How to Pray with Anxiety

This article, written by Vinita Hampton Wright, is a summary of the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola for persons who struggle with anxiety – occasionally or chronically. Over the years, I have had many persons tell me that anxiety robs them of their ability to pray and to be centered in God. So…I pray this article and the suggestions will be helpful and hopeful for you.

How can I pray when I’m anxious? That is, how is it possible to pray when anxiety fills my person? How might I go about prayer when I’m in such a condition? Here are a few points to remember.

First of all, reality does not change when I experience internal changes. I might be enraged, frightened out of my mind, or too worried to remember words to a prayer. But God continues to dwell with me. God continues to love me. I remain a person created in the divine image. The world continues moving toward God’s purposes.

Second, it is useless to pretend that I’m not anxious. I must stay with what is and deal with the here and now. Anxiety results from multiple factors: my physical state, which can be affected by fatigue, illness, or adrenaline; my mental state, which can raise my anxiety by believing falsehood or obsessing on a certain problem or fear; my emotional state, which simply indicates how a situation or event is affecting me; my spiritual state, which feels the effects of all other states but may not change as much as I think. What I mean by that is, my spiritual reality is established by the work of Christ and kept by the power of the Holy Spirit. How I interact with my spirituality can be affected by anxiety, but I can take action even then. When I accept that anxiety is happening in me at this moment, I have the power to make choices.

Third, true prayer shapes itself to the situation. How I pray when anxious may not look like how I pray when I’m not anxious. For example:

During non-anxious times, perhaps I can sit quietly to pray.
During anxious times, I pray while pacing or rocking.

During non-anxious times, I might use a lot of words—fully developed thoughts and ideas.
During anxious times, my prayer is a word or short phrase, such as “Help!” or “I need you!”

During non-anxious times, I enjoy praying with Scripture or types of meditation.
During anxious times, I find it easier to pray with objects, such as a smooth stone in my hand.

Please keep in mind some simple ideas if you are anxious and trying to pray.

  • Do not rely on your thought processes during great anxiety. Such a state can skew our thinking and set our thoughts in useless circles. For anxious times, have a few statements of truth, such as a few short verses of Scripture that can keep you grounded.
  • It is always appropriate to cry out to God. Speak plainly. Allow your emotions to express your heart. Remember the psalms, those poetic yet frank prayers to God in all seasons.
  • Carry out St. Ignatius Loyola’s advice to “act against.” Whether our anxiety is the simple result of factors we can recognize, or it feels like an out-and-out attack from something evil, we can counteract it. When afraid, we speak our trust. When worried, we remember God’s protection and help in times past. When tempted to despair, we find one thing for which to give thanks. When beaten down, we choose to help someone else.

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