Praying Away the Anxiety Spiral

4 Mar

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?

                                                    –Matthew 6:27

A few weeks ago, I came upstairs from starting a load of laundry to find my five-year-old face down, asleep on the couch at 5 p.m. If you knew my son, this would strike you as unusual, since he is the sort of kid who goes hard all day long, only stopping to relax when we finally force him into bed at night. Thinking, “It must have been a tiring week at school,” I started preparing dinner.

A few hours later, as we cuddled in bed reading books, my son told me his neck hurt. Thinking, “Maybe he slept funny on it on the couch,” I told him a good night’s sleep would make it feel better, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and turned out the light.

It was not until I started getting ready for bed myself, after the hustle and bustle of the day had subsided, that my brain started connecting some dots.  “A usually healthy and active boy who is suddenly tired with a sore neck… wait, isn’t there a serious illness connected with a sore neck?” These thoughts sent me to Google and then to WebMD to learn more about the signs of meningitis. I tiptoed back upstairs and into my son’s room, laying the back of my hand on his forehead to see if he had a temperature, which he did not. He was sleeping soundly and looked perfectly peaceful.

I wish I could say the same for my next few hours in bed. Despite a fairly strong intellectual sense that my son was not, in fact, sick with anything serious, I could not help but think, “What if he is ill and I do not do anything about it? What if I find him unconscious in the morning… or worse? What kind of mother would I be?” I was in an anxiety spiral, with negative, unlikely, and even macabre thoughts stacking upon each other and driving me upstairs multiple times to stick my hand in front of my son’s nose to feel the warm breath that signaled his life. Eventually, by what felt like some quotidian miracle, it occurred to me that the only thing to do was to pray. So I recited the Serenity Prayer over and over until I eventually fell into a restless sleep.

At a time when anxiety seems to be on the rise in our society, we might chuckle at Jesus’ rhetorical question in this week’s Gospel as to whether any of us can add a minute to our lives by worrying. Certainly, we know in our heads that worrying will not lengthen our lives (and we likely have been exposed to countless articles telling us that it actually will have the opposite effect), but we might also question in our hearts whether we will still be good parents, partners, employees, citizens, and people if we attempt to put an end to the anxiety spirals. Will the world still spin if we ourselves stop spinning in anxiety?

Jesus’ answer to this is very clear: the world will go on even if we stop worrying since it is God who controls the world in the first place, not us. Easy enough to say, harder to live into. In my experience, this is where prayer comes in. The act of praying invokes a greater power in the universe, reminding us that we are only human and in control of very little in our lives. Far from increasing our anxiety, prayer can help us identify that which we can change in our lives and in our world and that which we need to give over to God for safe keeping. Maybe with Lent approaching we all need to strive to give up  and give over to God some of our needless worrying and to redirect our energy to strengthening our relationship to God, the One whom Jesus assures us will provide for our needs.

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