Coping with Anxiety During the Lenten Season

This author used Lent to begin coping with her anxiety. Read more.

I have a tendency to go all in on Lent. Hard.

Setting a new goal or rule for myself, and sticking by it no matter what?! I’m in.

When you’re a chronic over-achiever like I am, challenges can be extra appealing. And the idea of fasting from something — giving something up for a period of time — as a testament to willpower and poverty of spirit, is a no-brainer. I tend to migrate toward fasting from something really difficult for the sake of the challenge — whether it’s desserts or TV.

And more often than not, fasting from one thing just isn’t enough for me. I can get so wrapped up in competing with myself and those around me by searching for the hardest thing to give up or the biggest sacrifice I can make — just for the challenge. And I’ve never been that person who gives up on their Lenten promises a few weeks through Lent — because if it’s a competition, I’m going to win.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, everything. The same instinct that helps me stay focused on a task and has helped me do so many productive things in my life also has the tendency to distract me from the true purpose of Lent.

My idealistic vision of Lent and how I saw myself participating in it for much of my life was aimed at freeing myself from worldly or material attachments and finding the need for God, but my actual practice of those Lenten disciplines was far from the story of the Cross. There was no humility — no openly and honestly approaching God and learning to rely on Him more.

Instead, I warped the image of Lent in my mind and allowed it to become about me. While I found extra time for prayer, I did so in a way that elevated me and celebrated my own strength and willpower. So while I was “winning” my own competition, I was missing out on accepting the love of God and allowing Him to tell me, “You don’t need to prove yourself to me. You are enough.”

I’ve experienced anxiety for much of my life, and it’s easy to use Lent as a crutch in that struggle because on a superficial level, the practices of Lent feed into my insecurities and my need to always be doing something. When I’m fasting from something, I am able to convince myself that I am enough, on my own — that I am strong and that I am in control. When I lean into that instinct to fast as much as I can, I’m denying myself the opportunity to be loved by God. I’m shutting myself off, convincing myself that I’m in control — and in the process, I put a limit on the person God is calling me to be.

The truth is that it’s scary to give up that control, to surrender to God and to accept my fears and who I am, really.

A few years ago, I heard a talk in which someone suggested fasting from a mental or spiritual roadblock that keeps you from being fully who you’re meant to be. This was right around the time I was learning to accept my anxiety and get it under control, so I made a decision: that Lent would be different.

I kept it simple — painfully simple. I decided to, more or less, fast from anxiety itself. Now, I knew simply saying I wasn’t allowed to be anxious anymore would be a colossal failure, so instead, I committed to taking a few small steps each day to center my heart on peace.

I printed out a copy of the famous “do not worry” passage in the Bible (Matthew 6:25–34), highlighted my favorite parts, and put it in my bedroom where I’d see it — and make myself read it — every day. I posted affirming, self-accepting post-it notes on my mirror — I rolled my eyes at them most days, but still made myself repeat them. I spent time in silence every day. And whenever I found myself sinking into a cycle of anxious thoughts, I’d say a prayer.

That was it: a few prayers and some readings each day, while I tried to accept the fact that I’d always experience some form of anxiety, but that I’d be equipped to tolerate it, and that I was strong. No crazy fasts, no radical poverty. Just 40 days of reminding myself of my reliance on God and that, when I accept that, He’ll take care of me.

I wish this were one of those stories that ends with me radically transforming the way I think about myself and about God — one where I’m never anxious again, I never put myself before God and engage in competition when I should be seeking humility. But to tell that story would be to tell a lie and to give in to some fantasy that a single Lent can take away all our worries and make us perfect Catholics.

Instead, this experience was one where I felt God’s grace in my life, simply reminding me during those 40 days that I was not alone, that I didn’t have to do everything myself, and that my worries — whether or not I could control them — did not actually change the outcomes of what was happening around me.

I can’t say I worried less at the end of that Lent than I did when it began, but I did find peace in the knowledge that I was on the right track. I began to form myself in the practice of turning toward God, rather than in on myself, when I’m anxious and full of doubt. I re-taught myself what it means to trust in God, and I made a commitment to spending my future Lents in prayerful reflection and true sacrifice — the kind that comes from letting go of my own desires and wishes and allowing God to be at the center of my heart.

I learned that the measure of a successful Lent is not how strong I can be, nor how big of a sacrifice I can make. It’s how wide I can open my arms to accept the love and forgiveness of a God who provides for me in more ways than I can ever truly comprehend. It’s an exercise in sheer humility — one that only works if I take the back seat.

Grotto quote graphic about using Lent for coping with anxiety: "I began to form myself in the practice of turning toward God, rather than in on myself, when I'm anxious and full of doubt.

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