The words "Do Not Be Afraid" are written 365 times in the Bible so you have a daily reminder that you should not be afraid. This is also easier said than done, is it not?
If you would have asked me in the not so distant past, I would have told you there was no connection at all between spirituality and anxiety relief. As a Jesus fan and someone who lived through years of anxiety, "Do Not Be Afraid" did absolutely nothing to help me when I was panicking and overwhelmed with a shaking body, a racing heart and mind, and praying every single day that I would feel better.
I have very vivid memories of laying in bed, begging God to take away the feeling of anxiousness and the thoughts that played on repeat in my brain. Crying and exhausted, the harder I prayed, the more I tried to believe, the worse the anxiety became. I can honestly say that praying the way I was praying made my physical symptoms more pronounced and my brain foggier and more frantic.
If this is what hell is like, and I think it may very well be, I've been there and I don't want to go back.
So how can spirituality actually help alleviate anxiety whether you follow the teachings of the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, Hinduism, Buddhism, or you are simply spiritual? Please keep in mind that I am writing this from a Christian perspective with nothing but love for my other-believing and non-believing friends. I've been a professional wrestler with God since childhood and this continues today. Being raised in the church, I know the teachings of the Bible and as I was battling my way through the worst that my mental health had to offer. I thought I was supposed to simply stop being afraid, but that isn't really all that easy or possible when your brain and body are giving you every signal that something is very wrong.
"Give it to God" and "Do Not Worry" were repeated to me in the most caring ways from the people who love me the most as I prayed in desperation. I felt more hopeless and more inadequate in my faith than I had ever felt before or have felt since. I moved from anxious to helpless, to not good enough, on repeat. What I didn't know is that I was doing exactly the WRONG thing.
Praying is excellent. Praying for my anxiety to go away, BEGGING for my body to stop feeling tense, frozen, and sick and for my brain to back it up with terrifying thoughts of disease and spiritual inadequacy, to circle around and show me every mistake and fear, then repeating the begging and fighting was entirely counterproductive! I didn't know it then but I was taking the thing I wanted to stop and keeping it safely lodged in my nervous system.
I also had no other coping skills at this point in my life so between prayers, I pretended to feel okay. I would go out and "have fun", barely holding myself together unless I had knocked back a couple of drinks, then crumbling later once I was alone.
Deep breaths? Nope.
Exercise? That wasn't happening.
Gut health? Does Minute Rice and fat free yogurt count? (No it does not.)
Journaling? How? When?
This went on for 30 years!
T H I R T Y Y E A R S !!!!!!
So here I am at 46 years old, looking back from an entirely different place with a healthy mind, a mostly calm body, and some powerful reflections I want to share with you on how spirituality, ANY spirituality, can help you calm your anxious mind and body.
1. Prayer and meditation are not meant for begging. When your brain and body are anxious, the more attention you focus on the speed of your heart, the heaviness in your body, the lump in your throat, the headache, the acid reflux - whatever your body feels like, the more your brain will interpret those feelings as danger and the more you will notice them.
The purpose of prayer and meditation is to take your mind off your bodily sensations and bring it back into the present moment. Breathing in with attention to how the breath feels, focusing on the sound of the air conditioner, the refrigerator humming, your dog snoring, or repeating a mantra directs your brain to anything BUT what you're anxious about. As you calm your breath and body, your thoughts begin to slow and focus only on what you're experiencing in the moment. That openness to the peace of God, Allah or the Big Daddy in the Sky is the presence of God. Sit in that. THAT is being still.
2. If you are "giving it to God", that doesn't mean you won't feel it anymore. Your body is a perfect imprint of your past, your present and your future all wrapped into one ball of humanness. When you are anxious, your body will respond in the same manner it did as the first time you experienced an anxious thought or event because it learned exactly how to respond to a situation it perceived as certain death. Your brain was designed to be negative and constantly keep watch for what could kill you next. (Yes, even if it is completely bogus). Giving this feeling to God means learning to recognize that those feelings and the accompanying thoughts are not dangerous and you can let go of them.
For me, the most powerful moment in my recovery came when I realized that I was wishing for what I didn't want. I was allowing my brain to believe every random thought that scurried through my head because my body was holding onto "symptoms" that were normal! When you are anxious, it is NORMAL for your heart to go fast, for your arms and legs to feel weak or tingly, for your throat to feel tight, and so many other ways. I was taking those symptoms themselves as dangerous and everything flew off the handle from there.
One of the first things you and I would work on in a coaching relationship is identify how anxiety feels in your body. You get familiar with the feelings and slowly learn to call them out as normal and safe. (This is giving it to God. You don't need to worry about it anymore because he's taking care of it as you learn to let go.) Once you recognize the feeling as normal, you can release the need to focus on the feeling and move on to all the things you have been avoiding or fearing. You begin to let go of your stories and trust yourself, your god, and your intuition. This is where the fun kicks in and coaching changes your whole life in the best and most fun ways!
3. Yes, pray. AND.... don't stop there. Praying and meditating are a wonderful way to bring you back into the present, and remember, in the present... RIGHT NOW... you are safe. However, there are so many other resources, skills, and facts about how your body and brain are working that move you forward. For example, did you know serotonin is actually absorbed and produced in the gut? If your digestive track is out of whack, your mental health will be as well. Did you know mild to moderate exercise relieves depression as well as anti-depressants? Or what about the fact that when your brain is tired, it is far more susceptible to anxious thoughts? How about the connection of Vitamin D and your mental health?
As you begin to take small steps toward feeling better, don't stop with praying! If your doctor has recommended medication, consider it! If you have past trauma or need to work through major life issues, call a therapist! And of course, if you want to start moving forward and create new thoughts and habits, schedule a consultation with me. We'll talk about how you're feeling, where your're stuck, explore what you think the problem is, and find the real problem together! This is a powerful phone call entirely devoted to helping you feel heard, understood, and capable of living life the way you deserve to live it.
I believe that God gave us the the tools, the people, and the resources we need, including connection to something greater than ourselves. There are so many ways to feel better, my friend! What step will you take today that can lead you toward feeling confident and calm?
You have everything inside of you it takes to feel connected, safe, and powerful. I am cheering for you and I can help.
** Please note. I am not a therapist and no medical advice is intended or given in this blog. I am a certified life and health coach and a person who struggled with anxiety for years who shares my person experience and opinion. If you or someone you love is suffering with thoughts of self-harm please call your doctor or dial 988 immediately.