Anxiety RX

 

prescription pad rx

Image courtesy of vculibraries, licensed under Creative Commons

Below is a typical response I give to religious people who are struggling with anxiety and write asking for guidance. They tend to feel as if taking medication is a cop-out and that prayer should be able to completely alleviate the problem. The thing is, in a person without clinically significant anxiety, prayer and other spiritual exercises will probably go a long way toward resolving the problem. In people who have struggled for years and tried approaches of all kinds, spiritual approaches will probably not do the trick either, and this will often leave the person feeling guilty and as if his/her faith is questionable.

I know this will sound strange to hear from a pastor, but I recommend spiritual approaches in moderation. The reason is because so many of us today have been conditioned to use spiritual approaches as a kind of bludgeon, where we feel unspiritual and out of sorts if we can’t fix the problem through prayer, etc. When spiritual approaches help us find, face, and follow truth, and when they help us love and accept ourselves for who we are (just as God does), they are valuable. When they dictate to us lists of musts and shoulds and lay more burdens on us, they just become one more thing to worry about, and that’s the last thing you need. If the spiritual stuff is oppressing you and making you feel bad right now, drop it for the time being and pursue other approaches. Spirituality is a really powerful tool, but just like any tool, if we don’t know how to use it properly it can be very dangerous. In other words, if you notice that every time you swing a hammer you hit yourself on the head, I’d suggest leaving hammers alone for a while.

As far as how you should be relying on your faith, there are a lot of things you should be doing. You should avoid most red meat, not drink soda, work out 45 minutes a day, take a multivitamin every day, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, never waste time at work, etc. The fact is, almost nobody is capable of doing everything we are told we should be doing. We take that same inability with us into our spiritual lives. You simply cannot, right now, be a person who gives all this over to God. If you could, you’d have already done it. Start there, with the reality of your powerlessness. Having seen that, don’t jump right into “Yes, but by God’s power…” That’s simply not true for you right now. At some point, by the power of God, perhaps you’ll do a lot of things, but we tend to want to acknowledge our powerlessness only long enough to declare God’s power working in us so that we can effectively be powerful again.  

What’s On Your List?

tasks

Image courtesy of Paul Gorbould, licensed under Creative Commons

After church recently I was introduced to a first-time guest who spent about 40 minutes gently (that’s not sarcasm, he was very kind and low-key) informing me how inadequate the church was “for him.” At the end of our conversation, that man got to the point. He said, “Again, all of this is just me and my perceptions. Maybe I need to consider why it is that I haven’t been able to settle down in a church over the last year.” Bulls-eye. The issue for that man was not my church, or any other church. It is something in him that is agitated and irritated. He can’t be still. I don’t know why that is, and it’s not my job to figure it out. It is, however, one of the most important opportunities in this man’s life. He will grow closer to God finding an answer to what that’s all about than by finding a church that’s doing everything right.

The knowledge that I was not this man’s problem, of course, does not absolve me of the responsibility I carry to make the best decisions I can with regard to the church I lead. But that’s me. That’s on my task-list for each week, and those are my great opportunities.

Jesus said, do not worry about things you cannot control. Let today’s trouble be enough for today. One of the ways I gave up worrying was by getting up each morning for a few weeks and writing at the top of a piece of paper, “Today’s Trouble.” I would then list the things I needed to do that day. They were usually pretty small, mostly doable. Pick up milk. Make some phone calls. Follow up on some things. Make some decisions. Fix the car. I soon realized my problem was that I was worrying about stuff on other people’s “Today’s Trouble” list.

For example, what would Barack Obama’s “Today’s Trouble” list look like? Figure out what to do with Iran. Fix the economy. Find out what’s going on with Israel and Palestine.

I’m glad those are not my troubles.They are not on my list. They are certainly on someone’s, beginning with the president and his advisors and administration. Most of my troubles and worries come because I worry about things that shouldn’t be on my list. The man I spoke to Sunday has things on his “Today’s Trouble” list that are not his concern. He doesn’t have to worry about those things and there are many days I would envy him for that. When he realized he needed to look not at me and my church, but at himself, he got the right list in front of him. That one he can do something about.

Lesson: Don’t spend time fretting about things that belong on someone else’s list.

Embracing Powerlessness, prt. 2

In my previous post I tried to clearly show that the path to peace is to embrace powerlessness. I showed that we have very little power over most of the things we care most deeply about. The question is how do we actually embrace powerlessness? The answer is as common as it is profound: by acting powerless.

Gestalt Therapy uses a technique called “acting as if.” This is where the therapist tells the client to act as if he/she is already the person he/she wishes to be. If he struggles to speak to women, he should act for a while like men act who do not struggle to speak to women. If she struggles with confidence, she should act like women who have confidence. This is what is often called, “fake it ’til you make it.”

If what I wrote yesterday is true, and we actually are powerless over a great deal of our lives, then the sooner we embrace this the better. And the way we embrace powerlessness is by acting powerless.

Meditation (anxiety, prt. 3)

DON’T STOP READING!!

No matter how much the word “meditation” makes you want to tune out, I encourage you to hang in there.  Hang in there, even though meditation is seen by many as some esoteric practice, meant only for a) monks, nuns, and the hard-core religious; b) kooky, or touchy-feely people, both of which probably watch way too much Oprah.

Meditation, in fact, can be a critical practice in  helping us to relieve much of our anxiety.  Although it should not be viewed only as an anti-anxiety tool, it certainly can play a signfiicant role there.  In this post I am going to attempt to explain the reason why meditation is needed, and I will do this primarily from the perspective of alleviating anxiety.

I have established in previous posts that the root of anxiety is our thinking.  Anxiety is what results when the basic fear response, common to all sentient beings, joins up with imagination (as far as we know, found only in humans).  In other words, without imagination, there can be no anxiety.  Anxiety is always fear of this or that possibility, and a possibility, by definition, is something that 1) has not yet happened, and therefore; 2) is imagined.  Since anxiety is the result of the fear response combining with imagination, then learning to focus on the present moment will alleviate anxiety.  Meditation (called by Christians “pure prayer,” or “silent prayer”) teaches this in a way so profoundly simple that it seems almost too good to be true — or too easy to be effective.  But it is both true and effective.

Have you ever been completely lost in the present moment?  I mean so absorbed in a moment that you completely forgot about yourself and your own existence?  Perhaps you were watching your children play, or maybe you were having sex that took you to a place beyond all thought, or completely immersed in something funny, or just having so much fun you were simply enjoying it.  There is never anxiety in those moments, because we are simply in the moment.  No conscious “thinking” is going on, we’re just riding that wave — whatever it may be — and loving it.  Though we will often think about these moments afterwards, the thinking was not necessary for enjoyment of these amazing moments.

Normally we think in order to solve problems.  We think in order to make plans.  We think in order to do our jobs.  We think in order to do well in school, and have good conversations, and raise our children prudently and skillfully.  We think in order to analyze our situations and make good decisions.  These are all healthy ways of thinking.  But when thinking runs amuck, you have anxiety. 

On Being a Non-Anxious Presence

Ultimately all you really have to give to another person is yourself. And that is enough. Presence is the most powerful force in the universe, humanly speaking. When I go to hospitals to visit sick and scared people, they already know I can’t fix them and they don’t expect  me to. What they really need is someone who refuses to succumb to fear. They and their family are likely lost in anxiety. Often their minds are darting everywhere, looking at every possibility, begging and bargaining with God, unable to get away from frightening possibilities at every turn.