Inverting Anxiety

In researching and reflecting on patience, I could not escape one of its shadows, anxiety.  Anxiety is inevitable.  At some point in our lives we have been caught by this hairy beast.[1]  For me there are triggers that flip an anxious switch in me the moment they sneak into a conversation or my consciousness.  I have found that many of those triggers come from childhood experiences and fears.  My guess is that I’m not alone in this experience.  Who among us hasn’t felt an irrational fear?

The scriptures instruct us to “be anxious for nothing”[2], to “trust in the Lord”[3] and to “fear not for God is with us.”[4]  These are wonderful promises to guide us but kicking anxiety to the curb is easier said than done.  If we cannot outrun anxiety then we need a different strategy.  What if we could reframe anxiety?  What if anxiety could provide us with a gift?

In causation, expression, and severity, anxiety comes in a multiplicity of forms.  I doubt there is any universal, singular strategy for managing anxiety.  Yet perhaps anxiety, like pain, could be pointing us to a deeper issue or fear clouding our soul.  Perhaps the anxiety we feel is the voice of something else living much closer to our core.  While anxiety often pushes us to avoidance what if we inverted the feeling and received it as an invitation to go deeper.  “What is this anxious feeling trying to teach me about myself?”  Creating a crack large enough between the stimulus (the anxious feeling) and our knee-jerk response (avoidance, denial, repression, etc) is the trick.  Austrian neulogist, Viktor Frankl perhaps put it best when he said, “Our freedom is in the pause between the stimulus and the response.”  I love that quote because it so accurately names the defining moment that too often slides by me unnoticed.

Countless modern studies have confirmed ancient wisdom that teaches us practice mindfulness, to face our fears, and to be present in the here and now.  The Apostle Paul speaks of being mindful of our intent in Colossians writing, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…[5]  Mindfulness also teaches us to take note of what we are feeling and thinking.  Being present with oneself in this way necessitates a pause, a deep breath, a moment of centering.  Jesus speaks of being present when he said, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.[6]   Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk who taught and modeled the practice of living in God’s presence expressed these scriptural truths writing, “I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.”  Sometimes it’s easier for me to feel the presence of God when I have the benefit of the presence of a friend.

Anxiety and fear go hand in hand.  Facing fears feels possible when I can acknowledge it to someone else without judgment.  Sometimes, I like to preface such a confession with instructions for the other like, “I don’t need you to respond to this at all.  In fact, it might be better if you only said, ‘I hear you.’”  Often, I just need to hear it for myself which is one of the gifts of prayer.  In prayer we trust that we are heard by God and we give ourselves an opportunity to hear own our heart.  Once anxieties and fears are named it can be easier to ask the questions that look for deeper truths.

  • Am I overworked and exhausted, living with a sense of hyper urgency? Am I taking care of myself, eating properly and resting adequately?
  • What expectations am I carrying for myself? What I am trying to prove or achieve?
  • What feelings arise when I pray about my anxiety? Do any scriptures or stories come to mind?

During this season of uncertainty, all of us are finding ourselves having to make decisions with limited information.  We cannot get to 100% certainty and we are taking broader leaps of faith more often.  While anxiety often flourishes in uncertainty we don’t have to fixate on the gaps in our information.  We can take that pause between a stimulus and our response just long enough to inhale the Holy Spirit and exhale the prayer, “Guide me Good Shepherd.”  Perhaps, the gift of this season is that we are all learning together how to pause, take steps of faith, and be kinder to ourselves.  The pandemic has surfaced uncertainty worldwide.  It has reinforced the truth that we all benefit from being mindful with our breath.  My hope, is that the universality of this season deepens our compassion for one another and that by recognizing that this is hard, we give ourselves permission to quiet the internal voices of self-critique.

I’m not sure anxiety is ever eradicated in this lifetime.  However, I am convinced that we can find ways to grow because of it.  We can receive the feeling of anxiety as an invitation to probe deeper.  We can receive each anxious moment as an opportunity to practice the intentional pause.  We can receive the sense of anxiety as a reminder that all of us are feeling the tension of uncertainty and all of us could benefit from a bit of grace.

[1] I picture anxiety as Cousin Itt from the Addams Family

[2] Philippians 4:6-7

[3] Proverbs 3:5-6

[4] Isaiah 41:10

[5] Colossians 3:23

[6] Matthew 6:34