‘God must think I’m a horrible person.”
Alison, a 34-year-old lawyer and mother of three, was struggling with anxiety that was seriously affecting her work and home life. “I don’t get it. I’m so blessed. I have a great job. A good family. But I’m on edge all the time.” Her anxiety, which seemed to come from nowhere, had been building for several months. The last straw came when she thought she was having a heart attack at the office and was later diagnosed as having suffered a panic attack after an ambulance trip to the emergency room. “I can usually accomplish anything I put my mind to, but no matter what, I cannot seem to power through this.”
Alison discussed her situation with her pastor, who suggested both counseling and meditative prayer. While she welcomed his suggestions, she struggled to bring her anxiety to God: “Every time I pray, I just feel so guilty. God’s been so good to me. What kind of a way is this to say ‘thank you’ for all the blessings I’ve been given? My pastor told me that my anxiety isn’t a sin, but it just feels so wrong on every level. I just feel like I’m letting God down.”
Have No Anxiety?
Even if you are not among the 20 percent of Americans who experience the panic Alison struggled with, chances are you are no stranger to some more common examples of worrying. A friend of mine describes going “from 0 to widow in 60 seconds” when her husband is late from work. On Monday mornings, how many of us wake up feeling crushed by the weight of the week? Or watch the news with a growing sense of dread? The worse our feelings of worry are, the more difficult they can be to reconcile with St Paul’s admonition to “have no anxiety at all....” (Phil 4:6). For Christians, it can be hard not to view worry as some kind of personal failure; an insult to the God who asks us to trust in him with all our hearts (Prv 3:5).
There are different types of anxiety. The most serious anxiety disorders require comprehensive treatment (medication, therapy, spiritual and emotional support) because they have multiple causes (biological, social and sometimes circumstantial). Identifying a healthy Christian response to worry and anxiety begins with distinguishing between the gift of fear, which is protective and healthy, and anxiety, which is neither. We develop the capacity for fear early. By eight months in utero, a baby's fear and protection circuitry is fully developed and ready for action. Throughout life, in the face of a real threat, this circuitry causes chemicals to be injected into our brain and bloodstream that ramp up our senses and speed up our reaction time so that we can see all the ways we could respond and, if necessary, escape. When the fear systems in our brain are working properly, they serve a protective function, warning us away from danger and easing off once the threat has passed.
Anxiety hijacks this danger-alert system and causes us either to fear things that could be good for us (e.g., new opportunities, commitment in a healthy relationship), experience disproportionate responses (either in intensity or duration) to actual threats or suffer feelings of panic when, in fact, no danger exists (e.g., panic attacks).
For the most part and for the majority of people, the everyday worry we all face is a persistent, but not insurmountable, obstacle to a joyful, peaceful life. But when ongoing anxiety threatens our ability to enjoy our relationships or function well at work, it becomes a clinical disorder usually requiring professional help. In short, fear, as unpleasant as it may be, can be a great gift, a servant of our physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being. But anxiety represents a threat to our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual integrity that, left unchecked, can tear our lives apart.
Being Mindful of Anxiety
People often say they feel “burned out” by their struggles with anxiety, but most are unaware of the deeper truth behind this metaphor. Imagine soaking your hands in bleach for several hours, even days. You would most likely get a chemical burn that left your skin severely raw and irritated. Even brushing up against something afterward might hurt tremendously. In a similar way, the chemicals produced by the brain's fear response are caustic. When persistently stressful or traumatic events trigger prolonged or too intense exposure to these chemicals, this creates something like a chemical burn on your amygdala, the chief executive officer of the fear/protection system. At the very least, this can cause us to feel every stressor more acutely, making it harder to respond in a calm, rational way. At worst, we can develop an anxiety disorder in which an undercurrent of constant worry or even bursts of terror intrude upon every aspect of our lives.
Having an anxiety disorder is never a person's own fault. Even if a person receives various treatments or tries many different techniques in response to the anxiety, it may not go away altogether. Such is the mysterious nature of mental health, even in the psychiatric and psychological spheres. However, mindfulness remains a powerful tool for responding to feelings of anxiety, even if it is not a cure-all. Recognizing the bodily basis for anxiety is not the same thing as saying there is nothing, besides taking medication, that we can do to heal. Research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, which investigates the impact of the psychosocial environment on our neurological functioning, and, in particular, work by Daniel Siegel of U.C.L.A. and Louis Cozolino of Pepperdine University, among others, reveals that the thoughts we think, the habits we cultivate, the choices we make and, especially, the relationships in which we participate all send a constant wash of chemical reactions and neurological impulses through the brain and body. Through a process called neuroplasticity these psychological, social and even spiritual influences are perpetually rewiring the ways different regions of the brain interact with each other as well as the brain’s ability to form new connections.
A recent study by the University of Tel Aviv confirmed previous research that anxiety sufferers, by using certain psychological techniques, can learn to consciously modulate the degree to which their amygdala is triggered by stressful events. In particular, through the practice of mindfulness—the habit of adopting a kind of third-person-observer perspective on our own lives, by which we learn to be more conscious and intentional about our thoughts, habits, choices and relationships—we can both learn to respond more effectively to anxiety-producing situations and take steps to heal the damage even serious anxiety can cause. Mindfulness represents the intersection between spirituality and neuroscience.
Although psychologists often associate mindfulness with Eastern forms of meditation, this is not an essential connection. Mindfulness accompanies a wide variety of contemplative practices. For the Catholic, in particular, mindfulness is akin to the Ignatian practice of active contemplation by which one learns to prayerfully observe one’s circumstances and feelings with a desire to understand what God is communicating through our experience of the moment.
Of course, beyond mindfulness, a healthy spiritual life in general—one that facilitates a holistic integration of faith and life and encourages our active participation in loving, supportive communities—can have a powerful impact on both our ability to resist anxiety and heal from it. In his award-winning text anxiety sufferers Religion and Coping, Ken Pargament, a Bowling Green University psychologist, describes the results of hundreds of studies demonstrating that healthy religious commitment, especially when combined with personally meaningful spiritual practices, can play a strong protective role against anxiety and a host of stress-related disorders. Such practices can also enable religious persons to recover more quickly if they do fall prey to anxiety and the myriad emotional and physical maladies that accompany it.
Taking the value of mindfulness into consideration, it is key to note that while persistent worrying or mild anxiety can be managed independently with tactics like these, it is not advisable for sufferers of severe anxiety to attempt to shoulder the burden of their distress alone, with mindfulness as their only tool. Medication, counseling and other forms of therapy are also available and are most effective when made use of together.
Is Anxiety a Sin?
Upon learning that something can be done to address anxiety, many people, like Alison at the beginning of this article, are sometimes left feeling that they are somehow to blame; that if they just worked or prayed harder, maybe they could leave their worries behind. It is easy to understand the confusion on this point. Considering the number of Scripture passages that counsel, “Do not worry” (Mt 6:25) and “Cast your anxieties on him” (1Pt 5:5-7) and “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:27), it would be easy to believe that having feelings of anxiety is somehow letting God down, or even sinful. But of course it is not.
To commit a sin, we have to choose to do what we know is wrong. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that sinful actions must be willful, conscious and informed at least to a reasonable degree (No. 1860-2). A worried state of mind, even a heightened one, is none of these. Emotions like worry and anxiety begin as a preconscious, embodied experience that triggers so-called “automatic thoughts” that bubble up, unbidden, from the limbic system (our emotional/reactive brain) several milliseconds before our conscious mind is even aware of them. Emotions, including anxiety, can never be sinful.
But beyond knowing that anxiety is not sinful, it can be encouraging to note that God does not require us to achieve anxiety-free status as a prerequisite for sainthood. Paul Vitz, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University, published a paper noting that St. Thérèse of Lisieux (who is not only a saint but a doctor of the church) struggled with a serious separation anxiety disorder and anxious attachment issues caused by her sainted mother's premature death.
Likewise, St. Alphonsus Liguori famously battled with scrupulosity, which today is understood as a variety of obsessive compulsive disorder that makes people anxious about spiritual, rather than bacterial, contamination. It should be a great comfort to any Christian to know that sainthood depends much more on God's infinite mercy than upon our ability to achieve psychological perfection—much less spiritual perfection—on our own merits. It is refreshing to note that when St. Paul experienced anxiety about his own inability to overcome certain flaws, God reassured him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).
We are not to blame for our anxiety. But if we can, we must cultivate our ability to respond to our initial emotional reactions in thoughtful, graceful and productive ways that work for our good, facilitate godly relations with others and empower us to build God's kingdom. This is exactly the skill that mindfulness-based approaches to anxiety treatment teach even to clients suffering from severe anxiety, although people who experience more common levels of stress and worry can also benefit from this approach.
That said, doing this often requires people to both make a mental shift about how they think about their feelings and learn new skills to deal with them. Many people experience their emotions—especially feelings of anxiety—as a tsunami against which resistance is futile. They feel that the best they can do is “manage” the onrushing emotional tide, desperately trying to limit the damage, but research shows we are capable of much more.
Brain scientists sometimes suggest that free will might more accurately be understood as “free won't.” Although emotions rise up from the unconscious mind before our conscious mind is ever aware they are present, we can train our conscious mind to catch these surges of emotional energy and say, “I won't react that way. I will respond this way instead.” Learning to take advantage of the tiny gap between our experience and our reaction to that experience is what psychologists call “response flexibility,” and it is the key to learning to modulate our own stress/anxiety response.
In a sense, mindfulness-based practices increase this space that exists between the trigger for our anxiety and our experience of anxiety, allowing us to respond to situations in ways that are healthy and ultimately healing. It takes practice, but the basic capacity to develop this skill is one of every human person's most basic God-given freedoms. In the words of the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, who studied what gave concentration camp survivors the will to live—in some cases, heroically—despite their terrible conditions, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Response flexibility is the very heart of free will.
Of course, one cannot simply decide one’s way out of a mental illness, but most people can choose to get help via counseling and/or medication and mindfulness. Research into mindfulness-based approaches to cognitive therapy for anxiety consistently shows that even for those struggling with serious anxiety disorders, cultivating this mindful responsibility, this ability to respond in appropriate, proportionate and healthy ways to our worries can be a powerful tool for facilitating emotional and spiritual healing.
It is true that anxiety is an almost unavoidable part of modern life, but Christianity is clear that worry is not part of God’s desire for us. It is God’s intention to one day deliver us from all anxiety. In the end, when God re-establishes union with us and surrounds us with the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 Jn 4:18), we will find that peace beyond all understanding (Phil 4:7) is both our beginning and our end. This is God's promise to us. Although we, like Adam and Eve, often feel naked, profoundly ashamed of our insufficiency and all too aware of our incompetence in the face of the challenges of life, God promises us that we are not alone. We are his. We are loved. And in God’s arms, we are safe.