Bonus Rewind: Calming Anxiety with Dr. John Delony

Bonus Rewind: Calming Anxiety with John Delony

This month we're doing something a little different. We are going to play clips from some of our and your favorite episodes over the last several years. Each week a different member of our team has chosen an episode to look back on and talk about why it was their favorite. So, I'm especially excited about this one because as single parents, we are always flooded with anxiety. We might suffer from panic attacks. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in America affecting more than 40 million Americans. Anxiety is a real deal. Because we know it affects so many of us, we wanted to reintroduce this conversation that we had with Dr. John Delony on how to calm our anxiety. And before we listen, I want to point out that he has a new book out called Building a Non-Anxious Life, and we're looking forward to getting him back on the podcast soon to talk more about that.

What was it you loved about this specific podcast?

I think what I loved about this episode is it's so relevant. As you mentioned, so many Americans are affected by anxiety. And it's something that in recent years, I have struggled with more than ever before in my life. Not long ago, I did some inner healing work and began to get a handle on some of my emotional eating. And when I did that and stopped using it as a cope, I began to recognize I was masking a lot of anxiety. I had never realized that before. Hearing Dr. Delony talk about how to calm anxiety was very relevant, very practical. I love that he's an expert, double PhD, over 20 years experience as a therapist, but he's real. He talks about his own struggle with anxiety.

What is anxiety?

At its core, anxiety is telling us we’re out of step relationally and are in a situation where we're not safe. Or we're looking into the future, and we can't control what's coming next. And so, it's not a sign that we're broken. It's not a sign that our brains are malfunctioning. Often it's the other way around. It's telling us that our brains are working great. It’s designed to tell you you're under threat and you have found yourself on an island all by yourself. You need to look at your entire universe, your entire ecosystem, to find out what's going on. Cognitive dissonance is when you have two different competing thoughts going on at once and different competing emotions, and that often leads to shutdown. We might be reading scripture that tells us we are loved and accepted as we are, while those around us are sending a different message. You may be sitting at a table full of people who love you and you feel completely alone inside. That's cognitive dissonance. Your brain's going to sound the alarm.

Anxiety can be a result of cognitive dissonance. The media ecosystem we live in has a vested interest in us being cognitively dissonant. It brings us back over and over to try to align our experiences and our thoughts. I think things are going great today. Nope. Somebody else got killed, another bomb went off, another thing happened. You're not as pretty as you think you are. Its job is to keep you from having a settled foundation.

Lots of single parents have chronic anxiety. How do we move toward calming anxiety?

Imagine you’re in the kitchen and the smoke alarm is going off. You get on the ladder and immediately try to get the batteries out to shut it off—while your house is burning down around you. There are some well-meaning people at your house. You have to look at what anxiety is trying to tell you. We need to look at what is going on and consider what we need to do to put out the fire. Then, the alarm will stop going off. We don’t need to turn it off; we need to figure out why it’s going off. And so, if I look at what anxiety is trying to tell me, it might be: I found myself alone. I'm not safe. I'm in a situation I can't control. (Dr. Delony says he can’t think of many situations that check all those boxes except waking up to find yourself a single parent.) You once had someone to help you in this [parenting] endeavor. Now, you can’t control what they are going to do when your kids are spending the weekend with them, and you can’t control how your seventeen-year-old is going to act. This is where anxiety comes in. We can’t just try to turn off the alarm. We need to get out of the house, go out in the yard, look at this and say, “What can I control now?” And then start reverse engineering that. Don’t go to war with anxiety. You’re not looking at it as something to solve. What you need to solve is putting the fire out on your house. The alarm will turn itself off. It's a good signal for us. It serves us.

Is there a time that we should go deeper and seek help or medication?

We've all been in buildings where they're testing the fire alarms, and you can finely tune them to where they'll go off [at the slightest trigger.] Maybe you've been in an apartment where you steam up the shower and the alarm goes off. I experienced the same thing—I didn't know what I was experiencing was anxiety. I responded by hitting the gas: I need to work out harder; I need to make more money, I need to get more, I need to get promoted. So I started chasing. I got to a point where my alarm system was malfunctioning; it was setting off for everything. I had to sit down with a buddy who was a doctor, and he gave me this analogy: If you were training for a marathon and you broke your ankle, nobody at your church would tell you to just pray harder. Nobody at the gym would tell you just to run harder. They would all tell you to stop, go see somebody, get an X-ray, get a cast, take a break, and do rehab. And then start walking, start jogging and start training for the next marathon. My friend told me, “You’ve got a ‘broken ankle’ that’s in your head. You’ve got to stop.” And for a hard charger who just wants to figure it out and solve it—that was really important for me,

Sometimes our default setting with anxiety is to try harder, work more, push harder. Other times it’s to shut down or get stuck in your head. It’s different for everybody and this is why we need our community.  That's where you need to be around other people. Your trusted friends are going to tell you, “You’re coming.” Or they’re going to tell you, “Man, you've had one more drink a lot lately.” They're the ones who have permission to speak into your life. They can help us see what we are doing even when we can’t, and they can help us identify what we need. We are terrible judges about what makes us feel better. For example, [Delony] says, “You know what makes me feel really good? Gummy candies and pizza. It makes me feel so good being alone and watching a great Netflix series without ever seeing sunlight. It makes me feel so good and it makes me feel terrible.” So, we need to have other people in our life who can see what we’re doing and point us in a different direction.

I really love how he reframes anxiety as an alarm system and that it's not something we need to turn off or solve. It helps us to recognize there's a reason where our body's responding in that way. It's sounding the alarm, and we need to get thoughtful and curious about what's causing the anxiety. He normalizes it so much and I love that. I also love that he joked about coping strategies at the end because that's so true for so many of us. I know it was for me. I mentioned that earlier, we do cope with our anxiety in all kinds of ways when instead, it's our system's way of notifying us to pay attention to something.

I also thought it was great when he said, “Well-meaning people, misguided people will sometimes say to pray about it more or fake it until you make it.” And he kind of cuts through all of that and says, “No, we don't do that for any other issues.” If someone has a broken ankle, we tell them to get a cast and rehab and take it easy and take a break and then get back to moving again. But for some reason, with mental health, it's often handled in a different kind of way where somehow we should suck it up, or somehow we should push harder. We should go for the next goal or somehow manage it versus allowing it to be true—that we're anxious about something. We can get curious about why we’re anxious and what's underneath that. And he talks about how single parents are set up for anxiety. We're now doing the job of two parents on our own. What could be more anxiety inducing than that? And normalizing [anxiety]. I think for me or any of our other single parents, sometimes there can be shame if we're feeling anxious or depressed and it's like, “No, this is just human. We're allowed to have these feelings and we're allowed to notice when something isn't right in our systems and the alarms are going off.”

We can turn our eyes on ourselves with compassion and care and take steps to think, “I need something here. I need to get around people. I need help. I need resources and support.” I tend to run faster—I am that person running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to get away from the anxiety, trying to solve or cure the anxiety versus slowing down, sitting with it, allowing it to be true, being truthful about it. You can very easily just say, “Well, I'm feeling anxious because of this, this, and this, when it's actually something completely separate that's masked. All of the ways we're pushing harder can mask what's actually happening underneath.

And also cognitive dissonance—I can see it in my own life. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, I didn't realize that I live in that reality.” I live in that cognitive dissonance with constant competing thoughts because I know how I should feel in a situation, but reality is I am thinking something different. Especially as we go into the holidays. We’re thinking, “I should be joyful. I should feel all the feels and also, the sky's falling.” They both exist in the same place.

Someone I really care about recently told me, “I'm really dealing with anxiety. I need to get back on meds.” I agreed. But I think a better thing to say would have been, “Yes, you should look into meds. But also get curious about why the anxiety is happening.” There are many reasons for anxiety, and we need to get curious about the underlying reasons and realize there’s more going on instead of just trying to medicate and unplug the alarm, so to speak. There's a reason the alarm is going off, and it may have something to do with actual things that are happening, but it also may just be something that's deeper than the circumstance and it's worth getting curious about. And I like where [Delony] landed. Part of his answer to calming anxiety is community and sharing [our struggles] with one another, not trying to do it on your own. Speaking things out loud is so important. That’s what happens in our Solo groups when we're just living into our vulnerability. There's something that lifts anxiety when you're in it with others. When we allow ourselves to get curious, we can turn our eyes of compassion onto ourselves and reach out to others for more support. Instead of having to run from anxiety or push past it or numb it out or try to silence it, we can begin to address the root problems.

Listener Question
I know I need to process my grief, but sometimes I just want to escape it during the holidays when it seems to grow. What are some constructive ways I can hide from my pain that won't move me backwards on my healing journey?

It’s so real. We don't get to escape grief just because the holidays roll around. And in fact, often these times of the year or big transitions when family time is so significant, really escalate our grief. One of the things that came to mind is to bring the covert things hiding below the surface and make them overt. Acknowledge to yourself, I am grieving. Acknowledge what's true and say to yourself, I want to push pause on my grief process to the best of my ability. I'm going to move my body. I'm going to notice what's good about this season. I am going to find myself in healthy connection with other people and manage grief in ways that are true and real. Give yourself permission to not have to delve deep into pain. Or maybe you just notice the sadness it brings up but decide you’re not going there right now. You acknowledge it and you dip into it and then you come back out. But instead of denying it, let it be true. At the same time, recognize that you don't want to or have to deal with it in a deep way right now.

Something else that's helped me has been moving my body. And I'm not just talking about working out, but breaking the state you’re in, breaking a pattern and getting outside. I know it's winter and not always feasible, but even in winter, you can step outside and look at the sky. Bundle up, step outside, look at the sky, take a deep breath, fuel yourself with oxygen, feel your body. And then breathe out. It’s a reset. When you break your state and step into something physical, it helps. It's a way of not hiding from grief, but pausing and going, “Okay, I need to reset.”

But yes, and I have also given myself a time limit. There’s a television show called Shrinking and several of the characters give themselves 15 minutes on a timer to just sit there and cry and grieve. When the timer is done, they're done. I don't necessarily give myself a 15-minute timer, but I have gotten to a point where I can get a good cry out and it’s not going to stick with me forever. And maybe it still lingers for a few minutes, and I can acknowledge, wow, I'm feeling really sad, but I'm not going to allow it to keep me from doing the things that I need to do for the rest of the day. Whether that's playing with my son and being present or cooking dinner. It can be a both/and situation.

I’ll even say it out loud or in my head, because when you name it, you tame it. Dan Siegel is famous for that [saying]. Acknowledging it out loud can diffuse those feelings just enough to allow you space to move on in a different way. And just like Delony said, having community—someone you can call and say, “Hey, I'm just really feeling sad” or “I’m feeling really anxious right now.” Just shooting off a quick text. It’s important to have that go-to person to be able to say what is true for you right now. I don't need you to solve it. I don't need you to fix it. Can you poke holes in my logic right here? Or whatever it is that you need at that moment to diffuse some of that heightened emotion.

Faith is so fundamental to me: not asking God to fix it but bring it to him and acknowledging you don’t know how to process it. Relying on the Holy Spirit to guide you and sitting in stillness. It’s not a performance; our faith walk is very much attuning to the One who gives us life and sustains us. I cannot emphasize that enough. I think prayer is so significant.

Original podcast from June 2021.  
Building a Non-Anxious Life by Dr. John Delony

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