Ask a Counselor: recognizing and managing anxiety

Anxiety.  It’s a thing we’re not supposed to have, right?


  • “There are 365 verses that say ‘fear not,’ one for every day of the year”
  • “80% of the things we worry about never happen”

and also,

  • “The Bible Clearly Says, ‘be anxious for nothing.’”

But, as one of my besties says, “I’m not anxious for nothing.  I’m anxious for SOMETHING.”

The truth is, many of us live in places where the “somethings” are all too real.22301758289_b675a2c57f_k

At one point during our overseas life, we lived for a couple of years in a sort-of war zone.  It wasn’t a real war.  But riots broke out from time to time in places like the produce market when my kids were there, and guns were fired often, in public places, where my husband had just gone to run errands.

It wasn’t a real war, and there wasn’t too much danger, so we didn’t leave.  We just tried to “be anxious for nothing.”

Only there was something.  Not a real war.  But something.

One day, a friend of mine overheard this conversation between a couple of 4-year-olds playing outside in her yard.

Preschooler 1:  “Did you hear that noise?  Is that a gun?”

Preschooler 2: (listening carefully) “No, I think that’s just bamboo popping in a fire.”

In my world, it’s not normal for little kids to know the difference between bamboo popping and automatic weapons firing.  And yet, that’s where we lived:  where gunfire was so common, preschoolers could make those judgment calls.

I had been taught to think that anxiety is all about our sinful thoughts, and our inability to trust God enough.

But after living through those years, what I learned is this:

When you live in circumstances that require you to be constantly on guard and vigilant for the lives of yourself and your children, that takes a physical toll on your body.  Your adrenal system, left on alert for years at a time, can go into a state of exhaustion that has nothing to do with sinful thoughts and mistrusting God.  It just has to do with burning out the complex organic machinery of our bodies.

Dr. Archibald Hart puts it this way:  “Humans were designed for camel travel, but most people are now acting like supersonic jets…Our adrenaline is a continuous stream of supercharged, high-octane energy.  And as with any vehicle running on high-octane fuel, we usually burn out too quickly.” The Anxiety Cure

But what does that kind of clinical anxiety look like?

If your child is experiencing anxiety, you might see symptoms like these:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, and/or crying
  • Hopelessness
  • Decreased interest in activities or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
  • Persistent boredom; low energy
  • Social isolation, poor communication, preferring to be alone
  • Low self-esteem and guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior (source: WebMD)

Adults can experience similar symptoms to kids’ (I mean, who hasn’t wanted to run away from home at times) but we often experience the more cognitive signs of anxiety:  worried, persistent thoughts, or obsessive thinking. 

Insomnia is often a part of anxiety, most commonly waking in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep.

Anxiety in adults and adolescents may also manifest as hyper-spirituality, or what’s known as “scrupulosity”:  the need to know and follow all religious rules; a preoccupation with morality; a persistent, obsessive need to confess sins; an inability to “feel forgiven” by God regardless of how much sin is confessed.

Some folks won’t know that anxiety is a problem until the first panic attack hits, with shortness of breath and heart palpitations.  If that happens, see it as a warning sign of over-stress, and be ready to make significant life changes.

So, if you’re overseas and you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms, what next?

  • First of all, evaluate your (or your child’s) FUNCTIONING.
    • How well are you (or your child) able to do what you need to do each day?
    • How much is the anxiety interfering with normal life, work, and relationships?
    • If anxiety is having a significant impact on functioning, you should probably see a doctor.
    • Anxiety that interferes with functioning in significant ways is very likely to be a medical issue, and medical treatment can help in recovery.
    • In fact, if you have an anxiety disorder that seriously inhibits functioning, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, you are unlikely to recover without medical treatment.
  • Second, educate yourself (and your child) about anxiety and its management.
    • Understand how your body works so you can cooperate with your body in healing.
    • There are lots of tips and tricks out there that can help cope with anxiety when it comes.  (Sites like GoZen are great for these.)
    • Putting yourself in charge of your anxiety by understanding what’s happening, and having a plan to cope, is usually very helpful.
  • Third, create a self-care plan that works for you (or your child).
    • Reducing stress overall with exercise, healthy sleep, regular time off work, and enjoyable activities should, over time, impact the anxiety levels you experience.
  • Finally, create healthy boundaries.
    • Serious anxiety means time for serious change.
    • Remember the old definition of insanity?   Doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.
    • Don’t be insane.  Be smart.
    • Be willing to make changes that support a calmer, less anxious life.

Resources to explore

The Anxiety Cure, Archibald Hart

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

Talking Back to OCD, a program for children and adolescents

Flowy app coaches healthy breathing in stressful situations (free, quick to download)

GoZen, animations that teach anxiety relief for children, adolescents, and probably even adults

Our Resource Page, where you can find counselors and retreat centers when you need them

The Cerny-Smith Adjustment Index, which can help pinpoint sources of stress

 photo credit


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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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