Anxiety and Worry

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 15 November 2015.
By John Abbate.

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With the horror of the November 13 attacks in Paris still very fresh in the mind, Dr Macnab this Sunday began his address with some thoughts on anxiety and its relationship to loss, particularly the loss of faith or belief:

“Anxiety is about the loss of belief that we live in a safe world; the loss of belief that people can be trusted to do good; the loss of belief in a God who will protect the innocent and the vulnerable; the loss of belief that faith is strong enough to overcome all adversity.”

“When your Bible says, ‘In stillness and quietness you’ll find your strength,’” said Dr Macnab, “we doubt.”

In this address, Dr Macnab attempts to do four things:

  1. Describe several aspects of well-known anxieties
  2. Point to different ways of managing anxiety
  3. Acknowledge how ineffective some religion has been in helping us manage anxiety
  4. Bring together a conception of a new faith that carries a therapeutic psychology for the better management of anxiety

Understanding anxiety as a response to trauma

Anxiety attends various forms of trauma. In his therapeutic writings, Dr Macnab identifies six major sources of trauma:

  1. The threat to life itself
  2. Threat to integrity of self, self-image
  3. Loss of a valued relationship
  4. Loss of functioning
  5. Upheaval of worldview
  6. Loss of faith in life and the goodness of life—“the very soul of our humanity”

Anxiety may both precede and succeed these traumas of life. “Anxiety can be about what has happened in the past and what might happen in the future…it gets into us, and can do much damage.”

Existential anxiety

From an existentialist perspective, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich named three main sources of anxiety:

  1. Emptiness and meaninglessness
  2. Guilt and rejection
  3. Fate and death

Of course, there are many other common forms of anxiety we could name: anxiety over the thoughts of others, performance anxiety, relationship anxiety.

But anxiety also has its positive side. “Anxiety can be a troublesome, turbulent experience. But it can also be a good teacher,” said Dr Macnab. Anxiety can preserve us against danger; it can also be a test of our adaptability, and a training of our resilience.

Anxiety and Religion

Conventional religious answers to our everyday anxieties are largely unsuccessful. “Any worthwhile theology needs a thoroughgoing therapeutic component, just as the words of Jesus consistently had a therapeutic component,” said Dr Macnab.

“Anyone can dismiss the myths, the parables, of religion as pointless, meaningless…But what is faith, if it is not sowing seeds for a better world? […] We need to teach the ways of harmony to transcend our destructiveness.”

What about practical advice on managing anxiety?

  1. Stay Calm.
  2. Find ways to contain and control your anxiety.
  3. Change your anxiety behaviour; avoid chaotic, destructive reactions.
  4. Call on resources to help with coping. Faith is one such resource: faith in yourself and in your relationships.
  5. Have the courage to say that your faith has meaning, that it is a deeply held part of your existence.

For Dr Macnab, a theological solution to anxiety joins with a therapeutic component. We must analyse and isolate the core anxiety, identify appropriate resources, and reduce any ongoing reactions to that anxiety: the impulsive, destructive behaviours that anxiety provokes in us.

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