Anxiety and Prayer: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why?
Anxiety has unfortunately been a part of my family for three generations.
My grandmother lived before antibiotics and antiviral medications. Various epidemics took eight of her thirteen children. This caused her to have a significant level of anxiety around any kind of illness. Whenever her remaining children were sick, she got anxious.
My mother, growing up in that environment, internalized that anxiety. I had no idea I had internalized it too until my own children were born. Whenever they got sick, I would feel anxiety like I had never felt before.
We are becoming more and more aware how much anxiety there is on our college campuses. You may have stumbled on this blog while looking for an anxiety resource for college students. Or you may have seen something during Mental Health Awareness month that led you here. Regardless of how you came to read this, I pray that God speaks to you as you read in the ways that you need most.
Anxiety drove me into the arms of Jesus. And over the years, I began to see patterns of how some ways of prayer mirror psychotherapy techniques that help reduce anxiety. Going further and studying spiritual formation, I was exposed to even more ways to pray in ways that are helpful. I was intrigued that the little bit of neuroscience that had informed my early graduate work helped me make sense of new discoveries about the brain and how it’s shaped by anxiety and reshaped by various forms of prayer.
Triggered and Reconsolidated Memories
We know that trauma –– and even less severe negative events –– make changes to the brain, creating memories that when triggered cause anxiety. These memories are not only of the event, but also of the feelings and perceptions associated with it. These are deeply ingrained and hard to change.
A victim of date rape for example has terrible memories not only of the event, but also the perception associated with it, that men she trusts will hurt her. That makes it difficult for her to trust her fiancé many years later. Every time he gets close, she may experience anxiety. As much as she’d like to, and keeps telling herself that he’s safe, she can’t control the anxiety.
Memory Reconsolidation is a new scientific understanding of how these traumatic memories can be changed. During therapy or inner healing prayer, as this young woman recalls her story, she feels some of the emotions, and that recreates conditions in the brain that allow the stored misperceptions to be overwritten. Instead of the message that men will hurt her, she hopefully receives the opposite message: she is safe and can trust her fiancé. This will often heal the anxiety trigger.
In Scripture, Peter experienced trauma when he betrayed Jesus. And it appears that Jesus used the same method to heal his trauma from his betrayal so he could minister more effectively (John 21). We don’t know for sure, but the message he internalized was probably something like, I’m not worthy to do Jesus’ work, or he would never trust me again. Jesus reactivated the memory for him by asking him if he loved him, and then gave him the replacement message, “feed my sheep,” which included the message of trust he needed to hear. And Jesus didn’t do this once but three times, and some clinical protocols suggest therapists do it two to three times too.
Sometimes though, it might seem like Jesus isn’t bringing healing to your anxieties at the very moment you’re anxious. You may ask for the anxiety to be taken away, and yet it persists. Often, we avoid and keep seeking reassurance, but this tells our brains that there really is something to be anxious about. It makes the anxiety worse. If we repeatedly pray to avoid or constantly ask God for reassurance, we can feed the anxiety and make it worse. The good news is that Scripture gives us a good alternative prayer model.
Acceptance and Hope
Both Jesus in Gethsemane (Mt 26, Lk 22) and Paul’s prayer about the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12) show us the same prayer pattern. First, we’re welcome to pray that the distressing issue be taken away from us. We can even pray for that repeatedly. However, at some point, we need to discern that God’s answer might be no. He may take it away next week or next month, but since for now the answer is no, we need to move to the next step in Jesus and Paul’s prayer model: acceptance.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy incidentally is one of the approaches used for anxiety treatment. It rests on a foundation of not resisting the anxiety, but accepting it, as Jesus and Paul did. Research supports this as well –– acceptance reduces anxiety.
The final step for both Jesus and Paul goes beyond mere acceptance. There is hope in God’s redeeming power in the circumstance. Since we know that God redeems all things, we can be grateful for his redemption ahead of time. Gratitude can be effective in reducing anxiety.
Two nights ago, there was a loud thunderstorm in my area, and as often happens, the thunder caused a car alarm to go off. I’m sure the car’s owner turned over in his bed, reached over to his car keys, and used the remote to deactivate the alarm.
The Amygdala is a small sized structure in our brain that functions like that car alarm. Sometimes it works right, and sometimes it’s a false alarm. Fortunately, our brains are generally able to calm it down when it’s a false alarm. One of the parts in the brain that can function like the car remote, to help the amygdala calm down is an area called the Anterior Cingulate. Brain imaging of people exercising gratitude show activation of that area. So when Paul says in Philippians 4:16 that when we are anxious we are to pray with gratitude, and peace would result, he's saying reach for your brain’s remote to deactivate that false alarm.
Finally, we know from the science of attachment that children find parents to be a “secure base,” from whose safe presence they can venture out with a sense of safety. When frightened or injured, they come back to the parent and experience loving comfort. This creates a healthy and secure attachment that allows the child to grow up feeling safe and resilient in anxiety. As we bring our fears and other emotions to God in prayer and receive his loving support, over time we develop a secure attachment to him. This doesn’t happen overnight, but over time. As we experience his loving care, our sense of being able to trust him with our future deepens. In the long run, this gives us the resilience we need in facing future anxieties.
A Call to Action
I heard a lecture once by an anxiety specialist who said that athletes seem to do better than most in anxiety therapy because they see anxiety as a challenge to compete against. Likewise, I think Jesus invites us not to be overcome by anxiety, but to actively and intentionally engage with him as we struggle with it. Most of what I know about that is in my book, which you can check out here. And for more resources, go to my website MySpiritualDirector.com
X. Nader Sahyouni is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a spiritual director with a Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Formation. He also regularly speaks at retreats and conferences on the intersection of psychotherapy, spiritual formation, and brain science. He is the author of “Anxiety Transformed: Prayer that Brings Enduring Change.” Nader lectures annually at North Park Theological Seminary’s Center for Spiritual Direction.