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Spiritual Disciplines to Manage Anxiety

Jennifer Slattery

JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com
Updated Apr 12, 2024
Spiritual Disciplines to Manage Anxiety

We may, in fact, need solitude most when our schedules appear most hectic. If this feels challenging, we’re likely operating on faulty thinking and resting upon a false security.

I’ve experienced varying degrees of anxiety for as long as I can remember. I’ve also been actively and persistently following Jesus for nearly three decades. To that end, I’ve spent hours practicing various spiritual disciplines—as an act of obedience and to grow closer to Christ. Although, other than with my daily Scripture reading, my efforts were sporadic at best. That changed dramatically a few years ago, when I found myself submerged in emotional overwhelm so intense that it was like someone had fed my brain’s alarm center a massive dose of caffeine. While battling fierce insomnia, a constantly churning gut, and a fretting mind, I prayerfully searched for relief. This led to increased consistency in my pursuit of God, and through God’s help, I found greater peace.

God revealed numerous practical ways, such as deep breathing, exercise, and laughter, in which I could cultivate a state of inner calm. He also helped me see the soul-quieting power, from a spiritual and neurological aspect, found in many of the sacred activities taught by pastors and Bible study teachers over the years. 

As I more consistently prayed, acknowledged my sins, cultivated times of solitude, and praised God, He led me, one holy moment at a time, to decreased anxiety and increased peace. 

What Is Biblical Peace?

But first, I needed to adjust my vocabulary to ensure I wasn’t aiming for an inaccurate target. For the longest time, when I thought of peace, I immediately envisioned inner tranquility, like how you would feel while enjoying an all-expenses-paid beach vacation. But biblical peace, shalom in Hebrew and eiréné in Greek, refers to wholeness; things being as they should be. That was an important distinction to understand because one’s journey to wholeness, which usually involves healing, often feels anything but peaceful, according to modern definitions of the word.

That doesn’t mean we’re doomed to remain perpetually agitated; otherwise, Jesus never would’ve issued His invitation in Matthew 11:28-29. Speaking to a crowd of people, many whom were exhausted, overwhelmed, and food insecure, He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (NIV).

Do you see the progression in His offer? First, He invites us to come to Him, trusting that He truly will give us what He’s promised. But for those who expect instant transformation, He added, “Learn from me,” suggesting a gradual and progressive experience that comes through our ever-deepening, dependent, instructive relationship with Him. This echoes the sentiment recorded in Psalm 23:2b, which states, speaking of God, “He leads me beside quiet waters” (NIV). 

Jesus Teaches Us to Pray

Whenever I read the disciples’ reaction upon having woken up to find Jesus gone, I have to chuckle—because I know I would’ve responded the same way. In Mark 1:35-37, Scripture tells us about a time when Jesus arose before dawn and left to a solitary place to pray. Confronted by a mass of people desperately seeking help—the leprous, hungry, blind, and demon-possessed, Simon and some of his buddies frantically searched for Jesus. Once they found Him, they declared, in exasperation, “Everyone is looking for you!” (v. 37, NIV). 

They obviously felt that was not the time for Jesus to withdraw. In their limited perspective, all they could see were the seemingly insurmountable needs in front of them. And, perhaps driven by compassion, they responded like I tend to when confronted with other people’s pain. I strategize a way, in my wisdom and strength, to solve the problems. Or, if I feel particularly ill-equipped and overburdened, I become paralyzed by my sense of insufficiency, forgetting that my Father has the solution to every challenge I can face and the power to bring beauty to what might appear to me like a heap of ashes (Is. 61:3). 

Prayer positions me to encounter the living God and His transformative power. As I pour out my concerns to Him, He brings clarity to my confusion, speaks truth to my anxiety, and comforts me in my fear. He also gently, lovingly reveals areas within me that hinder my growth and intimacy with Him. He doesn’t do this to shame me but to guide me to greater freedom. This leads to the next spiritual discipline with significant impact—confession. 

Jesus Invites Us to Live Cleansed

When I was a teenager, I went through a reckless phase where I engaged in activities I knew would upset the adults in my life. This resulted in me telling lies, sneaking around, and constantly fearing discovery. Apparently, my deception skills were lacking because I almost always got caught. Ironically, despite the consequences, this always brought a sense of relief once my need for hiding lifted. 

In Psalm 32, David, ancient Israel’s second king, wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit” (v. 1-2, NIV). 

Blessed, happy, is the person who knows they are completely absolved of all guilt, whose soul has been purged of all unrighteousness. This is what God promised in 1 John 1:9, which reads, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV, emphasis mine). While initially practicing confession—acknowledging our sins to God—might feel frightening, our honest admissions lead to soul-deep cleansing and a heightened experience of Christ’s abounding grace. I discuss this in depth, and how we can receive this precious gift more fully, in the Faith Over Fear podcast episode titled “Courage to Rest in God’s Grace When We Mess Up.” 

Jesus Modeled Our Need for Solitude

Throughout His ministry, Jesus routinely separated Himself from the masses and retreated to a secluded place. He encouraged His disciples to do the same, and, in at least one instance, at what must’ve appeared the least opportune time. In Mark 6, we learn about an occurrence when Jesus sent them in pairs to nearby villages to proclaim truth and free people from demonic influence. Afterward, we read that “so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat” (v. 31a, NIV). Jesus didn’t respond by telling them to get busy, stay focused on ministry, or even strategize a plan to multiply their efforts. Instead, He said, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (v. 31b, NIV). And they did. 

This reminds me of two things. First, we may never find a relaxed or unbusy time to pull away from the noise. We may, in fact, need solitude most when our schedules appear most hectic. If this feels challenging, we’re likely operating on faulty thinking and resting upon a false security. Therefore, our emotional angst triggered by the invitation to rest, when prayerfully investigated and yielded to Christ, can provide an avenue for deeper faith, and, ultimately, decreased anxiety. 

One important caveat: Solitude doesn’t always create calm in the moment. As my recent podcast guest, Alan Fadling indicated, removing our distractions and quieting outside noise might increase our awareness of our anxiety, making it feel intensified. But it also increases our ability to notice how we’re feeling. This, in turn, allows us to prayerfully consider the roots of our emotions and where our thoughts and concerns have veered from truth. Over time, God progressively develops our self-awareness and corrects our thinking, which, in turn, leads to greater wholeness—a greater peace. 

I’ve learned that while I might long for instant results, deep, lasting transformation takes time, perseverance, and the consistent work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, my surrender to repetition.

Jesus Calls Us to Praise

When teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus instructed them to begin with a declaration of worship, stating, “This then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name'” (Matthew 6:9, NIV). Speaking with a woman from Samaria, He said God sought those who would "worship the Father in Spirit and in truth" (John 4:23-24, NIV, emphasis mine). And on the night before His death, He led the disciples in singing a hymn. These examples echo numerous calls in the Old Testament to “Sing joyfully to the Lord,” to make music “on the ten-stringed lyre” (Ps. 33:1-2, NIV), and to “praise his holy name” (Ps. 30:4b, NIV). 

Spiritually, this draws us closer to Him, deepens our intimacy with Him, and positions us to receive all the benefits that come through His presence. But it provides neurological benefits as well. Recent research demonstrates that worshiping for seven minutes each day, defined as paying homage or reverence to God, actually changes our brains. This is particularly important for those who, due to childhood trauma, have developed a hyper-alert amygdala (the area in our brains that triggers our fight-or-flight impulses). In other words, one can replace these heightened survival responses that often result in chronic anxiety with a sense of safety and inner calm. I say this from personal experience. While I still endure periods of anxiety, its intensity and frequency have greatly decreased.

I love when science and personal experience validate wisdom long preserved in Scripture because it highlights the brilliance, heart, and faithfulness of God. He truly does long to see us walk in freedom, and we can trust our gentle, humble, yet victorious Savior to lead us to delightful rest as we follow Him, learn from Him, and practice the disciplines He taught and modeled. 

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Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.