Relationships, the Jesus Prayer & Anxiety 

He sat in the restaurant at the swimming pool. It was his 8 year old son’s birthday swimming party and all around people were having fun, but all he could do was sit on a chair, hands shaking, filled with anxiety and desperately try and stop himself falling apart. 

No one around seemed to notice. He could see his reflection in the glass partition between the restaurant and the pool, he looked grey. This is the worse he had felt.

Except there was a worse day to come. He didn’t want to work, to face people, but the following week he had to go to his counselling course. As he got on the tube he felt he was falling apart but this time it seemed there was nothing he could do about it.

Later that morning he sat at the back of the class, trying not to be seen. But somebody did see him. This time someone noticed, someone who was a trained psychotherapist. She took him out of the class and sat him down in a quiet room. His levels of anxiety didn’t seem to worry her. She could hold it. As she held his anxiety it enabled him to hold his own anxiety. It was a turning point.

This week’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is all about relationships, because relationships can be absolutely crucial in supporting us when we are suffering from mental ill-health. I’ve told the story about my near panic attack at the swimming pool because I’ve realised that some people couldn’t cope with my anxiety, they had a small window of tolerance for it. Perhaps it triggered feelings of anxiety in their own life – but I felt my anxiety was either ignored, or I was avoided.

I’ve never forgotten the therapist who had no concern about sitting in a room with me, and was able to hold my anxiety in a way which enabled me to hold my overwhelming feelings. If someone can just be with you and tolerate your feelings, then it can be so incredibly helpful.

I’ve also found that my spirituality helped me manage my anxiety. Soon after these episodes of anxiety I came across a book called The Jesus Prayer by Simon Barrington Ward. The Jesus Prayer is an ancient Christian mindful awareness or contemplative prayer. In the Jesus Prayer you say ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ I found it a prayer that gave me stability with my anxious feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. 

What also helped me was that you say the prayer with your breath, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God’ on the in-breath, and ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ on the out-breath. Physiologically the breath offers an anchor in the turmoil of your inner world. This makes the Jesus Prayer, an embodied prayer it brings you to your senses. I also learnt to use it with a prayer rope, moving a knot with my fingers every time I prayed this prayer. This kept my rational, critical mind busy and I found my ruminative thinking quietened down with practice. 

But I also want to make the point that the Jesus Prayer is not a mantra, it is a relationship – a relationship with the Saviour, who is our friend and brother and Lord – loving, merciful and able to heal and help and bring wholeness. This prayer brings us into His presence and His perfect love can drive out fear and anxiety. 

Secular mindfulness practices helped me as well. Interestingly these practices are also relational, because they can help change our relationship with our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. As I wrestled with debilitating anxiety I thought I was an anxious person. But one of the key insights that mindfulness offers in its psycho-educational capacity is that our thoughts and feelings are passing events in the mind, they are not facts. We are bigger than our thoughts and feelings. 

One day I suddenly had what is called a metacognitive insight, I realised I was not an anxious person, I was just having anxious thoughts. These thoughts are powerful, but they began to lose their hold on me. I found I was able to hold them and let them go – with what Brian Draper would call the ‘witnessing presence’ of my soul.

Professional therapists and psychologists can be a witnessing presence for those of us who wrestle with mental ill-health – but the truth is anyone can be that witnessing presence – can be that relationship that helps sustain us. We all just need to stretch our windows of tolerance! My prayer is that this week’s MHAW focus on relationships will enable precisely that. 

Revd Shaun Lambert, 18/05/2016
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