Anxiety and anxiety related disorders account for nearly a third of what Americans spend on mental health annually, or $42 billion per year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 40 million Americans or 18% of the population suffer from anxiety and anxiety related disorders and, of those people, nearly half experience depression in conjunction with anxiety.
With these statistics in mind, it’s fair to assume that Orthodox Christians are also grappling with the effects of anxiety in their lives and are wrestling with how to work through the discomfort of this emotion.
Genetics, environment, and trauma can all contribute to anxiety, so it’s a complex experience that takes a multi-faceted approach when working to reduce symptoms. Anxiety is what psychologist Chip Dodd refers to as an “impaired emotion,” stemming from fear, which has a future-oriented component to it. Often with anxiety we try to control or establish an illusion of control around issues that may cause us distress, even though we may have very little control in reality. This worry can become problematic to the individual or family when it becomes a baseline state of being or what psychologists refer to as “homeostasis.”
Anxiety comes in two predominant forms. Though it gets a lot of bad press, the first type is vitally important for our survival.
“Acute anxiety” is one of the body’s best survival tools and helps us to respond quickly when we are in imminent danger. Our body’s sympathetic nervous system sends information to the parts of the brain that make us react to protect ourselves, to quickly get out of harm’s way, or to be still. This is known the “fight, flight, or faint response.” This present-focused form of anxiety resolves itself quickly as the threat passes, and can be understood as the body’s way of energizing you to keep yourself safe.
Conversely, “generalized anxiety” or “chronic anxiety” is the type of anxiety that stays with us even in the absence of an immediate threat. This second type of anxiety can cause intrusive and ruminating thoughts, restlessness, insomnia, and headaches, among others symptoms. There are many reasons for this type of anxiety, both genetic and environmental, but it is this chronic type that causes disruptions in the quality of our life and causes us to lose our overall sense of peace and stillness or “hesychia.”
“Generalized anxiety” is predominantly treated with medication, therapy, exercise, or some combination of all three. As Orthodox Christians we have additional tools at our disposal. Our liturgical experience, the regular participation in the Sacramental life of the Church, and a community of believers with whom we can draw strength each provides us with resource for moving toward stillness of mind and body. In fact, in some cases, we can see interesting parallels between clinical techniques and the ascetic experience of the Church.
The preferred therapeutic model for anxiety reduction is “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” a method which began to develop in the 1950s and focuses on the link between our thoughts and how we feel and ultimately behave. The wisdom of the Church, as reflected in both our Scriptural and Patristic Tradition, has a remarkably similar prescription for the reduction of chronic worry.
In Philippians 4:6-8, St. Paul writes, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things.”
Not only is St. Paul advocating that we rely on God rather than retreating to our own illusions of control, but he exhorts us to focus on those things which are truly beautiful. By training our minds to focus on content that brings us joy, we begin to indirectly influence the emotions that cause us distress.
Additionally, modern psychology has established a link between gratitude and the reduction of depression and anxiety. A daily practice of gratitude, which is a focus on our gifts rather than a comparison of what others do or don’t have, is also something that St. Paul prescribes in the passage quoted above. Recall that he advises us to approach God in everything with thanksgiving.
Elder Thaddeus’s famous work, “Our Thoughts Determine our Lives,” also identifies cultivating positive thoughts like gratitude, rather than negative thoughts, as a way through which we enter into greater levels of hesychia. He writes, “Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.” Modern research indicates that our brains simply do a poor job of multi-tasking. So, as we train our minds to practice gratitude, we simultaneously lose focus of those things which bring us anxiety.
Additionally, recent clinical studies have shown that, in as little as eight weeks, we can change brain structures through the practice of a regular prayer rule. The amygdala is a primitive structure in the brain integral to the fight, flight, or faint response; it causes us to be reactive rather than responsive. As we engage in our prayer rule and enter into the beautiful and mystical reality of our Orthodox services, we are literally changing the structure of our brains, thereby opening ourselves to a more peaceful experience of daily life.
Christ and His Church offer salvation, eternal life, and the hope of the Resurrection. The church is not a type of psychiatric medication or a fabrication meant to calm our existential crises. It is the place where we experience the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s love for mankind through the ultimate expression of gratitude in the Eucharist. It is in this experience, in conjunction with the best of what modern medicine and therapy have to offer, that we find rest from the worry of this world. And, as we find peace, those around us will encounter Christ’s saving rest as well.
Marcus is a graduate of Holy cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and lives with his wife in Nashville, TN where they attend Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. Marcus is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, and works with individuals and couples on emotional and relational health.