When Anxiety Strikes

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At times, we all can worry about the future. I’m a planner, and so perhaps I am more prone to anxiety than others. If I am going on a trip, I tend to be the one who reminds people not to forget a toothbrush and to bring a swimsuit just in case there is a chance to go swimming at the hotel. I am the one who checks the doors as we leave to be sure that they are locked. What mother has not worried about her adult child’s safety as that child gets in the car for a long trip back home? I am in my 50s, and my mother still asks me to text or call to confirm that I have arrived home safely!

But worry and planning can go overboard, too, when we start to worry excessively. The last time I visited my family in Florida, a huge storm hit the northern part of the country while we were away. I thought, What if the temperature plummets, we lose power, and the pipes freeze while we are away? What if we end up with water damage? My anxieties, of course, are not limited to vacation time. I can also wonder: What if I look dumb dancing at the wedding reception? What if a new friend that I invite to get together has been slow to respond because she does not want to be friends? And so on. These are all, I think, common human worries.

Jim Manney, in his book What Matters Most and Why, suggests that this tendency to think about “what ifs” is rooted in our evolutionary development, from days when human beings were more frequently surrounded by predators. At least I can say that my anxiety-related traits are highly evolved! Manney has a suggestion for us, however, when the threat is not pressing or anything that we can realistically address:

The Ignatian counsel is twofold: First, remember that most of our worries exist in our minds and not in reality; second, we should do what we can and leave the rest in God’s loving hands. Nevertheless, some dangers are real, and in any case, our minds are designed for worry. So William Barry offers a third suggestion: Cultivate a sense of God’s presence in your daily life. Love is at the center of all things; we can see it if we look for it.

For me, that means cultivating a sense of mindfulness. I did worry briefly about the pipes freezing but then made sure that I paid attention and was grateful for having a few days around my mother, and I cuddled up to one of her adorable pet beagles. A new acquaintance may or may not want to be friends, but I can take that risk, knowing that offering care and fostering connection, whether it is accepted or rejected, is how Jesus lived. I might hug my child on the way out the door, say a prayer for safety as that child departs, and remember that most of the time, travelers do get home just fine. And I can lovingly remember to text my own mother when I do.

William Barry’s words also remind us that when bad things do happen, it is still a time to look for love. We can try to be patient and figure out what to do next if the pipes burst or someone gets a flat tire. We can face social anxiety by remembering that someone else at the same event is probably looking for a friendly face to talk to, too.

Love comes in many forms, and while it does not remove anxiety, love can displace it from the center to the periphery. We can also be kind and compassionate to ourselves when anxiety about real and legitimate worries strikes, offer our concerns to God, and allow God to be a comforting presence as well.

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