Finding peace in the midst of overwhelming anxiety

My first memory of dealing with anxiety was as a young child in late elementary school, waiting for my mom to return home from the evening classes she was taking to advance her teaching license. I knew what time she was supposed to return home each night, and as the time neared, I would begin watching the clock hoping the sheer power of my eyes and the prayers I was repeating could propel time forward and return my mom home safely.

I would stand for a while at the front door, looking out the window for headlights on our cul de sac. When that got too nerve-wracking, I would move to the garage and press my ear up against the door to listen for the sound of the door opening or tires coming up the driveway. In my head, as I waited in those dreadful minutes of apprehension, I would say short prayers for my mother’s safety over and over again in my head. I’d whisper prayers the way I’d heard my mother always say them whenever anyone was traveling, and I figured if I could just repeat them enough, she would return in one piece (I was always certain there was danger awaiting her on the road and my repeated prayers were her only hope for safety.)

Years later, after being officially diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as a teenager, I began to recognize that my relationship with this ritualistic prayer was not just a typical way to spend an evening waiting for my mom: it was the only way I knew how to cope.

GAD is one of the sneakiest and most subtle manifestations of the ways in which our own minds can betray us. For some, it is so pervasive and overwhelming that it becomes completely debilitating. Others battle it and struggle to even step foot in a crowded supermarket. Others experience it as a consistent, slow, underlying sense of dread that perpetually clouds the brain.

Most experts will suggest a variety of medicines to help; others will suggest talk therapy, and lots will suggest a combination of both. I have spent most of the last 10 years taking a variety of different medications, talking with different doctors and therapists, and praying my way through turbulent flights, apprehensive nights, and complete breakdowns.

For those who don’t understand anxiety or other mental health issues, it’s easy to suggest just praying for it to go away. Pray for it to be fixed. Read your Bible, go to church, join a small group and share your struggle. What’s frustrating about this advice is not that it’s misinformed or wrong, even; it just makes it seem like the solution to anxiety or other mental health struggles is simple. It assumes that there is a cookie cutter cure and that if we just paid more attention to God’s infinite wisdom and peace, we would be fine.

Yet, for people struggling with anxiety or other issues, simple cures feel far fetched. When you can’t turn your brain off or control what your mind is doing, it can feel as if you are losing your mind—making it increasingly difficult to focus on prayer, let alone anything else.

Prayer is intentional and driven; it requires an ability to focus, to channel one’s thoughts and energies into words and conscious requests, praises and doubts. But, when you’re lying on the hardwood floor in a shuddering ball of anxiety over something you can’t even name, it’s sometimes impossible to simply focus and find the words to articulate your needs.

For those who can’t understand the trials of anxiety, depression or other degrees of mental health issues, suggesting a simple prayer isn’t always the most helpful. I don’t expect others to understand the way our brains might be spiraling. I don’t expect everyone to understand why the only thought I have on a plane is what it will feel like when we crash into the ground, but I do hope people can understand that my mind works differently than those without anxiety. And, that sometimes my mind works without the consent of the rest of my body. Sometimes, that’s all people need to know.

Given the complexity of anxiety, we don’t necessarily need everyone to understand exactly what it feels like to battle anxious thoughts. But we do need people. We need others to pray with us, over us and for us. We need others to hold us, and comfort us, and remind us of the greater control in this world, of the comfort of God: that nothing—neither life nor death, nor angels nor demons, nor present nor past, nothing—can separate us from his love, from his eternal comfort and his peace. While this often is a prayer that I can’t pray on my own, it is a prayer I need to hear and it is a prayer I need prayed for me.

When Paul writes in Scripture to be “anxious about nothing,” I have trouble heeding his wisdom, despite my best efforts. And it’s not that I don’t want to: in fact, I wish that I could read that verse and suddenly be overcome with a transcendent sense of peace. But because my brain and its chemicals don’t always work the way they’re supposed to, Paul’s direction seems to be one of the most daunting challenges in all of religious literature.

And yet, I am filled with hope. I am encouraged by the hope that spirituality brings me, struggling with anxiety, and others struggling with depression or bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other mental health issues. To know that there are others who can pray with and for us when we cannot do so for ourselves is an endless encouragement; to know that there is someone who knows the inside of our heads intimately and perfectly means that there is always hope for peace and understanding in the midst of suffering and frustration. To know that nothing can separate us from a God who loves us—even the spinning cycle of misfiring neurons in our brains, breakdowns, sleepless nights and endless nerves—that is truly something to pray for, to hope for and to live for.