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Anxiety disorder and spiritual direction

5 January 2019, New Delhi, India

After three days of successive thinkshops, I took time off to rest and relax.  With just a map in hand, I found my way to Humayun’s tomb, one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture on the outskirts of Delhi.  It is an impressive structure and open space, with waterways and pools surrounding a majestic tomb.  While sitting on the benches fronting the tomb’s façade, you cannot imagine that more than a hundred people were buried there.  What better way to reflect on life’s importance and temporariness than a garden tomb?

Some two years before this Delhi trip, I grieve over the death of a close friend and confidant – my spiritual director (SD) since college.  He was one of those who guided me in several big decisions made in life.  He helped me see myself in the purest way possible and confronted me with several difficult questions that made me realize my worst mistakes and most meaningful gifts.  He even interviewed my wife and me some three weeks before our marriage – helping us to see what lies ahead.

As I watched the sun slowly rise above Babar’s Tomb in the East Pavilion, I wished my SD was still alive.  Surely, he would have something to say about my anxieties in life and the many little things that make up my anxiety disorder.  I also thought that maybe, it’s about time to seek a new SD – so that I will be helped in uncovering the layers of emotions and fears buried in me in my effort to look like a discerning adult, a self-composed gentleman. 

After the India trip, I asked a friend or two if they had a person to recommend.  A good friend and priest suggested two names.  I managed to contact one of them, and after a few discussions here and there, I convinced him to be my SD.  We agreed on a first session, and all the rest was history.  I am now in my second year with him, and we try at least to meet monthly, even though we live on two different continents. 

In this post, I will talk about why spiritual direction, or guided conversations with a therapist or counsellor, is good for people with anxiety disorder.

  1. My spiritual director listens to me without preconceived notions of who I am or what I am capable of doing.  He does not tell me that, given my abilities, I will be able to go through this difficulty in life.  He does not invalidate my feelings or tell me I may be overthinking things.  He just sits there, listening to my endless rambling, then asks me questions to help clarify my thinking, uncover my deep-seated fears, and realize why my penchant for controlling everything in life makes me anxious and frustrated.
  2. He makes me understand my statements better and see patterns of behaviour embedded in how I approach situations in life.   My SD listens to my statements and helps me understand how it affects me and my outlook in life.  He does not take my statements as something directed at him or something that he needs to respond to.  He asks me questions, not because he wants to understand me better but because he wants me to understand myself more.  He helps me find those triggers that make me anxious based on the stories I tell or the experiences I share. 
  3. He assists me in finding changes I need to make and things I may need to explore to deal with my anxiety.  Sessions with my SD always end up with an assignment – a habit to change or a new practice to explore and start doing.  These are things that he helps me identify myself, not things that he asks me to do.  And it’s not a long list.  Sometimes, it’s just one thing; in others, two.  But the most important thing about these assignments is that they are doable – things that I can commit to because they are within my power and interest to undertake.
  4. He takes note of my progress over time and celebrates every small win he thinks I was able to achieve.  Sometimes I don’t see that I am progressing because my anxious self seems to always look for the big stuff or an immediate sign of a cure.  He is a  very keen observer, and he helps me find how my change in statements and outlook reflect a more profound change in behaviour.  He helps me celebrate small wins and helps me see that my anxiety is not a disease to get rid of but a feeling I need to manage.
  5. He helps me see my journey with anxiety disorder as a faith experience.  He helps me realize that my anxiety disorder is an opportunity to look deeper into myself, my relationships with family and friends, and my relationship with God.  Every time I speak with him, I realize that my experience with anxiety disorder, while challenging and cumbersome, is something that I need to help me make myself a better person, a better father and husband, and a better Catholic. 

Twenty regular monthly sessions with my SD have not only helped me manage my anxiety better.  They helped me travel to the deep-seated fears and worries that I have that are fueling my painful and disturbing anxiety attacks.  They helped me see how my habit of controlling everything has been a constant source of agitation and useless anxieties.  They helped me forego my controlling self and submit myself to the surprise of the universe. 

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