How to Stop Worrying: An Ancient Life Hack from Prison
“Don’t worry, be happy.” This phrase quickly became a brain worm when Bobby McFerrin turned it into a Grammy award-winning song in 1988. It implies that the solution to stop worrying is quite simple. The only problem is that it doesn’t work.There is a way to stop worrying, or at least to keep you from drowning in it. This anti-anxiety life hack was not developed by a psychology professor in an ivory tower, nor was it produced by the latest AI program in a supercomputer. Rather, it comes from a letter written in prison by the Apostle Paul nearly 2,000 years ago.
Anyone who has struggled with persistent anxiety has been frustrated with the reality that one cannot simply “turn it off.” Once worry starts, whether it is about our finances, children, or relationships, it can develop a life of its own. Worry can become like a leach attached to our soul, sucking out the life-blood hour by hour, day after day.
However, Jesus told us that we don’t have to “worry about our life, what we are going to eat, drink or wear” Matthew 6:25. Paul extends the notion in Philippians 4:6 by clarifying we are not to worry about “anything”. However, unlike McFerrin’s catchy tune, Paul doesn’t stop there.
He goes on in the next few verses to provide a simple, yet profound and practical strategy to live worry-free – a genuine tried and true, good as gold, first-century life hack. And it still works today. Here are the basic steps.
The life hack in Philippians 4:6-9.
Do not be anxious about anything… – Philippians 4:6
There may be some things that we have learned to not worry about, but it seems other things are so important to us that we “have to” worry. What parents do not worry about their children? Who does not at times worry about their finances?
Yet, Paul does not give us any exceptions. We are not to be anxious about “anything.” How can that even be possible? Fortunately, the Scripture not only challenges us but also provides a prescription of how we can do it.
But in every situation, by prayer and petition… – Philippians 4:6
This first step is not denial. We are not instructed to ignore our concerns and paste on a fake smile as some people do. Rather, we are to take our worries to God. Ask him to intervene. Tell him what troubles you. Jesus said, “come to me, anyone who is weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).This is the opposite of denial or wishful thinking. This is encouragement to let it all out-even “ugly cry” if that is what is needed. One of my favorite phrases from the Old Testament is that “the people cried out to God.” Often deliverance came in response to their cry. God is not shaken by our desperate cries. Jesus is recorded as doing it himself on several occasions.
Recent brain research has discovered something remarkable about the value of sharing our feelings. The amygdala is the small part of our brain responsible for responding to threatening situations. It is often called the “fight or flight center.” When triggered, the amygdala sets off stress hormones and all kinds of changes in our bodies such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and nervous energy. In addition, it makes it more difficult to reason or communicate.
Jeffrey Schwartz, in his book, You Are Not Your Brain, points to the fact that as soon as a person labels and expresses what he/she is feeling the amygdala quiets down. Brain scan studies done at UCLA by Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D. clearly show this. Even the simple act of expressing our feelings reduces some level of anxiety all by itself. Many of us have experienced the significant benefit of simply talking to someone about our problems.
Sometimes it may be hard to get in to see a counselor or even find a good friend in a critical time. But God is available 24/7 and encourages us to take our troubles to him.
In addition, the Bible is full of stories about how God answered people’s prayers in miraculous and often unexpected ways. We are to pray in faith that God can do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” (Ephesians 3:20) We don’t have a guarantee of how or when God will respond, but this belief can move us from despair to hope.
With thanksgiving, present your requests to God… – Philippians 4:6
One of the greatest problems with worry is that it can all too easily take over and throw shade over everything else in our lives. Worrying over a significant issue about one of your children can rob you of the joy or gratefulness about what is going well for them, or other areas of your life. We don’t have to ignore what concerns us, but if we can keep that concern in proper perspective with all that we can be thankful for, then we can avoid a spiral into hopelessness.
Here is an amazing promise. Paul says that if we follow these instructions to take our worries and turn them into prayers and requests, with thanksgiving to God, then He will give us peace. This is peace, beyond anything that makes sense to human reasoning.
…And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7
This is the peace that is from heaven. This peace can come right in the middle of an unresolved trial. Nothing at all has changed on the outside, yet everything is different on the inside. This supernatural, unexplainable, peace can keep our hearts or minds from spinning out of control.
One of the greatest trials of my life occurred when our first child suddenly developed a life-threatening condition of a knotted intestine as a little nine-month-old. He was rushed into emergency surgery. The doctor assured us that he should be okay as soon as his intestines started to work again. However, several days later, the condition reoccurred, and they had to cut open his now very frail body again.
We had been surviving on the prayers of everyone we knew and now the situation seemed even worse. But on a drive home a few days later, something supernatural happened to me. I began to sing a song of victory-a song that I had never heard before. I suddenly had words, rhythm, and a melody to celebrate.
Without any forethought or intention, I started singing, “Oh, the Lord has spoken to me. I’ll heal your son, give you victory. For I promised to raise him for my glory. So, don’t worry, just sing a new song.” I sang it at the top of my lungs, over and over-even somehow clapping my hands as I drove.
The only explanation I can give was that God simply gave me peace that surpassed understanding. I couldn’t manufacture it. It didn’t make sense. But God gave it as a gift. The next day, his body began to work again, and he was soon released from the hospital
Finally, brothers, 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
Jeffrey Schwartz (You Are Not Your Brain) has developed a four-step process to rewire our brain and break free from old patterns of anxiety (as well as other mental health maladies). The third, and perhaps most important step is to “refocus”.
We cannot stop our brains from feeling. However, we can redirect it from a fearful, hopeless, negative focus to dwelling on all that is “good, true, and beautiful…” This doesn’t change our circumstances. It does however change our way of responding to those circumstances.
Whatever you have heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the peace of God will be with you. – Philippians 4:9
Now, comes the time for the disclaimer. Though these keys can work, they are often not easy to apply. Many of us have spent a lifetime building brain pathways that do the exact opposite. Rather, than identifying our worries and sharing our feelings, we suppress them or try to worry even more trying to figure out a way to fix the problem at hand.
Rather than giving it to an all-powerful God, we stew hour after hour and soon find ourselves predicting every disastrous outcome possible. Rather than balance our worry with thanksgiving, we shut off all positivity and take a deeper dive into our fears. Rather than focus on what is good, we fixate on all that is wrong and the fear that it will get worse.
In this same letter, Paul also says that he has “learned the secret of being content in any circumstance” (Philippians 4:12). It is significant that Paul is writing this from a first-century dungeon. If he has learned how to be content in that setting, then he has truly learned a “secret.”
This is a “secret” that is not easy to learn. It takes a long time to rewire our brains. Most people like me need help. We can get help through the church, small groups, spiritual friendships, and regular devotion to Scripture.
Of course, it is not a shameless plug to also include the value of counseling. A Christian counselor can help you share the depths of your fears, and take them to a loving God in prayer, with thanksgiving.
And then redirect your focus to what is good and right and holy. And the counselor can help you practice it-practice it to the point where it becomes a way of life, to the point where you too can honestly testify that you have “learned the secret of being content…”
Christian counseling to learn how to stop worrying.
This life hack for how to stop worrying can truly work! I know, not only because I have helped many of my clients use this to reduce their anxiety, but I keep coming back to this strategy to derail runaway anxiety in my own life!
For counseling help, contact me or one of the other counselors in the online directory.
“Cell”, Courtesy of Jimmy Chan, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Drowning”, Courtesy of Ian Espinosa, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Praying”, Courtesy of Ric Rodrigues, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “In the Rain”, Courtesy of Enoch Patro, Pexels.com, CC0 License