand of those days. (Not to mention that you are not necessarily guaranteed all 80 years. No one’s future is certain)
Whatever Great Project you’ve got in you — you’ve only got so much time to get it out.
So next time your Anxiety comes knocking, tell it what Nehemiah told Sanballat et al:
“Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?”
You don’t have time for that kind of nonsense. The world — or someone out there in the world — NEEDS your Great Project. Don’t let them down!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There will always be up days and down days.
So I would be remiss if I did not mention the last thing Nehemiah said after this episode with Sanballat et al:
They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Now strengthen my hands.
No enemy can make us stop working on our Great Project. They can only make it so difficult that we want to stop.
They’re really good at that, too.
Yet when that happens, the key is not to give up, but to pray, “Lord, strengthen my hands.”
“You are the one who gave me the ability and idea to do this Great Project, you help me finish it!”
Your Great Project is your wall against anxiety
Here’s the interesting thing:
Working on the wall gave Nehemiah the courage and motivation to stand up to Sanballat and his other enemies. And once the wall was complete, the wall itself became Nehemiah’s protection against those same enemies.
You may find, as you work on your Great Project, that the project itself becomes your protection against your Anxiety Monster, in more ways than one.
- Working on it will keep you too busy to care about whatever slander the Monster is spouting at you to make you come down.
- Finishing it may empower others, and
- Their response may provide further motivation — for you to move on to your next Great Project and continue to beat back the Monster.
For example: Every once in a while, someone will email me or leave a comment saying that a particular article I created helped them just in time. Those aren’t just nice words, they are another brick in the wall against my Anxiety Monster.
So get to work on your Great Project. Ignore the Anxiety Monster, and look for ways to join forces with other builders, to stick a brick in someone else’s wall wherever you can.
You will help yourself and others, overcome the Monster, and, brick-by-brick, build a hard-won life you might never have experienced otherwise.
What’s Your Project?
If you are working on a Great Project, I would love to know more about it and support you as you build your wall against the enemy!
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