For many Christians and people of faith, leaning on faith practices – including prayer – can be incredibly helpful in relieving anxiety.
Unfortunately, it’s also possible for prayer to be unhelpful when we’re feeling anxious, sometimes even fueling anxiety to make it worse.
Here are some of the ways prayer can worsen our anxiety:
Types of Prayer
There are an array of ways to pray, and each individual develops their own style. For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll take a look at three types of prayer: Meditative prayer (contemplative prayer), ritualistic prayer, and colloquial prayer.
Meditative or Contemplative Prayer is a style of prayer where one remains quiet and open to God’s presence.
Ritualistic prayer refers to reciting common prayers, lines from sacred texts, or other religious phrases.
There is also Colloquial Prayer, which is a more conversational interaction with God.
A study by Baylor University in 2014 looking at the impact of prayer on anxiety found that use of ritualistic prayer was associated with worse mental health outcomes, whereas contemplative and colloquial prayer were associated with positive influences on emotional well-being.
These findings are consistent with some of the patterns I’ve observed with my clients. This connection between prayer style and mental health intuitively makes sense, especially if we believe that God expects or requires certain ritual prayers from us in order to help us.
Can you imagine if a partner or a loved one responded to your request for help by saying: “I’ll help you out once you tell me how great I am.” This would be an unhealthy pattern in a relationship. Rather, we’d hope that when we reach out to a loved one for support they would say, “I’m here,” “What do you need?” or “How can I help?”
If we believe God requires certain rituals from us in order to help us, we’re engaging in an unhealthy dynamic. Often individuals are either taught to interact with God this way, or they are projecting their primary attachment style onto God.
The same study by Baylor University found that attachment style was a key player in whether prayer would relieve or worsen anxiety. There are a few attachment types that people tend to fall into, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll simplify the categories into two types: secure attachment and insecure attachment.
We tend to carry the same attachment style with us based on what we’ve learned from our caregivers at an early age. It is possible for attachment style to change with new experiences, though this tends to come with intentional investment in changing how we go about our relationships.
With that said, we tend to project our primary attachment style onto our relationship with God.
Secure attachment reflects a sense of being well cared for in significant relationships. Those in secure relationships believe their loved ones care for them unconditionally and will be available to support them when need arises. Secure attachment is also associated with a sense of agency – the capacity to venture out on our own to accomplish new things, knowing our loved ones will support us from afar and be there when we return.
Insecure attachment includes several attachment styles. However, they reflect a sense that loved ones may be unavailable, inconsistent, harmful, or offer love that is conditional based on how we interact with them. Individuals with insecure attachment styles can be prone to either push loved ones away or to cling to loved ones as measures of self protection.
When we project insecure attachment on God, we may perceive him as unavailable, inconsistent, or abusive. We may believe his care for us is conditional on us behaving a certain way, apologizing profusely, or engaging in certain rituals.
When we have a secure attachment with God, we can trust that he ultimately supports us and cares for us, regardless of our actions. We can believe that he will be consistent in how he offers care and support, knowing he will be there for us when we need him. It’s also important to note that in a secure dynamic with God, we believe that he doesn’t need anything from us in order for him to be okay. He is okay just as he is.
Building Healthy Prayer Practices
It’s possible to develop healthier prayer practices. It follows naturally from what we’ve already looked at that fostering a healthier attachment with God and trusting he is available to us to care for us without condition is important.
You may find some of the resources at the end of this post helpful to you as you seek healthier prayer practices. I know there are many who only know of God as aloof or dangerous. If this is true for you, I suggest you seek the support of others to help you rather than going it alone. Effectively, you may need a safe mediator to help you interact with God in a safer manner. If you have a pastor or mentor you trust, you may turn to them first. If you don’t already have someone you trust, you may consider seeking professional support through a spiritual director or a therapist.
Know that it’s okay to take space from prayer altogether. If every interaction you have with God is leaving you feeling more hurt, I would rather you postpone that interaction until there is a time that you can feel safe and cared for by God.
Are all ritualistic prayers bad? Definitely not! Reciting common prayers, sacred texts, or truthful mantras can be incredibly grounding. The danger is in our perception of why we engage in the ritual. If we believe God needs us to engage in the ritual in order to love us, help us, or care for us, then we are engaging in an unhealthy dynamic. If we simply find that certain rituals help us center on God and the love or truth he already has to offer us, rituals can be incredibly centering and helpful.
As a final disclaimer, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Take care and Happy 2018!