Giving Up Worrying for Lent

Have you ever had a conversation with God where you have your fingers crossed behind your back?

I have.

“Lord, I want to learn to be patient.” (Fingers doubled crossed behind my back!)

Fingers crossed!

(I always have this little kid inside of me that thinks I can hide what’s really going on from God.)

It’s a bit of a paradox. I truly want to be more patient… but I don’t really want to go though the frustrating, exasperating, annoying situations that are going to lead me to need to be patient. (Like that old saying, “Lord, make me patient… and do it right now.”)

That’s the same way I felt when I decided to give up worrying for Lent.

I told God that during Lent I was going to give up my worrying, focus on Him, and replace the false anxiety-producing pictures in my head with positive uplifting images.

The moment that offering went from my heart to God’s ears, I knew without a doubt that I was going to face circumstances that would show if I really was sincere or not about my “sacrifice.”

Now, I have to say that I really do believe that God has my best interest at heart… maybe not my most comfortable interest, or my most enjoyable interest, but I do believe He has my best interest at heart.

That said, do I believe God will always keep me from experiencing bad things? Of course not. (Although as I have said before, I did naively buy into this thinking at one point in time when I was younger.) We live in a fallen and broken world. God’s job is not to keep me comfortable.

But He purposes to conform me into His likeness, to love and serve well.

But I digress…

I had made this commitment to follow the three R’s in dealing with the anxious images in my head: refuse, replace, and repeat.

I was in a meeting where there were some very difficult matters being discussed when my phone rang. Well, it didn’t exactly ring. It quietly vibrated and flashed. I looked to see who was calling and it was my daughter, Steph.

Now it was the middle of the afternoon and she never calls me at that time of the day, especially while she’s at work. I felt this little creep of anxiety inching its way up. My mind went where it usually goes when she calls at unusual times… that she was by the side of the road in a car accident (this is my worse fear so it is the one that pops up the most).

As I said, the meeting I was in had a number of people in it who were discussing some very delicate issues. It would have been totally inconsiderate for me to excuse myself to take the call. So I didn’t.

I took a deep breath and let it go to voicemail. I said to myself, “No. I don’t want this horrible picture in my head. I’m going to think of her sitting at her desk, working at her computer, and she’s just fine.”

It was hard but I did it. “Okay,” I thought to myself, slightly smugly, “that wasn’t so bad.” And I went back to my meeting.

Five minutes later I looked down and saw the phone ring again. It was Steph.

Now, I was in an internal panic with lots of thoughts racing through my head and my heart starting to race.

“Why was she calling again so soon? I wonder if something really is wrong.” (There are lots of reasons I react this way and I’ll let you in on them at another point.)

My mind immediately had her in a disastrous situation calling with bad news.

Now I had a choice to make: Was I going to worry – would I give in, run out of the room and take her call? Or would I refuse the image and ask God to quiet my head and my heart?

(I hate to admit this but it wasn’t an easy choice.)

I decided to focus on the present, where I was right now, and not the imaginary – what could be happening.

I looked normal on the outside. Nobody in that meeting could tell by looking at me that there was a war going on in my head and my heart. But inside, I was really struggling.

I made a decision: I decided to choose to not worry; to be okay with the uncomfortable feeling and be present where I was. I truly was uncomfortable but I kept praying and repeating, “No. I don’t want this picture in my head. I am picturing her as okay.” And when I saw the bad picture pop into my head again, I changed it back to another good picture, like changing channels on TV.

Now, could there have been something tragically wrong? Absolutely. But this is where crazy thinking comes in: I usually think it is more likely that something bad is happening rather than something good. I decided to choose the opposite: if it were just as possible that she was calling about something good as something bad, I was going to focus on the good.

The 20 minutes until the meeting was over seemed like forever. I prayed and God helped me focus on the task at hand. When it finally (!) ended, I stepped (not ran) outside and listened to her voice message.

“Hey mom, it’s me. I wanted to see if I could borrow something for work so I didn’t leave a message. But then I thought of something else I wanted to tell you so call me when you get out of your meeting. Love you.”

I silently prayed a prayer of thanksgiving…and I decided next year I’m giving up chocolate for Lent.

(As my quest to give up worrying for Lent continues, I have had more circumstances where I have been challenged to not worry. I’ll tell you more about them next time. It’s been good but not easy! But I’m taking it one day at a time.)

Breaking Free From My Addiction to Worrying

Confession: I am a Worrier – with a capital W.

I think I might need a 12-step program.

“Hi. My name is Karen. I’m a Worrier.” “Hi, Karen.”

Because lately, I’ve begun to wonder if I’m not addicted to worry.

Over the years, there have been many unexpected crises that have impacted my life dramatically—my dad had a stroke when he was 53, my girls both were diagnosed with a bleeding disorder as babies, then Steve’s dad got cancer and died from AIDS he acquired from a blood transfusion. Crises continued to happen throughout my life. In recent years, my childhood best friend’s husband dropped dead of a heart attack, my sister-in-law died of breast cancer, another dear friend’s husband died of pancreatic cancer, etc.

Life events.

But somehow I wasn’t prepared for them.

Looking back, I realized I had been taught some bad theology early on by well meaning friends. I was told that once I gave my life to Christ then God had a “wonderful plan for my life.” I assumed (naively) that this meant my life would always be wonderful.

And in many ways it has been. But in many ways, it hasn’t seemed so wonderful when people I love have suffered and I have lost people very near and dear to my heart.

Add to that, I am a caregiver. By training I am a “helping professional” and by nature, I care for people who are hurting. That’s who I am and how I am gifted. And that’s a good thing.

But over time, I have sunk deeper and deeper into a “worry mindset” that permeates how I look at life and how I respond to situations. (And my worry mindset drives my family crazy!)

Now I know this is going to seem ridiculous to many people, but somehow worrying has become almost a comfort to me.

Let me explain.

Since I got that first phone call about my dad’s stroke when I was 22 years old, something gets triggered in me when I get bad news out of the blue. I’m happily going along with my life and suddenly, my life changes.

Somehow, that has developed into this crazy thought process that thinks…

…if I’m not thinking about anything and something bad is happening that I don’t know about,

…then, if I consciously think about it, maybe it won’t.

Hence, I worry.

I know that doesn’t make sense but that’s the way my little mind sometimes works.

The way this has evolved over the years is that my mind creates these horrific pictures of what might be happening. When I find out that nothing has happened, the little voice inside my head says, “See. What you imagined didn’t happen. Now you can relax.”

What does this really mean? It means I somehow think I can control what is happening. (Ha! This is so embarrassing to even write!)

Unfortunately, the downside of this is that there is this continual war between my mind and my body. And my body is acting out with symptoms of anxiety… like not being able to sleep, to a racing heart rate, to grinding my teeth at night, even to chest pains that lead me to the ER with a panic attack. (It happened the night of my birthday when I turned 53, the same age as my dad when he had his stroke. You don’t need a shrink to be able to analyze that one!)

My friend Mike Hyatt had a blog post that helped me think of this in a new way. He suggested that worry and imagination might be two sides of the same coin. That people who worry often have very active imaginations.

This idea began to take root and I started looking at what was happening in my head when I was worrying. And sure enough, I was seeing pictures of what might be happening that I didn’t know about…

  • My daughter bleeding out at the scene of a car accident.
  • My husband having a heart attack while he’s away on business.
  • My house being foreclosed.
  • My getting cancer and not living to see my grandchildren.

Not pretty pictures.

And the more I saw these kinds of pictures, the more they popped into my head. And the more anxious I got.

Until it felt like all I was doing was worrying. And yes, good things still happened and bad things still happened but there was no correlation between the intensity of my worrying and what was happening!

I was discussing this with my friend Patsy Clairmont and she told me when she struggled with anxiety, she used the three R’s: Refuse, Replace and Repeat.

Refuse to think about the picture that isn’t true. Just stop.

Immediately, Replace that picture with something positive (Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8)

Then Repeat. Over and over and over until your mind has shifted from the bad picture to a good one. (For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7)

Right after my conversation with Patsy, Lent was approaching. I was trying to decide what I could give up for Lent to remind me of Christ’s suffering. (Over the years, I have given up chocolate, wine, and romance novels—all things that I felt would help me to focus during the 40 days of Lent!)

Around this time I was talking with a friend and asking her to let me know when she arrived at her destination because I was a worrier.

She said, “Too bad you can’t give up worrying for Lent!”

I hung up and thought about it and decided, why not?

I would give up worrying for Lent. Whenever I found myself worrying (and creating these awful pictures in my mind) I would focus on Christ and create a new picture.

The problem was, I knew by definition, I would have situations occur that would normally cause me to worry where I would have to change my thinking.

And they did.

So, I’ll tell you in my next blog post the details of how it’s going but until then I’ll give you a hint: it hasn’t always been easy but it has been good.

Philippians 4: 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Fearless: 
Imagine Your Life Without Fear 
by Max Lucado

“Imagine your life, wholly untouched by angst. What if faith, not fear, was your default reaction to threats? If you could hover a fear magnet over your heart and extract every last shaving of dread, insecurity, or doubt, what would remain? Envision a day, just one day, where you could trust more and fear less.

“Can you imagine your life without fear?”

For many years, my answer to this questions has been, “no”.

If there were an Olympic sport for worrying, I would be a Gold Medalist… just ask my family. “Oh my gosh Mom, if I don’t check in with you within 5 minutes of when I’m supposed to, you immediately think there’s been an accident.” “Honey, just go to sleep. It’s going to be fine. You worry all the time.”

In fact, last spring was really tough. I was taking some prescription medicine to help me sleep at night and come to find out, one of the side effects was: anxiety. I was having chest pains and my heart was thumping out of my chest. Should I go to the ER?

(Having had these same symptoms a few years ago – and now realizing I was on Ambien then, too –I did go to the hospital and they said I was having an anxiety attack.) So I was pretty confident that these symptoms were history repeating itself. But it was still scary.

I prayed a lot. “Please Lord, take these feelings and symptoms away. My head knows you’re in control of all things, but my body is feeling otherwise!”

After I stopped taking the medication, although I didn’t get much sleep, the anxiety decreased dramatically.

Still, the worrying plagues me.

Just for the sake of brevity, I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you two things that have helped me.

First, my friend Mike Hyatt wrote an excellent blogpost called Worry and Imagination: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

After reading it, I began to be able to not get sucked into the anxiety provoking image that was in my head, but step back from it a bit and look at it as an “imaginative scene”. Then I could be more objective about it and evaluate the likelihood of its occurrence.

Then, I just finished Max Lucado’s new book, Fearless.

Now, I was hoping that Max would just lay out the simple formula on how “not to be anxious for anything” and I would be “cured”.

But actually what he gave me was much more valuable.

He took me to a place, where I could wrestle honestly with my core questions… if God loves me, and He loves the world, why do bad things still happen? And do I really trust God with my life and the lives of those I love? Is there really a plan where “all things will work together for good?”

Yes, I knew there wasn’t a simple formula to make it all better. But, particularly in the discussion guide, Max gave me tools to make my worries “concrete.” He helped me focus on the One who says to the wind, rain and thunder, “Peace. Be still.” and all is quiet.

Does it mean that bad things won’t happen? Of course not.

But it does mean that I can trust the God of the universe with my life, my worries and my imagination.

Dear Karen: Is Y2K Finally Here?

This morning, out of the blue, I got a Facebook message from an old friend. He asked, “Are you still waiting for Y2K to hit?”

I’d like to share my answer to that question with a little background first.

For many of my friends who knew me in the late 90’s, I was very involved in “the whole Y2K thing” because, for me, it wasn’t about a “computer problem,” it was about three things:

  • Being prepared for any emergency.
  • Being emotionally okay during hard times.
  • Being ready to serve others if the need arose.

You see, “being prepared” made sense to me. My dad was an independent insurance agent and he drilled into my head since I was very young that unexpected things can happen.

Even as a little kid I remember having fire drills at home so we would know how to get out of the house and where to meet if there were a fire. I was admonished that under no circumstances was I to stop to go get my favorite stuffed animals and that my parents would be responsible to get our dog out of the house. We kids weren’t supposed to worry about anything; we were just to get ourselves out of the house (I’m a firstborn and they knew me well!).

Obviously, nobody “expects” to be in any kind of accident, but accidents happen – whether it’s your fault or not. That’s what insurance is all about. It’s about planning for something that might happen so you’re okay if (or when) it does.

At the time when people were thinking about possible Y2K problems, I was also very concerned about how women, in particular, were coping emotionally with their concerns about how life might change if there were a crisis or emergency. Since by training I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist, I knew that difficult circumstances can create enormous pressures on people and can have major consequences. Trying times can often draw people together but it can also pull them apart.

I was also concerned about being able to care for others. As a person whose faith is very important to them, I know that in both good times and in desperate times, there is a call to help people in need. When I think of how to take care of the people I love, I also need to think about how to care for my “neighbor,” whether that person is next door, in my office or in another part of the world.

So I began writing an online newsletter called “Dear Karen” with advice on being physically, emotionally and spiritually prepared for what might happen in an emergency or crisis.

And the good news was that when the clock turned over to the year 2000, many of the problems had gotten fixed or didn’t happen and everything went back to “normal” for most people.

But I continued to write my column for a few more years because for a number of people, they actually did find themselves in difficult or challenging circumstances.

I got many letters from women whose husbands had lost their jobs, had passed away or left them alone to fend for themselves and their kids. I got letters from women whose neighborhoods had been hit by tornados or floods or lost power for long periods of time from snowstorms. I also got letters from women whose best friends or neighbors had run into seriously hard times. But because they had prepared, they had their basic needs covered and were okay until they could get back on their feet (or they were able to share what they had with others).

So here we are in 2009 and given the current economic crisis, things are happening we never imagined or expected. And not only are they happening, they are on the front page of the newspapers, TV and Internet with lightening speed – increasing anxiety and fear like never before.

With that as background, here’s my response to my friend’s question:

“Unfortunately, “Y2K” is hitting everywhere… economically! It was always about being prepared for an emergency or crisis… and for many people, sadly, they are in a crisis and aren’t prepared for it. The good news is always that God will see us through… even in the difficult of times.”

The three things I was concerned about then, I’m concerned about now: that people haven’t planned for a “rainy day” (which was always the mantra of parents of Baby Boomers), that stress is taking its toll on individuals and families, and that the economically hurting “newly poor” now include our families, neighbors and friends and maybe even… us.

That’s why I want to share now, as I did then, that there is hope. Hope that we can handle whatever comes our way, we will get through this, and with God’s help, that it is never too late.

And if the problem sometimes feels too big, remember this. My favorite old joke has always been, “How do you eat an elephant?” The simple but profound answer is always the same, “One bite at a time.”

Let’s pass the fork.

Blessings,

Karen