Dr. Mario Sacasa, LMFT
Anxiety is a curious thing. The human brain is a powerhouse of activity, constantly processing and directing thoughts, emotions, and actions. The vast majority of this activity is beneath our awareness, but the thoughts that tend to get us in trouble are those associated with responses to threats. When those get out-of-whack, we call that anxiety. Yes, fear certainly has its place; it is needed to keep us alive, yet, the powerful human brain can create threats in all sorts of places.
Paying attention to our thoughts and emotions is key to personal growth and holiness. It takes a strong internal conductor to distinguish between what threats need to be attended to and which ones need to be disregarded. With God’s grace, it is possible to get those thoughts under control. Chapter 4 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians offers us a clear prescription for how to reclaim our thoughts and bring them into the light of Christ.
First, St. Paul emphatically encourages us to cultivate joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (4:4). Remember that joy is not quite the same thing as happiness. Joy is something far deeper than happiness.
Happiness is a pleasant feeling that arises from a passing moment: laughing at a good joke or delighting in new clothes. While all those things are good and helpful in times of anxiety, they are not the same thing as the more profound sense of joy. Joy is the deep gaze into your spouse’s eyes, feeling the sun on your face on a crisp autumn day, or the confidence of knowing you just accomplished a great feat. Joy is felt security in your relationships and contentment in your place in life. When you have joy, there is no place for fear (1 John 4:18).
Love, security, and joy are the elements that provide a foundation for a life without anxiety. And Jesus makes a strong appeal that He is that foundation and solely capable of withholding the burdens and fears of human existence. We hear this in the parable of the house built on rock (Matthew 7: 24-27), and we see it in his Resurrection. Jesus can withstand any evil; therefore, let us rejoice in him always!
St. Paul continues by exhorting the Philippians to be kind: “Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near.” (4:5). Why should we choose kindness in the face of threat? What practical effect does kindness have on my anxiety?
Anxiety, by definition, puts us in a place of tension. Anxiety is a preparation for action. It is pent up energy that needs to be discharged. Typically, we have three options with all that energy: aggression, run away, or numb it. By choosing kindness, we are choosing the non-anxious path. It is the option that doesn’t fixate on the threat, therefore preventing the fight, flight, or numb response.
Kindness requires vulnerability, generosity, and gratitude (4:6). If we have the peace that surpasses all understanding (4:7), and a security deeper than the foundations of the world, we will be tethered to a reality that nothing can sever! Therefore, we can and should choose the better option to love, be generous, and be kind towards others.
Focus On Lovely Things
Knowing that we can rejoice in God and choose kindness towards our neighbors, the final challenge St. Paul offers us is to be custodian of our thoughts. Here is verse 8, which is the crux of this teaching on anxiety:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Focus on the lovely things! Ponder those things, mull them over, allow them to capture your imagination, let them run wild in your mind, give creative expression to what emerges from those thoughts, let those ideas build on one another, and let them crescendo in God. In contrast, guard your imagination and eliminate thoughts that are false, impure, or discourteous.
Practically speaking, be careful about what media you consume and be sincere with its effects. What impact are they having on me? Am I allowing lovely things into my imagination? But St. Paul’s mandate here is more than just about media. It is a call to discern the thoughts that continuously scroll in our heads. How many of the thoughts that fly through our minds are actually lovely, charitable, honest, and virtuous?
Are we constantly drudging up past mistakes or continuously thinking poorly about our spouse? Are we scripting defenses to arguments that we probably will never have? Are we entertaining covetous or lustful thoughts? Pay attention to the effects these various thoughts have on your body, and see if you have an elevated need to fight, flight, or indulge because of them. That’s a good way to tell if they are lovely or not.
Focus on the lovely thoughts from God. Let them be your center axis that determines your daily rhythm. Let the negative thoughts go, let them run in and out, and do not give them more attention than they deserve. They are threats and temptations that don’t need to be entertained.
Our brains are rolling with non-stop activity, but we can slow it down by letting go of those thoughts that activate the threat response. Rejoice in God’s goodness, choose kindness toward yourself and others, and focus on that which is praiseworthy. Connect with God through prayer, the sacraments, holy friendships, breath work, exercise, or reading a book.
Each of these activities activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to relax and regain control of our thoughts. Focus on the thoughts that are in fact true and honorable. Do this repeatedly and you will build the virtue needed to live in peace: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” (4.9).