‘Distress’ and ‘Anxiety’

I still miss the words after the Lord’s Prayer from the sacramentary — “protect us from all anxiety.” It has a different connotation than “distress,” the word used in the present Roman Missal. Not that I am “stressing” over the change. It may be because I have a soft spot for the word “anxiety” from Luke 10:41 where Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” (It was the Gospel at my mother’s funeral).

The prayer after the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” is in the right place immediately following the Savior’s command to pray. I wonder if Jesus is equally commanding us to be free and safe from all distress and anxiety; obviously, easier said than done.

Anxiety and stress does have a good side to it. Kids get anxious and stressed out in a fun way as their birthday approaches and they wonder what they are going to receive as gifts. Counting down the days until Christmas is certainly a fun kind of anxiousness for children. Even for adults as their wedding day comes closer or for priests as we think back to the ordination day. There are events still in our lives that anticipating and preparing for them adds anxiety and stress but not in a distressing way. Priests preparing for a sabbatical, as the date approaches are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The to-do list is so long, you wake up in the middle of the night, thinking of more things to do, scribbling them on the inside of your forehead to add to the list when you get out of bed. You begin to operate on borrowed time, thinking you will pay back the lost sleep when you finally get on that plane and leave all the undone things for someone else to do and stress about.

I wonder if Jesus is equally commanding us to be free and safe from all distress and anxiety; obviously, easier said than done. Shutterstock photo

There are also those moments that are more frequent (and less intense) that cause the good anxiousness to keep us on our toes. There is an optimum amount of anxiousness needed in life to keep us sharp, for example, the moment before an Easter Vigil or special liturgy, where each priest wants it to be the best it can be. This kind of anxious feeling adds energy to the moment.

But, as in all things, too much anxious stress can take that optimal feeling and turn into a “dis-stress” — ruining the moment for yourself and for those whom you so wish to serve well. The same balance can be seen in students taking an exam or competing in a sport — some stress and anxiety is good to keep you focused and as sharp as possible. But when that levels gets too high — you break under the pressure. It is good to be sharp like a No. 2 pencil for that exam you are taking, but keep in mind that if it is too sharp, the No. 2 pencil breaks and the anxious awakening turns into stressful anxiety.

This time of year, as young people resume school, anticipation easily turns into anxiety and distress. As recent high school graduates start packing to leave for college, reality begins to sink in and with that reality is anxiety about the unknown. Who will be my roommate, will I make new friends, etc. It is the same anxiousness when newly ordained priests reach the long-expected event of their first post-ordination assignment. Who will be my “roommate” (aka pastor)? Who will be my support group now that seminary is over and access to peers and friends is diminished? Will I like the parish? Will the parish like me? Sometimes the diocesan process of delivering the assignment adds to the anxiety. The protocols can be brutal. The most brutal is the withholding of the information about the first assignment until ordination day; this only seems to add to the drama. If the assignment is a disappointment, it does put a pall on a most important day. All the “what ifs” of new beginnings can truly take their toll on a person.

The Scriptures and the Roman Missal remind us that anxiety and distress are part of the human condition. From the tossing and turning all night that Joseph did as he wrestled with the decision of whether to keep Mary as his wife to the tossing and turning all night when we are wrestling with a particular decision that is thrown our way. Can’t sleep because you are too excited because Santa Claus is coming tonight is far different from can’t sleep because you are discerning or ruminating or wrestling with a decision that has become overwhelming. One can only imagine what was going through Joseph’s mind and heart when Mary told him she was pregnant and he knew the child was not his. Coming to a decision as to what to do or not do is painful, and it takes its toll. We all have been there. Should I go to the seminary? Should I take this new parish that is being offered to me? Should I take a risk and say YES to this assignment that is being presented or not say YES? What are the consequences either way?

There are multiple remedies for anxiety and stress. There is the remedy to reframe whatever is causing the stress. If exams stress you out, reframe them into learning tools. If a job interview scares you, think of it as a way to meet new people. If public speaking adds anxiety, imagine that you are just having a conversation with some colleagues. These tips may get you to the point of at least not passing out, but not really get you through it.

Can we heed the sages of Scripture and give our anxiety and stress to God? Scanning the Roman Missal the word “distress” appears in the Prayers of Reconciliation, Martyrs and the Season of Lent the most. The moments that these represent certainly can be high anxiety moments and real human moments.

Can we risk what we know (anxiety and worry) for a more calm and serene life as we remember Jesus words: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.… Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” Shutterstock photo

When we are estranged from God and/or a friend, how do we get through the stress of estrangement? Can we turn back to God and hear his plea?

“I am the salvation of the people, says the Lord. Should they cry to me in any distress, I will hear them, and I will be their Lord forever” (Mass of Reconciliation).

When faced with ridicule due to the values we hold, how do we find peace? Can we remember that we are not alone in this stress and that we can get through this as have so many before us?

“These who are clothed in white robes are they who survived the time of great distress and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” (Rv 7:13-14 / Mass of Martyrs).

When life is coming at us too fast and is overwhelming and we are spiraling down in our own anxiousness, can we step out of the spiral and allow God in? “Redeem us, O God of Israel, from all our distress” (2nd Sunday of Lent).

Can we risk what we know (anxiety and worry) for a more calm and serene life as we remember Jesus words: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Mt 6:25,27).

Unfortunately, we often don’t learn from our experiences, and we see each anxiety-prone moment as unique, as if no one else has ever experienced it, or that this is a new one for God to handle. We forget to ask ourselves if we will be tossing and turning over this three months from now, not remembering that in the large scope of things, it might not be worth all this negative energy. Maybe learn from last month’s anxiety-prone moment that the sooner you invite God into the moment, the sooner the anxiety turns to serenity. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Prv 3:5-6).

Providentially, the prayer after the Lord’s Prayer commanding us to “keep safe from all distress” is just prior to the Communion Rite where people can process up the aisle and place their stress on the altar for God to redeem.

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org