Why Am I Praying So Hard Yet Feeling So Anxious?

Updated Jun 14, 2019
Why Am I Praying So Hard Yet Feeling So Anxious?

Can I tell you something that still surprises me? I struggled with anxiety for years without even knowing.

I had trouble falling asleep at night because of the nervous thoughts running through my head, fell into post-partum depression due to parenting anxiety, and once got so nervous preparing for a simple conversation with my landlord that I felt like my body was on fire.

But I never asked why. I didn’t know peace was possible.

Over the past few years, God has helped me heal. I still struggle with anxiety, but I don’t swim in it anymore.

Indeed, the more I learn to live free from anxiety, the more I recognize the lies that kept me anxious and afraid. I once thought of my worries as a sign of caring, acceptance, and humility. It’s hard to stop worrying when you think—deep down—that your worries are actually helping you. But left to our own devices, we’re easily deceived.

I’ve since discovered that God can use anxiety to release me from control, nudge me to take responsibility, and grow me in wisdom. Here are the weird ways I held onto anxiety—and how God has led me towards peace. 

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I thought anxiety proved to God I cared deeply about my shortcomings…

I thought anxiety proved to God I cared deeply about my shortcomings…

The first lie I believed about my anxiety was that it was necessary to prove how much I cared. When I worried about whether I was a good enough Christian, or a good enough parent, or a good enough wife, it proved I took those roles seriously. In that way, fretting seemed almost like a virtue. I even believed, subconsciously, that my anxiety showed I was working hard to change my shortcomings. If I couldn’t be rid of my weaknesses, then being anxious about them helped.

Don’t get me wrong—I do care deeply about faith, parenting, and my marriage. But the energy I spent feeling bad about myself didn’t help. If anything, it made it harder for me to be present in my life, since I was so busy fretting. It’s hard to be at peace when your brain is on high alert.

I assumed good, earnest Christians constantly critiqued themselves and reviewed their every mistake with a magnifying glass. I was wrong.

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…but instead, feeling anxious kept me from trusting God.

…but instead, feeling anxious kept me from trusting God.

Worrying constantly about my shortcomings felt like taking them seriously—but wasn’t at all biblical. Christ said, “Which one of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to your life?”

For instance, I assumed that if I worried about being a terrible mother, I would be more motivated to parent well. Or that by worrying about how many minutes I spent reading the Bible, I’d become more disciplined about Bible reading. Instead, my fear made me avoid engagement with my kids and God’s word—my anxious thoughts made both activities stressful.

Let me point out: me worrying about caring for my kids is not at all the same thing as actually caring for them. In fact, if I give into anxiety, and spend most of my energy on it, I am robbing my kids of my actual time and attention.

In a weird way then, my anxiety is about control. When I’m dissatisfied with myself, I think I can make up for my shortcomings by worrying and fretting about them. I assume that anxiety is a kind of spur that will get me moving. It’s very self-focused—it depends on my power and my motivation. I replace having to actually depend on God’s help in my shortcomings with feeling terrible about them.

Anxiety is seductive because it feels like we’re taking our problems seriously. But spending our time fretting prevents us from depending on God. It also, as we’ll see, makes us weirdly passive.

I thought anxiety meant passively leaving my problems in God’s hands…

Before I began healing from anxiety, I often felt ashamed while reading Philippians’s call: “do not be anxious about anything.” Iassumed I could magically stop my worries if I simply prayed enough for trust that the situation would improve.

If I worried about a relationship, then, I concentrated only on controlling my thoughts. No matter how toxic the relationship was, I assumed God called me to wait passively for change to happen.

When nothing changed, my anxiety would return with a vengeance. I’d again command my mind to be at peace—feeling increasingly cynical and angry at God.

It never occurred to me that anxiety might call for something other than thought control and passivity.

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…Instead, anxiety revealed how to take thoughtful, God-powered action.

…Instead, anxiety revealed how to take thoughtful, God-powered action.

In my late thirties, I reluctantly sought out therapy to work on some difficult family dynamics. I started telling my counselor that I was anxious about my relationships, and I was shocked by her response.

“Have you talked to your loved ones about your concerns?” she asked.

She meant asking the questions and expressing feelings that, in some cases, I had been avoiding since childhood. Before therapy, I thought that I could turn anxiety off like a light switch. Instead, she told me over and over, anxiety was like a fire alarm, prodding me to notice the smoke and heat that was making me sick,then take action.

Slowly, I realized I had very good reasons to feel anxious in key relationships. I had not been honest about pain I carried from the past, the ways in which people had hurt me, or about my anger towards them. I was anxious because I had no idea if how they’d react if they knew the real me.

Over and over, my therapist asked me why I wasn’t honest. Over and over, she gently asked me to imagine how freeing it would be if I no longer had to hide or pretend.

I had thought the goal of the battle was to banish anxiety, never once realizing that examining it might give me important information. So as I prayed that God would help me understand my anxiety, I realized it often helped me become more honest with myself and avoid wishful thinking.

As I grew better at speaking up and being honest, my anxiety receded, and my relationships flourished. I realized with delight that anxiety could be a part of discernment. Time and time again, God used anxiety to lead me towards love.

I’ve come to believe that the Holy Spirit can use our anxiety if we take it seriously. Like hunger, anxiety is a signal that tells us to care for ourselves wisely. It’s only when we ignore anxiety long-term that it leads to sins like bitterness, fear, and despair.

I once thought trusting God was a passive act. Now I know that God uses surprising tools, like our anxious thoughts, to lead us into intentional, wise engagement with our troubles.

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Anxiety is Understandable, but it’s Not Inevitable

Anxiety is Understandable, but it’s Not Inevitable

We live in an fretful society: anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States.I once shamed myself for my constant worry, without realizing I wasn’t alone. Even now, I get letters every week from Christians weary from fighting their fear, and ashamed they haven’t been able to trust Christ.

The shame we feel often makes it harder to change things. Rather than acknowledging that we swim in an anxious culture, we rely on our willpower to move against the tide. When we fail to stop worrying, we become even more ashamed and anxious.

If you feel anxious no matter how much you pray, you’re not alone, you’re not a terrible Christian, and you’re not weak. You’re a broken person in need of God’s power, discernment, and guidance. Rather than praying more and more, as if prayer is a magic anxiety eraser, pay attention to your anxiety and learn its lessons.

Are you anxious at certain times of the month? Do family relationships leave you sleepless at night? Do you need therapy, counseling, or training to manage your life more effectively? Do you need psychiatric help or medication?

Anxiety is a signal that something in our lives needs healing. This shouldn’t be a surprise—we’re all broken vessels in need of God’s power and wisdom. Yes, prayer can be part of how God calls you to deal with anxiety, but repentance and wholeness also call for practical steps towards wholeness. Whether it’s talking to your doctor, asking for advice, reading a book on boundariesand relationships, or getting formal therapy, God uses many tools to heal our lives.

In Ephesians 5, Paul says, “Wake up, sleeper…Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity...” He then counsels us to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

When I first learned those verses in college, I would never have guessed that waking up to my anxiety would help me rely on the Holy Spirit. Before I understood my fear, it drove me away from God. But once I took it seriously, it helped me figure out where in my life I needed God’s healing.

Anxiety is shame, bondage, and hell if we let it rule our lives. But given to God and addressed, it is, like all our weaknesses, a way God is glorified through us.

Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock/Wavebreakmedia

Originally published Friday, 14 June 2019.