Spiritual Direction in an Anxious World

Spiritual Direction in an Anxious World June 26, 2017

Spiritual direction is not a cure for anxiety but anxiety frequently comes up as people share their life stories with a spiritual director. In those moments of anxiety—even panic—the response of a caring, compassionate and non-anxious spiritual director can make a difference.

The Mayo Clinic describes anxiety as “intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.” Anxiety be mildly annoying or it can seriously impair a person. Much has been written lately about how the current decade is defined by anxiety. Some posit that mass anxiety on the part of large numbers of voters led to the election of Donald Trump as President and that mass anxiety over the election results now haunts many of the President’s detractors.

For Spiritual Directors

If you are a director working with a client with great anxiety, the best thing you can do is remain calm and listen. If you find yourself picking up their anxiety, take a breath and remind yourself this is not your emotion to hold. You do them no favors by letting them hand anxiety off to you—all you end up with is two anxious people in the room.

Both your words and body language matter. I will never forget the time I shared with my spiritual director a fear I was experiencing and saw a flash of panic in their eyes. The director didn’t consciously do anything hurtful, but it didn’t lower my anxiety.

It is helpful to remember the concept of the “third chair” when listening to stories filled with anxiety. The spiritual guide is in one chair, the client in another and an imaginary third chair represents the presence of the Divine. Allow the power of the third chair to guide you and the directee through the anxiety.

Sometimes the root of the fear is spiritual. This is where spiritual directors can be helpful with our deep listening and discernment skills. Healing takes place when the director remains calm and attentive as the directee explores the point of greatest tension.

One thing to do with an anxious client is to ask them to concentrate on what they feel in their body at the present moment. Relaxation, slow breathing and a conscious returning to the present moment can ease some of the physical symptoms of anxiety. It is fine for the spiritual director to guide the directee into sensing where, in the body, the fear seems to reside and then invite them to hold that bodily sensation with compassion and non-judgment.

You will not be able to fix or cure your directee’s anxiety. So, don’t make that your goal. Acceptance on your part will be crucial. Some therapies for anxiety actually involve the person accepting it rather than trying to always fix it. You can model that for the directee.

For Anxious People seeking Spiritual Direction

I get it. I began spiritual direction in the 80’s because of anxiety around religious beliefs I had been taught that I no longer felt were healthy for me. And years of spiritual direction have been essential to my spiritual growth from fear to love. But, spiritual direction was only one part of my healing process.

Please do not expect your spiritual director to be a specialist in anxiety reduction! It may be that as you talk about your fears with a compassionate person, the fears lose some power—and it’s great when that happens. But if you have panic attacks or debilitating anxiety—whether it stems from a spiritual or religious crisis or not—you will need to combine spiritual direction with psychological therapy. And I suggest you allow your spiritual director and therapist to confer at least once or twice with one another to make sure they aren’t inadvertently working at cross purposes. Due to confidentiality, you will need to have both sign a waiver saying it’s OK for them to talk.

Living in an Anxious World

One of my health care providers frequently reminds me that we live in an anxious world. How well we manage our emotions partly determines how meaningful our lives will be. Anxiety can be our friend, alerting us to parts of ourselves that we need attention. Or we can view it as our enemy and isolate ourselves in an attempt to be safe.

Spiritual direction is a contemplative and mostly calm practice. Hopefully, the work of spiritual directors can make it easier to live in an anxious world.

(Image via Pixabay)


Want to try spiritual direction? I have openings in my schedule for new directees—regardless of where you live. I can work by phone, Skype or if you live in the Phoenix metro area we can meet in person. Contact me at teresa@teresablythe.net  or visit www.teresablythe.net.  Also visit my website for the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.

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  • Daniel G. Johnson

    I think there is a time to be anxious, and a time to be calm. And, I may be guilty of plagiarism of the Hebrew Scriptures to some extent.