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 Creative 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