Anxiety disorders are ridiculous, demeaning, and frustrating beyond words. And they have very real ways of ruining people’s lives.
If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, (Or even if you don’t have a full-blown disorder, yet find yourself often anxious for no good reason) how do you get your life back?
There are perhaps as any methods as there are sufferers, but allow me to suggest one powerful method that has helped me quite a bit:
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 asked for — and received — the opportunity to return home.
Nehemiah found Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, in dire straits. The city walls had been destroyed and foreigners had moved in to squat on his people’s land.
As the new governor of the pitiful nation, Nehemiah decided to rebuild the walls of the city. But his enemies gathered to ridicule, threaten, and attack him and his workers. They thought that threatening Nehemiah’s life and harassing his workers would make him stop.
But they underestimated Nehemiah.
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?
How did he keep building even in the face of powerful enemies and massive obstacles…even in the face of death?
Living with Anxiety
What does Nehemiah’s story have to do with getting your life back from anxiety?
Well, sometimes living with anxiety is like trying to build a wall with one hand while you’re holding a sword with the other hand, keeping a lookout for deadly enemies who may spring to attack at any moment.
For people who suffer from an anxiety disorder, anxiety is always lurking in the background, 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 level is so high that we 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 Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, sent him a message:
“Come, let us meet together…It is reported…that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt [against the king]”
This was a serious charge. If true, Nehemiah could be killed for rebellion. No doubt, Sanballat et al were threatening Nehemiah: “We are spreading these lies about you, you better come down here and defend yourself or else!”
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?
The monster in my mind, the evil force that creates my 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 anxiety.
It wins more often than I care to admit.
But the times when its cries are the least potent are when I am involved in a Great Project.
For example, when I am writing articles like these. Or writing poetry, songs, stories about lessons that I have learned and want to share. Even writing in my journal about the latest anxiety attack, and what I’ve learned from it can lessen the volume.
When I am writing something important, it’s as if the Anxiety Monster’s voice is dialed down — WAY down. When I am not working, its voice is much louder, much more demanding, and I often feel as if I have no choice but to succumb.
Other people have found this to be the case as well.
According to Dr. Ian Osborn, a psychiatrist who both suffered from OCD and also treats the condition, describes one young man he knew who found that a great way to silence the dictator in his mind was to do 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 developed a reputation for being the most helpful person in the community, and few knew that the real motivation behind his helpfulness was actually his illness.
For this young man, doing hard physical work in the form of community service was his Great Project. For me, I lean more toward intellectual/communication type 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 intrinsic gifts and abilities
Everyone has specific gifts and interests. I love the written word. I love playing with ideas and translating them into different forms, primarily stories, songs, and articles. I also happen to have had years of musical training, and probably thousands of books read under my belt.
My particular interests, experiences, and training have given me the ability to do some things better than other things. I can get lost for hours crafting an article, story, or song. But ask me to work on math problems or build a house, and I’m not interested. Sorry. Those tasks do not have the same absorption power for me.
Other people, however, adore math and carpentry. Or chess, ball sports, watercolor painting, cooking, you name it.
So when you need to figure out what your Great Project is, figure out what you are naturally drawn to, what you are good at, what you love deeply and (probably) inexplicably.
Then combine that with the second point:
2. Your Great Project has the potential to help someone else
You may love watching movies, but trying to avoid the Anxiety Monster by holing yourself up in a room binge-watching marathons of the latest popular show is not going to help you get your life back.
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 fellow Israelites. They needed protection from wild animals and murderous neighbors. Nehemiah’s work was very 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 hypothetical someone-out-there, someone who thinks like me, who is suffering the same thing as me, but who may be a few steps behind. 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 man is also a great illustration of this. If the young man simply liked physical activity, he could’ve gone to the gym. Or done jumping jacks at home. 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, adding the dimension of “helping others” to the mix increases the Anxiety-Monster-Killing-Power of your Great Project by something like 1000%.
Many people who have suffered from various awful things, from losing children to getting sick, have used this thought to encourage themselves, even in the midst of the worst darkness:This pain I am going through is not in vain. It will not be in vain. One day I am going to use all of these experiences to help someone else.Click To Tweet
This thought is the seed that eventually grew to become things like memoirs/autobiographies, nonprofit organizations, and all kinds of other transformational Great Projects that have helped changed the world for good.
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 dawdle and pick daisies while they were building their wall. Why? 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 any of those things. They could not risk losing momentum. The walls had to be finished, ASAP, or they might be left unfinished forever. So you can betcha they were working as fast as they could, low manpower and bulky weapons notwithstanding.
You and I also don’t have a lot of time.
Think about it this way. If the average lifespan is 80 years, That’s only 29,200 days. Sounds like a big number, until you consider that that’s less than the average yearly tuition at a private 4-year university. (Even a public, out-of-state university)
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)
So whatever Great Project you’ve got in you — you’ve only got so much time to get it out.
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.
There are days when even the thought of writing for other people does not inspire me to fight back against the Anxiety Monster smothering me in its hairy grip. Days when I don’t know what to write.
Likewise, I’m sure Nehemiah and the other builders felt discouraged at times.
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.
Anyone who has suffered from an anxiety disorder knows this all too well. The stupidest little thing can set us off, and the harder we try to stop it, the worse it gets. The despair is overwhelming.
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 or something I created helped them just in time. Those aren’t just nice words to hear, they are like another brick in the wall against my Anxiety Monster.
Building walls requires everyone pitching in, working hard. We’ve all got our own section of Wall to work on. And you will find, over time, that your piece of the wall combines with other people’s pieces, to form an even bigger Wall that has the ability to protect everyone.
In other words, your Great Project may overlap with someone else’s Great Project, and the encouragement and support you offer each other can create a synergistic effect, locking out all of your monsters at the same time.
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, feel free to share about it in the comment section. I would love to know more about it and support you as you build your wall against the enemy!
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