Racing thoughts. Muscle tension. Fatigue. Restlessness. Worry. These are all common signs of anxiety and to some degree, we’ve all been there — whether it’s intense stress or nervousness before a big life event or an anxiety disorder that makes it hard to function.
Sometimes a brisk walk and talking things out with a friend are enough to quell anxiety. Other times, anxiety needs to be addressed with the help of a mental health professional who can offer counseling or medication.
Believe it or not, saints (those holy men and women whom the Church has determined to be in heaven with God) faced anxiety, too. We can look to a number of saints in the Church to not only intercede for us when we’re feeling anxious, but also serve as role models for how to deal with anxiety in our daily lives.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety takes many forms. Sometimes it’s acute and brought on by an important event like a big test, major life decision, or a difficult conversation. Anxiety disorders, however, are more pervasive and long-lasting.
Anxiety disorders like general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or a wide variety of phobias affect almost every aspect of life and often make it difficult to function in certain situations. This kind of anxiety goes beyond just “worrying” about something — it can result in panic attacks, constant feelings of restlessness, and excessive fear.
The saints can help
Being a saint doesn’t mean you never experienced anxiety during your earthly life! The saints were people too, and just like us, they faced times of uncertainty, concern, and worry.
But we honor them as saints because they put their trust in God and developed a holy indifference to the outcomes of situations over which they had no control. They came to accept all things in life as coming from God, and had faith that He would help them in any situation they faced.
That said, it’s great to know that we aren’t alone when we experience anxiety over a life event or a more debilitating anxiety disorder. The saints can pray for us to seek God in those moments of suffering, and can serve as inspiration for how to overcome anxiety and find interior peace.
Here are four saints to turn to the next time you’re feeling anxious:
St. Padre Pio
Padre Pio (or St. Pio of Pietrelcina) was a Capuchin friar from Italy; he became a priest at the age of 23. He is renowned, in part, for his deep prayer life and piety. During his life, even from a young age, he suffered from many health issues — so much so that he had to be separated from his religious community for several years in order to take care of his health.
He is famous for many miraculous signs, such as an ability to bilocate, healings, and the stigmata that developed on his hands. People flocked to him to be close to someone so holy, and he shared wisdom that made a difference in their lives. He had one message that he shared frequently: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
Despite facing struggles and physical pain, Padre Pio lived his life with complete resignation to the will of God. That’s a good example that can give us strength when we are in the middle of a dark and threatening situation. And though prayer doesn’t take away anxiety (and it’s important to NOT try to apply only spiritual solutions to mental health conditions that require mental health treatment), we can turn to Padre Pio for intercession when we are struggling. He knows what it was like to suffer, and his prayers will help us pursue hope and not worry in the midst of our anxieties.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux
St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a powerhouse of a saint! She lived only 23 short years, but the Church formally recognized her spiritual wisdom by declaring her a doctor of the Church — a designation that sets her apart from other saints because her example is so instructive. She was a Carmelite religious sister in France in the 19th century, and dealt with extreme anxiety in the form of scrupulosity.
Scrupulosity is not uncommon among people of faith and is essentially a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. It is marked by a deep and pervasive fear that one has sinned gravely, thinking things are sins which are not sins, and not finding solace and peace in the forgiveness we experience in the sacrament of confession. These fears pile up in the scrupulous person’s mind, leading them to seek affirmation from a friend or priest that they have not sinned — but then that affirmation doesn’t last long and soon the cycle of anxiety begins again.
St. Thérèse would often turn to her sister for affirmation when she experienced anxiety related to her scrupulosity. She overcame this difficulty by denying herself the opportunity to seek this affirmation from her sister repeatedly. We can turn to St. Thérèse in prayer asking for her intercession, but she’s also a model for how to remain steadfast in our trust in God’s goodness and loving care.
St. Francis de Sales
St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers and journalists and was the bishop of Geneva during the 17th century — so he may not be a saint you readily think of in the midst of anxiety.
During his lifetime, he served as the spiritual director of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, who struggled with anxiety and depression and later became a canonized saint, herself. Francis helped Jane work through her struggles and pursue holiness, and he can do the same for us today — both by his intercession and by his well-known book, Introduction to the Devout Life.
This book had a deep impact on my own battle with scrupulosity and anxiety. In reading it, you can truly hear the calm, fatherly voice with which St. Francis reminds us of God’s mercy and offers tangible advice for the anxious heart: “bring [your heart] quietly back into God’s presence, subjecting all your affections and desires to the obedience and direction of his divine will.”
This popular prayer written by St. Francis de Sales is helpful to keep on hand when the dark clouds of life gather with intensity. When we worry about the future, St. Francis reminds us that “the same Eternal Father who cares for you today will take good care of you tomorrow and every day of your life.”
Mary, Untier of Knots
No article about holy people who can help us with anxiety would be complete without mention of Mary, especially under her title as Untier of Knots.
The story goes that a German couple were on the brink of divorce in the 1600s. The husband gave their priest a ribbon that had been used at their wedding and it was full of knots. The priest held it up to an image of Mary, asking her to “untie the knots” of this couple’s marriage — the ribbon suddenly became loosened, untied, and turned white. The couple reconciled shortly after.
This story is probably more legend than fact, but it’s been kept and shared by Christians because it says something true about Mary — she helps us find ways through difficult situations. The famous painting of this devotion dates to this story, but Mary has been known as the “untier of knots” for much longer — the earliest Christians saw that Mary can help open up a new way when it seems like we’ve reached a dead end.
The saints and anxiety
Anxiety can arise due to our circumstances, or it may present itself as a recurring mental health condition that requires treatment like counseling, medication, or both. Prayer and matters of faith should not replace these things. But looking to the saints can give us confidence that even the holiest faced anxiety at times, and that they can help us with their prayers and example. Just as they triumphed by continually striving to trust God, we can strive — and succeed — in doing so as well.