Praying – Can it reduce anxiety?

Constant worry and anxiety, which occurs for no apparent reason, interferes with day-to-day life. Sufferers are desperate to experience peace of mind and free themselves from the power of their condition.

Meditation can greatly help. By concentrating on one thing and neglecting all the unruly thoughts that come into the mind, many have found that meditating gradually enables them to find freedom from the hold of negative feelings.

The trouble is that those with a high degree of anxiety are the ones who find the discipline of meditation the most difficult to master. The intrusive worries feel too strong to ignore.

“In meditation, the source of strength is one’s self. When one prays, he goes to a source of strength greater than his own.” (Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek)


Perhaps praying is a less difficult option than meditation even if you have no clear religious belief.  The spiritually orientated could focus the mind on a higher power beyond themselves which might be hoped to actually do something to make things better; such as the idea of Mother Nature, the prayingCreative Life Force, or the Universal Mind. Religious believers focus their thoughts on their image of God, which for many Christians is the human form of Christ.

“The sovereign cure for worry is prayer.” (psychologist, William James)

So what does praying involve? Isn’t it just another form of self-reflection, or meditation?


Yes, in so far as praying in private includes sharing one’s concerns then it does involve an element of self-reflection. Some people allocate some spare time in the evening to write a private journal describing the difficulties and delights of their day. Others have the habit of going on an evening stroll mulling over events in a leisurely manner. Usually there is an inner concern, a question, or a problem one is pondering.

It is easier to reflect on what threatened your well-being when you are no longer face to face with the people and events which triggered your anxiety. In a reflective state of mind you can start to put into words what you are assuming rather than being carried around by one stray image or feeling after the other. In this way you gain some understanding. This is also part of talking therapy. The counsellor helps anxious people enter into a self-reflective state of mind so they can talk about their feelings and experiences and hear themselves talking about them thus starting to gain self-insight.

Praying to a Divine Counsellor

Praying can be thought of as connecting with and listening to a Divine Counsellor whilst sharing one’s personal concerns.

“Prayer is simply talking to God like a friend and should be the easiest thing we do each day.” (author & speaker, Joyce Meyer)

Praying can lead Christian believers to think about their lives in a different way by ‘putting on the mind of Christ’. In other words they feel that seeing their own fears and worries in the light of their image of what is truly wise and compassionate takes them out of themselves and raises their spirit to a higher level.

The way people in distress see their relationships with the human face of God can be a great source of comfort and strength to them. In their darkest hours many of them are sustained by their belief that they are loved by the source of all that is good and all will be well.

Isn’t praying simply a self-serving superstition?

“No god ever gave any man anything, nor ever answered any prayer at any time – nor ever will.” (atheist activist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair)

Yes, I believe praying can be self-serving in which case I do not think it is likely to be helpful. To give God a list of one’s requests sounds a bit like children making out a Christmas gift list for Father Christmas to bring down the chimney.

Roman prayers and sacrifices were often envisioned as legal bargains between deity and worshipper. A modern equivalent of this might be promising to donate money to charity only if God takes away one’s problems.

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.” (journalist, Christopher Hitchens)

It is tempting to use prayer as a complaints desk – to pray expressing dissatisfaction, finding fault with others or accusing God of ignoring one’s predicament.

Who hasn’t at one time or other not tried to use prayer as a way of justifying one’s actions or claims?

Can praying for release from anxiety actually work?

My first response to this question is to say that if you don’t ask then you don’t get: why wouldn’t you chance your arm for something you are desperate to attain. Yet, in the Lord’s Prayer we are asking to let God’s will be done. Praying for what I want can be seen as an exercise in the exploration of my desire in the presence of God.

Perhaps there is something more important in ourselves that needs to change before we can be allowed to find peace and calm.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” (philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard)

Praying provides us with an opportunity to explore our desires and to probe beneath the surface. Underneath most desire is the ‘little me’ wanting what I want – attention, security, appreciation, getting my own way, social status, money, and so on. Maybe anxiety is associated with a threat to these cravings. In other words the thought pops into my head as I’m praying that there might be some meaning to my suffering. It is not being permitted without good reason.

Consequently, I believe it is a mistake to see prayer as a quick fix for personal problems that avoids the slow, hard work involved in personal healing and growth.

Much better to be praying for guidance. You might find that if an answer comes, the time and place it comes is unexpected.

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

I can’t help how I feel — can I?

How I feel
Nicholas Parsons

Do you ever say to yourself  “I can’t help how I feel.”

Part of the humour of the long running radio show Just a Minute is the mocking of its chairman Nicholas Parsons. When panellist Graham Norton was given the topic ‘Freudian slips’ he talked about ‘man love’ revealing his ‘gruntaffilic attraction to Parsons’ and saying ‘I can’t help those feelings.’ In other words “I can’t help how I feel.” Whereupon Paul Merton gets a big laugh by buzzing and shouting ‘Try!’ In other words try to feel differently. But can one really change how one feels?

Norton’s sentiment reminded me of the Hey Stephen song:

“Cause I can’t help it if you look like an angel
Can’t help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain so
Come feel this magic I’ve been feeling since I met you
Can’t help it if there’s no one else
Mmm, I can’t help myself ”
(Taylor Swift)

It got me thinking about my own feelings. Is it possible for me to feel differently about certain things, people, situations? Emotions I take for granted seem to be naturally part of me and always will be. But do I have to feel so irritated by certain people who cause me discomfort? Do I have to feel so attached to my favourite food? Or feel so lazy when obliged to go somewhere.

Is it possible to alter our feelings, in the sense of making ourselves stop feeling negative or stop enjoying those things we believe to be unhelpful or even just down-right wrong?

Assuming our feelings are inevitable

You might be thinking ‘Of course my feelings are part of me — feeling angry, happy, displeased, turned on, sad whatever.  I need to be myself and that means keeping in touch with what I like and not being afraid to express these feelings. Isn’t that what honest living is all about?’

“Never apologize for showing your feelings. When you do, you are apologizing for the truth.” (José N. Harris)

Well okay I can buy into authenticity and being a real person in your own right and not just a conformist. But what if some of your desires are bad? What if some of your emotions are harmful? Have you no capability of changing how you are to become a better person? No ability to change what you like and want?

Don’t we learn to appreciate and enjoy things which at first are daunting and unattractive. Which beer drinkers enjoyed their very first glass of bitter? Is it not an acquired taste?

My thought can affect how I feel

You might suppose that it would be only natural to feel angry if insulted, hurt if injured, or despair if all hope is removed.  However one Nazi concentration camp inmate refused to accept that feelings were automatically determined by his situation and instead tried to change the way he felt.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.” (Viktor Frankl)

Psychological therapists work with intractable patients trying to make them stop loving the socially awkward things they love. The basis of cognitive therapy is the idea that harmony is the normal state of consciousness; that the mind is inclined towards congruity between thinking and emotion. We defend what we enjoy with all sorts of justifications. We find reasons for what we want to believe. The mind seems to be built that way. When feeling and thinking are no longer in harmony, we suffer discomfort, and anxiety.

So therapists challenge people’s mistaken ways of thinking to encourage the development of sensible thoughts because they have found that new feelings emerge that match the new thoughts. For example realising when there is no real danger in a specific situation, the client starts to feel calm rather than afraid: appreciating that there is no evidence of a partner’s infidelity, the client feels less uptight rather than seething with jealousy.

Awareness of social ideals

Spiritually aware people tend also to want to promote change. They want to encourage a feeling of protectiveness towards the environment, sympathy towards third world suffering, a feeling of togetherness to overcome the challenge of multicultural tension. Understanding the ideals could mean feeling a new frustration and anger with the current state of things, finding new hopes and gaining new excitement and delight in progress made. Then one could find that the old feelings of cynical resignation, negativity and disinterest were never inevitable feelings.

Awareness of personal responsibility for how I feel

Likewise gaining an understanding of the ideal self can lead to personal change. New feelings can develop whilst pursuing self-improvement. It is one thing to face in a new direction but another to set off with a will. This idea of personal choice is quite contentious because of the many factors scientists have discovered that seem to reduce our freedom: one’s individual genetic constitution, the effects of family upbringing, social pressures towards cultural norms, lack of economic opportunities etc. However, I do believe that whatever one’s situation it is possible to find the necessary courage and determination to refuse to allow setbacks to put you down, and that by examining one’s attitude one can start to feel differently about life’s frustrations.

I would suggest that to change the way you feel means first challenging the habits of thought which maintained the old feelings. For example if angry you might believe you have lost your temper. An alternative attitude is that temper isn’t something you lose: it’s something you decide to throw away.

In other words you might stop blaming things that you suppose make you feel you do — stress, tiredness, external events, natural urges and instead you could focus on your inner vision and responsibility for how you are in yourself.

I would say that you don’t have to spend time stewing in your sense of hurt or feeling hard done by. Those feelings will never go away unless you turn your back on them.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems