praying with anxiety

One of the spiritual benefits of an anxiety disorder is that “pray without ceasing” actually seems kind of doable. You just have to trick yourself into it. If you have a brain like mine you know it’s really loud in here. There’s just constant chatter. This is generally characterized as an “internal monologue,” but like many people with anxiety (and plenty without), I’ve realized that mine is more often than not an internal dialogue. I mean, for almost any given interaction I have, I’ve rehearsed it several times beforehand and will replay and mentally redo it several times after. So the interlocutor in my constant internal dialogue is, at any given point, a friend, a professor, a coworker, a barista, a neighbor, whomever I last fought with, whomever I next need to have a ~serious talk~ with. The trick, of course, is to remind yourself that your constant interlocutor can in fact be God.

I realized this some time ago, but I am only just now figuring out what that can look like in practice. I’ve found doing the Examen in the evening very helpful in this regard. This is a simple habit that many religious people have already, in the form of an examination of conscience, and that many non-religious people also have in the form of reflective practices. The Examen of St. Ignatius has five steps:

  1. Ask God for light.
  2. Give thanks.
  3. Review the day.
  4. Face shortcomings.
  5. Look toward the day to come.

This is really helpful with my anxiety! What I like about this is the effect it has on the rest of my day. One of the hardest things I’m learning when it comes to living with anxiety is noticing those “automatic thoughts”—when one small thing triggers a whole series of spiraling and jumping to distant conclusions that consume a lot of energy and have nothing to do with reality. (This is one of my favorite examples.) Figuring out how to notice those and interrupt them is really hard! I’ve found that having a dedicated part of my evening where I address all of those means I don’t have to spend as much time during the day on it. If I say something idiotic in class, instead of immediately beating myself up for it for the next four hours, I can say, okay, put that to the side, we’re going to go over that in the Examen later. And then more often than not by the time we get to the Examen I’ve actually forgotten most of those things because I didn’t spend all day agonizing over them.

But of course it’s also really helpful for my faith, because it reminds me that God wants to be in each and every moment of my day. He wants to be the one I talk to about all of it, instead of the imaginary coworker or imaginary barista or imaginary stranger I made weird eye contact with three times today. He wants to hear about it, and he wants to weigh in.

So: whether you want a straightforward way to learn how to pray or if you’ve got a brain like mine and are struggling to feel any agency over it, I really encourage you to try the Examen. Even if you aren’t a spiritual person, it’s a good practice to have dedicated time every day where you check in with your values, forgive yourself for falling short, and plan to improve for the next time. It’s a way of taking all those impulses of an anxious brain—doubt, revision, second-guessing, guilting yourself—and making them helpful, instead of harmful.

Here are a few different links to check out if you’re interested:

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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