How to Cut Off Anxious Thoughts


Like most children, I was afraid of the dark.  

When I was little, my sister Vivian and I shared a room with beds on opposite walls. When my fear of the dark -- or of some sickness, or of someone breaking into our house, or of Dracula (1st grade was a rough year) -- prevented me from sleeping, I had a few strategies for calming anxiety.

My favorite strategy, though, was waking Vivian.

She wouldn't remember anything in the morning and she wasn't the tattling type, and that's why it worked. My parents wouldn't find out that we were awake; I'd have someone to talk to. Win, win.

Of course, I couldn't let Vivian know that I was afraid (or that I was the one to wake her up). My pride as the oldest was strong. The solution was this: make enough noise to hear her groggy and frustrated voice say "what" and then tell her that, in fact, she must've had a bad dream because she made so much noise it woke me up. She was scared, not me. Did she want to talk about her dream? Did she want me to tell her a story? Did she want to get Mom and Dad?

It was genius, efficient, stealthy. With the anxiety settled, I could finally sleep.

I recently asked Vivian if she remembered when I used to wake her up in the middle of the night. Of course she did, she told me, she knew what I was up to all along. She wasn't amused, then or now.

Somewhere along the way, I think I got in trouble for waking Vivian up in the middle of the night (sorry about that, V). I then found another way to settle my young, anxious heart: singing.

In retrospect, that probably woke Vivian too.

Nevertheless, singing was my method of distraction when nights were dark and lonely, and childhood fears overwhelmed me. My anxious, short breath was repurposed to quietly belt out the first song that came to mind.

Vivian, of course, chimed in with a disgruntled "what?" if I continued for too long.

Returning to Childish Ways

Last week, post dramatic-face-plant onto my bed from a exhausted day, I clicked off the lamp and immediately felt panic rise. I was exhausted, and, having too many things on my plate that week, I wasn't managing stress. I turned the light on, laid back on the pillow, and--without realizing--began to sing.

I wasn't thinking of singing, it wasn't a conscious choice. I just started singing.

And, when I became aware that I was singing at some past-midnight hour to calm my feelings of anxiety, I remembered little Mary Grace, tucked in bed, singing herself to sleep. In that moment of panic, I defaulted to my oldest habits. Turns out my default is singing.

Over the past year, I've battled many forms of anxiety: bedtime anxiety, social anxiety, anxiety about the future, panic attacks.

When these began again, I rebuked myself for not managing my fear more effectively. Victory over anxiety is my testimony, the story I tell, the one I celebrate, the way I explain my faith, my purpose and my passion. The phrase "you shouldn't be struggling with this" sits in the back of my mind, my life-long accuser.

I asked God a lot of questions about it. Have I brought this on myself? Is this an attack of the enemy?

God answered me, he always does. For months, as I sought him, Holy Spirit responded "Psalm 13".

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)

It took me months to figure out what God was trying to say. Why am I anxious again? Why, God, do I wrestle with anxious thoughts all the time? 

One day, when I found myself singing to calm a rising panic attack, I got my breakthrough.

There's something about singing that releases peace.

I read the psalm for what was probably the hundredth time, and Holy Spirit brought breakthrough: just sing.

Anxiety wants us to believe that we must account for and work through every fear it presents. That's why David says, "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?" Anxiety wants a back-and-forth, and it tries to convince us that -- once we solve the puzzle -- we'll be okay. But anxiety never told anyone the truth.

Singing bypasses those anxious thoughts; a song moves the brain away from seeking answers.

Myself, middle, and friends worshipping in Dallas, 2015.

Myself, middle, and friends worshipping in Dallas, 2015.

When we encounter a stimulus, our brains process the information and decide whether it is a positive or negative experience (often referred to as a reward or non-reward). That initial perception, regardless of its accuracy, influences the future perception of that same stimulus. It’s like forging a path through the woods. The first time you walk through, it’s difficult to find your way. As you return to the same path and tread the ground repeatedly, a clearer walkway forms and becomes a path that requires no effort to walk. In our brains, if a certain stimulus leads to a certain thought pattern, and we reinforce it by entertaining it, the more likely it will become a default way of thinking.

Anxiety works by reinforcement. It sends fearful, hopeless thoughts to the mind and evokes the feeling that everything must be addressed and answered in the moment. When we choose singing instead of anxious thoughts, we redirect the brain's route. Instead of reinforcing the negative response to the stimulus, singing cuts the neural pathway off.

I learned how the brain processes anxious thoughts when I was in psychotherapy for anxiety and panic attacks, but God later revealed the practice of singing in the Spirit. I love it when the two -- science and the Bible -- overlap; it's fun to see God's design in human research.

If you're still a little skeptical, a recent scientific study has shown that singing alleviates depression and anxiety and improves quality of life. A group of cancer survivors, and their caretakers, were studied while they participated in group singing classes. After the three-month trial period ended, researchers noticed an improvement in the participants' experience of anxiety and depression.

I’m Still Singing

This process -- choosing to sing in storms -- was awkward at first. I didn't want to; I didn't feel like singing, it was weird. As Holy Spirit guides me each time, sweetly nudging me to sing or pray in the Spirit, I grow more empowered.

I encourage you, if you struggle with anxiety or depression, try singing in the Spirit.

As I heard God say to me, I'll say to you: just sing.