I’ve been a worrier as long as I can remember. My mother will testify that even as a small child my tendency was to worry. In high school I worried about passing tests, getting a 4.0 GPA, dating (or the lack there of), my family’s tense relationships, and my parents and the strain my attendance at a boarding school put on their finances.
The logical argument that worrying doesn’t help anything didn’t stop my mind from acting like a tumbling clothes dryer, constantly re-circulating all the things that could go wrong. The worry gradually avalanched into depression and then anxiety. My days were filled with a foreboding sense of dread.
I once described the depression and anxiety to my mom as being like living under a cloud, constantly being in the shadows. I knew I “should” be happy and content because I had a good life but I just couldn’t shake the feelings of sadness, trepidation, and dread. When something funny would happen I would smile but the smile never made it past my lips. Sometimes the anxiety was justified by life circumstances but many times it wasn’t. Either way, I didn’t know how to control it.
The most difficult times were years later, on my way to work as a substance abuse therapist. I was just out of graduate school and I constantly dreaded going to work. I couldn’t sleep Sunday night because the pressure I felt to help people, while dealing with my own emotional and physical pain, overwhelmed me. People were counting on me and, even though I had a master’s degree, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing.
One day on my way to work I was overcome with a deep, dark sense of inadequacy and a suffocating sense of foreboding. The tears started and wouldn’t stop. I had to pull over because I couldn’t see the road. My heart pounded and my stomach rolled, dread overwhelmed me and I couldn’t catch my breath. The anxiety made my skin crawl and I desperately wanted to step outside my body and shed my skin. I couldn’t bear to go to work feeling like that another day. I couldn’t take living like that anymore.
Out of desperation I took anxiety medication. But eventually I got tired of the unpleasant side effects and I didn’t want to just treat the symptoms, I wanted to get to the heart of why I struggled for so long with anxiety and depression. I started looking for other options in unlikely places because the traditional doctors didn’t have any answers except treating the symptoms with medication. In my search, I diligently read books and articles, searched web sites looking for options, tried different coping strategies, saw a therapist, and started feeding my body nutrient rich foods. After many false starts and numerous attempts at stopping the medication, I’m happy to say that my work paid off and I’ve been successfully off medication for three years (if you would like to reduce your medication please talk with your personal doctor, psychiatrist, and/or therapist).
However, the story doesn’t have a “Happily Ever After” ending. Even though my anxiety has eased I still find myself worrying too much. While I was able to use the tools I found to reduce the depression and anxiety to a manageable level, I still wanted more. More peace of mind, more trust, more happiness. The search for more eventually led me back to my faith and to a technique called Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is a Christian* meditative practice where you ask God to enter your mind and body and change you. The steps outlined in the book The Path of Centering Prayer by David Frenette give a very simple outline for the technique:
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts (which include body sensations, feelings, images, and reflection), return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
When I started the practice I chose the word “amen”. The word amen means “so be it” or “let it be”. Every time I repeated amen I was making the choice to let go of everything around me, past and future, and leave it in God’s hands, if only for five minutes. Sometimes I would switch and repeat the verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” It was a much needed reminder that God is working in my life, whether I worry or not, and that I don’t have to waste energy with the “what if’s”.
The truth is that even though I have more peace and happiness, I still worry. But I worry five minutes (or ten if I’m doing well) less each day. I’m making the choice to let go and I’m intentionally learning to turn my attention towards peace. While I still carry an unnecessary load, I’m learning to release it five minutes at a time.
*If you are uncomfortable with a Christian based meditative practice there are many other forms of meditation that can still be helpful. Here are some simple instructions to get you started.