A four-year-old reported to his mother that his toothbrush had fallen into the toilet. She fished it out and gingerly deposited it into the garbage can. A few minutes later, he brought her another toothbrush--her own--and said, “You’d better throw this one away too. It fell in the toilet last week.”
No one needs to be convinced that life is a series of problems. To paraphrase an old saying, “If it’s not one darn thing, it’s two!” There’s always a problem to be solved, and there are always problems to worry about that will soon need to be solved, even if we don’t yet know what they are. It’s those future, as yet nonexistent, problems that cause us to worry or experience anxiety--the antithesis of peace. We need to experience an ongoing peace that dispels the darkness of anxiety. Yet negative upstages positive in our society (that’s why the thesaurus has 17 words for an honest person and 193 for a dishonest one), and what is worse, the negative, such as anxiety, often has a disproportionately minor cause.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about one person in every eight has the most common form of mental illness, chronic anxiety disorder, in one of its various forms: panic disorder, phobias, undifferentiated anxiety, social anxiety (shyness), post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or major depression. Women more than men and children more than adults are subject to these various forms of anxiety.
Neurologists today have a deeper knowledge of the causes of anxiety than they did a few years ago. Here is an absurdly oversimplified view of this new knowledge: A real or imagined threat excites fear in the brain’s amygdala. That activates the hippocampus, which registers the emotion-laden memory of the threat, until and unless the prefrontal cortex kicks in with calming messages to quell the amygdala’s fright. If the amygdala--the accelerator--is overactive, or if the cortex, or thinking part--the brake--is underactive, the result is chronic anxiety. Pharmaceuticals can slow the accelerator, while psychotherapy can improve the brake in the cortex. Therapy can alleviate the problem; but besides this, not instead of it, there is a deeper solution: learning peace-inducing trust in God.
In these cataclysmic times our most enviable fellow humans are those who can somehow find joy in the joyless hurts of life, and peace in the midst of turbulence. Most of us are atrophied, faith-weak souls, who cannot find solace in the ultimate promise that “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of God” (Is 5:26-30). The real faith champions are those who find eye-of-the-hurricane tranquility in the simple assurance of God’s comforting word: “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil 4:5-6). “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pt 5:7, emphasis mine; see Ps 55:22).
Total freedom from anxiety is found in perfect trust in God: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you” (Is 26:3, emphasis mine). Perfect trust is a love-assured and recklessly trusting self-abandonment to divine providence--a providence that itself is recognized as both loving and trustworthy. Job in his anguish came close to this when he exclaimed: “Even though he slay me, I will trust him” (Jb 13:15). Actually, Job didn’t practice full trust, although he did show submission; that is, he acknowledged the wisdom and power in God’s providence, but he had difficulty perceiving love in that divine providence--like so many today who admit God’s wisdom and power but challenge his love in the face of problems like wars, starvation, unanswered prayer, and the like.
If one’s anxiety is of a neurological origin, or the result of insecurity from having been emotionally traumatized, as in the psychopathological condition known as post-traumatic syndrome, then of course professional therapy is called for, including properly prescribed psychopharmaceuticals. (For the scriptural basis for medical treatment, see Sirach 38:1-16.) This is not to discount the numerous examples of miraculously healed persons with anxiety neurosis--patients who prayerfully sought God’s great gift of inner peace (see Jn 14:27) by fostering consummate trust in the tender, loving Lord of creation. The attitude of unflagging trust in our heavenly Father can result in its own intrinsic therapy. Such calm trust, if sustained, is “God’s tranquilizer.” When unrelenting (see Ps 86:3), it can quell the torment of anxiety-ridden souls.
This excerpt is from the book Pathways of Trust, by John H. Hampsch,C.M.F., originally published by Servant Publications. It and other of Fr. Hampsch's books and tapes can be purchased from Claretian Teaching Ministry, 20610 Manhattan Pl, #120, Torrance, CA 90501-1863. Phone 1-310-782-6408.