When I’m wrestling with anxiety, here’s how I pray — and it helps | Opinion

My wife has always described me as unflappable, on an even emotional keel pretty much all the time. Sometimes she means this as a compliment, and occasionally not.

She’s had nightmares in which we’re facing some imminent disaster — an F5 tornado is bearing down on us — and she can’t get me to take shelter because I’m poking along unconcerned, saying things like, “You go on. I’ll be there in a minute. I need to find my wallet.”

Lately, though, I’ve unaccountably become flappable, prone to crippling attacks of anxiety even when there’s nothing to be anxious about. This is new, disconcerting and mysterious. I’m not under any unusual stress, so I suspect this anxiety must be the result of some chemical shift taking place in my brain as I age.

I’ve discussed it with my doctor, who prescribed anti-anxiety medication. So far, that hasn’t helped much. I’ll follow up at my next appointment, of course.

In the meantime, here’s something that has helped more.

I referred in last week’s column to my deep dive into various Christian mystics and contemplatives during the pandemic. From someone among those spiritual exemplars, I learned a different way of praying that’s been effective during this struggle.

Since half the people I know also seem to be fighting anxiety — War in the Middle East! Kids gone wild! Inflation! Drunken spouse! Donald Trump! The Squad! — I thought I’d pass this on.

I’d love to give credit to whoever originated this technique, but I can’t locate a citation. As said, I read a lot of books during my study of the mystics and contemplatives, listened to lots of podcasts, filled up several hand-written journals. I think I first heard about this type of prayer on James Finley’s podcast “Turning to the Mystics,” but I can’t swear even to that.

The practice goes like this, or at least my personal adaptation of it does.

You find a passage of scripture (or, I imagine, some other meaningful source, such as a line from a Wendell Berry poem) that’s relatively brief, but that speaks to your soul.

The one I use when I’m suffering an anxiety attack is an excerpt from Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Whatever your previously chosen passage, it becomes the focal point of your prayer. You pray it in its entirety, then pause a second or five or 20 to let it sink in.

So, I start by praying, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Pause, reflect, breathe.

“Yes,” I think, “you’re God and I’m not — and that’s good. I’m not in charge here. I can’t control anything, even these crazy emotions. But you control everything. Whatever happens from here on, pleasant or unpleasant, I leave to you.”

Then you pray the passage again, but omit the final few words.

To use my example, “Be still, and know that I am God” becomes just, “Be still, and know that I am.”

Pause, consider, breathe.

“‘I am’ is actually your name,” I think. “‘I am’ is what you told Moses to call you. You are. You’re real and present even though I can’t see you, although I don’t feel you, even though all I feel is panicky and alone. You are — and that’s enough. You are. Right here, right now.”

Then you lop off a few more words and pray. For me, it’s now, “Be still, and know.”

Pause, consider, breathe.

“I can only discern your healing voice to the extent that I ignore these frantic, fearful voices screeching at me. I choose to listen instead for your still, small voice below the din. I choose to know your truth. I choose to receive fresh wisdom in this hard moment.”

Next, the prayer is, “Be still.”

Pause, consider, breathe.

“All my labors to ‘fix’ whatever’s wrong with me or the world are probably wastes of time. Even my attempts to silence these anxious voices are inept. So, once more, I release everything — including my pitching to and fro — to you. I sit here with you to wait.”

Then, finally, “Be.”

Pause, reflect, breathe.

“You created the Earth and said all it contains is very good. That same good creation includes me. You’ve declared me very good, too, just as I am. I don’t have to ‘do’ anything. I can simply ‘be.’ I relax into your grace. I am. And I am blessed. Thank you.”

I might have to do all this several times, start to finish, but soon my racing heart slows toward normal. My blood pressure eases down. The mouthy demons slither away. It’s incredibly calming.

It’s not a magic wand. It’s not perfect. It may not replace anti-anxiety medication. But boy, it does help.

If you’re a fellow anxiety sufferer, try this. It can’t hurt you. It has no unpleasant side effects. It may do you great good.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.