How I Fight Anxiety and Serve as a Missionary Anyway

by Abigail Follows

We were home on our first furlough when my husband, Joshua, asked me to drive. I forced a yawn to hide my dismal forebodings.

“I’m a bit tired.”

“I am, too. But it’s not far.”

“I really don’t want to.”

“But you can, Abby.”

“But I can’t!”

I drove us home, angry. Something in me knew my fear wasn’t logical. But the rest of me was sure I was going to drive my whole family into a tree, off a bridge, or into the side of a Dairy Queen.

That night Joshua and I had a heart-to-heart. That’s when I realized I had a giant bully in my life—anxiety, my own personal Goliath. I knew anxiety was keeping me from more than just driving. Fear was affecting everything in my life, including ministry in India.

Over the ten years since that day, I’ve rounded up an arsenal of “smooth stones” that help me stay brave. Here are nine tools I use to fight anxiety and serve as a missionary anyway.

 

1. Avoid Avoiding
For over a year, I avoided driving like the plague. I thought I was more emotionally stable that way. But my “safety bubble” just kept shrinking. I avoided more and more things until I didn’t even want to leave the house.

According to Emma McAdam, who produces Therapy in a Nutshell, avoidance teaches the brain to be anxious. “You think you have to keep running so that it doesn’t catch you,” she writes. [1]  “But I promise if you sit and let it catch you, you’ll find that you can handle it, and that it’s better than running all the time.”

It wasn’t until I stopped avoiding and started facing my fears that I conquered them. That meant leaving the house to drive, shop, and visit people—even when I wanted to hide.

 

2. Check Your Vitamins
Our bodies and minds are complex and connected. Stress and a lack of dietary nutrients can work together to cause anxiety.

Sarah is a nutritionist and former missionary to Chad, Africa. She found herself dealing with anxiety after returning from the field.

“It started after we came back, surprisingly,” she says. “I experienced a lot of anxiety.” Although Sarah ran a nutrition clinic in Chad, at first she didn’t connect nutritional deficiencies to her own experience. “It lasted for a couple of years,” she says. Finally, Sarah began taking a simple multivitamin. Her anxiety improved dramatically.

Stress increases the body’s need for certain nutrients. But the food supply in a country may lack key nutrients that play a part in mental health—iodine, B12, B6, Omega-3, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D are just a few. Some countries fortify foods like cereal and bread with these and other nutrients. Some don’t. Our whole family tested low on several nutrients after about four years overseas.

Now we take multivitamins. I also take magnesium, a mineral used by the body to calm the stress response, and often found to be depleted in people facing a lot of stress.[2] Talk to your healthcare provider for help determining what supplements you might need.

 

3. Exercise
Exercise was my husband’s first suggestion for fighting fear. At first, my anxious brain was offended. But then I realized he was right—exercise works, and is one way I can practice self-care.

Exercise combats anxiety in many ways.[3] It uses both sides of the body together, which helps the brain communicate with itself. It signals to the amygdala, the part of the brain most involved in anxiety, that you have run away from The Danger. It helps the body use up and burn off stress hormones, and it increases endorphins.

But I haven’t always lived in countries where it’s safe for a woman to go for a jog. As expats, we sometimes have to get creative when weather, space, time, and safety concerns limit exercise opportunities. During the Covid pandemic, my family even used the stairs in our house as “our mountain,” and we gave ourselves a daily stair-climbing challenge.

The number one thing that helped me exercise more is realizing how much better it makes me feel. That was more motivating to me than thinking about how I look or what I “should” do.

 

4. Check Your Circadian Rhythm
Dr. Neil Nedley, MD, has done extensive research on the causes of anxiety and depression. He names an off-balance circadian rhythm as a contributor to both anxiety and depression.[4]

As missionaries, we frequently change time zones. That means we deal with more jet lag than your average person. If you find yourself happier and more alert the later it gets, you might be dealing with a circadian rhythm problem. Some people call this day-night reversal, and it can leave you feeling jumpy, gloomy, and lethargic all at the same time.

Dr. Nedley recommends exposing your eyes to bright light early in the morning, either through a “happy lamp” or light therapy glasses or with the natural morning sunlight. He also recommends avoiding all screens within 1-4 hours of bedtime, since the blue light in screens naturally signals the brain to wake up. Just avoiding screens in the evening has helped me keep my circadian rhythm in a good groove.

 

5. Evaluate Your Relationship with Technology
Take any normal human being and place them far away from friends and family in a totally new environment. Add stress.

Now offer them a way to connect with people, information, and entertainment instantly. Who wouldn’t choose to spend a lot of time on their phone or computer? The problem is, too much technology can be addictive and aggravate anxiety.[5]

Recently, my family came up with a few rules to make sure we have healthy technology boundaries. Among these are no phones before family devotion in the morning and no phones after dinner. We use alternative forms of entertainment and take one day a week as a low-tech day. These simple steps have helped us keep technology in its rightful role as a useful tool instead of a way to escape reality.

 

6. Learn Calming Techniques
Sometimes our bodies get so used to feeling anxious that they signal danger where there is none. Calming techniques are a great tool to lower acute stress—the kind of anxiety that is overwhelming you right this minute.

Calming techniques work by activating the parasympathetic system[6], which regulates the fight-or-flight response. Some techniques include observing your environment, observing the way your own body feels, doing manual tasks such as knitting or washing dishes, playing with your kids, being in nature, and journaling. You can also try “softening your eyes,” which is basically staring at nothing/zoning out.

Slow, deep breathing might seem like something too simple to help, but it’s impossible to breathe in this way and stay scared. Try breathing in for a count of eight, holding it for a count of four, and breathing out for a count of eight. You can even do this through the day when you’re not panicking as a preventative measure.

 

7. Try CBT
Nope, it’s not a supplement. CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Sometimes unhelpful thought patterns are behind anxiety. In CBT, unhelpful thoughts, or “cognitive distortions,” are purposefully challenged and replaced with truer, more helpful thoughts.

When I was first language learning, I sometimes felt paralyzed by social anxiety. Years later, I realized that I often told myself that making mistakes is horrible and that I can’t stand feeling embarrassed. These thoughts were so automatic I barely noticed them—I only noticed their emotional effects. Thinking differently can feel awkward, but after purposefully changing my thoughts, my emotions soon followed. I was able to give myself some grace and learn our host culture’s language, one mistake at a time.

A couple of helpful books for changing your thought patterns are SOS: Help for Emotions, and Telling Yourself the Truth. It can also be helpful to work with a counselor trained in CBT.

 

8. Tackle a Specific Stressor
Is there something specific that is triggering anxiety for you? Try keeping an anxiety log, where you journal a few lines every time you feel anxious. Try to record the situations surrounding the anxiety, as well as the specific anxious thoughts you are having.

Once, when I did this exercise, I realized I felt more anxious (surprise!) when my kids bickered. Now that I knew the specific problem I was facing, I made a plan to tackle it. For me, that meant reading a couple of parenting books, talking to other godly moms, praying about it, and thinking creatively about the problem. Just having a plan gave me hope and helped me feel more capable.

 

9. Be Kind To Yourself
Growth takes time. This is true in our walk with Christ, our effectiveness in ministry, and our emotional intelligence. If you want to win the fight against anxiety, expect to lose a few battles along the way. Failure isn’t a sign that you’re doomed—it’s a sign that you’re trying!

One thing that has helped me is remembering I’m not alone. Christ promises to walk with me, and His strength is made perfect in my weakness. Time and again, anxiety tells me I “just can’t do it.” Maybe I can’t, but Christ in me can! I may not even be willing to fight fear some days, but if I’m willing to be willing, Jesus can work with that.

 

Shrinking Giant
The “Goliath” of anxiety has been a recurring character in the story God is writing of my life. But by God’s grace, that Goliath is shrinking, becoming less and less powerful and important. I’ve learned how to support my body and mind, and I’m learning to trust God with my worries and feelings.

Anxiety is still a bossy bully. But I’m learning to obey Jesus, who will be with me even to the ends of the earth.

As you are ministering to others, don’t forget to let Christ give you hope, strength, and courage in your deepest need.

Even if that deepest need is the Goliath of anxiety.

 

Sources:

[1] https://therapynutshell.com/skill-5-how-avoidance-makes-it-worse/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7761127/
[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-treat-anxiety-2019102418096
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5103329/
[5] https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/how-much-is-too-much-technology-screen-time-and-your-mental-health/#:~:text=increasing%20screen%20time%20was%20generally,diagnosed%20with%20anxiety%20or%20depression.%E2%80%9D
[6] https://canyonvista.com/activating-parasympathetic-nervous-system/

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. Despite struggling with anxiety, she has served with God’s help as a cross-cultural missionary since 2010. Abigail believes that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to face fear. She writes about what God can do through brave obedience in her book, Hidden Song of the HimalayasAbigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two energetic children, and cat, Protagonist. You can get to know her at www.abigailfollows.com.

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Abigail Follows

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and understood the life stories of friends in three languages. She has served as a missionary since 2010, alongside her husband, two energetic kids, and cat, Protagonist. Abigail is the author of Hidden Song of the Himalayas: Memoir of a Gospel Seed Sower in the Mountains of India.