Doing the unthinkable: Facing phobias and anxieties
BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Many situations in this pandemic world present themselves as almost impossible: coping with stress, keeping going under pressure, addressing tough health issues, coping with death (our own and others) and facing our fears. I had to go in for a medical procedure recently, which I have a bit of a phobia about, and found myself driven to prayer to get through. The content of a phobia might seem almost simplistic to the outsider, but to the person experiencing it, it can take over. Fear of crowds, fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of water are among phobias we have.
This is where real prayer comes in, not just a pious thought or a superficial plea, but a real struggle with the demons we face daily. One thing is to become aware of the issue and name it accurately, whether it is anxiety, fear or repulsion. The next step is to turn it into a prayer directly, praying with the problem and bringing God’s grace directly to bear on it. The combination of admitting vulnerability and humbly asking for help seemed to work.
It’s not an easy process however. It demands humility and courage, to face into the storm and believe that God is there, guiding and supporting. It can be helpful to ask yourself the question what does God want for you. Often we know what we want for ourselves: an easy life, trouble free existence and the absence of pain. But reframing the issue in terms of what God wants is liberating, it takes a higher perspective and enables us to rise above the merely human. It often allows us to escape from our own demons and find a way though apparently impossible situations.
It can really help to create a mantra or phrase that you repeat to yourself, often taken from scripture or a spiritual writer. For example, ‘Be still and know that I am God (Ps 46:10)’ is very consoling and helpful when you are in the emotional storm to be able to find calm. Also, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for woe (Jer 29:11)’ or ‘God’ power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9)’.
One crucial Ignatian rule of thumb is to try to ‘act against’ the negativity, fear or narrow thinking. That is, regardless of how we feel in terms of fear, anxiety and dread, we still have the option to choose to act differently. Practice of this can lessen the fears or phobias the next time we find them on our minds. This is genuinely liberating and enables God to work in our lives: waiting to be invited in, and allowing us to act in creative and life-giving ways.
Praying through a phobia:
- Name clearly the issue facing you
- Remind yourself nothing is impossible for God, make an act of faith (e.g. ‘I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.’)
- Acknowledge how you are feeling, the dread or anxiety, for example, and remind yourself you have a choice about how to respond (feelings are not reality, no matter how overwhelming)
- Try to think about what God wants for you, what would be liberating and life-giving, try to see it with God’s help, what might be possible
- Turn the issue or problem into a prayer, demand what you need, whether it be courage, calm, resolve, peace of mind, etc.
- Repeat your mantra or phrase; act courageously in line with what God wants!
Note: if you still find it difficult to act with this prayer, you may also need to get some professional help. Just ask for what you need and trust that solutions can be found.