Spiritual Anxiety – Diagnosis, Motivation, and Beyond

There's that amusing scene in the cartoon comedy Kung Fu Panda where Kung Fu Master Shifu attempts to calm his spirit in the local temple by haltingly reciting the mantra "inner peace" … while obviously distraught, distracted, and annoyed by area sounds.

I. Diagnosing Spiritual Anxiety

Perhaps most of us are a little like that. We know we should have inner peace, but we are irritated, tense, and anxious. Our spirits are more like a storm and less like a gentle breeze.

What is going on inside us? At some level, many identify the human spirit with mere emotions which have merely chemical causes and effects. I am anxious because of my hormones and the complex interactions between my brain and body.

Of course such chemical and physical chains of events have been observed with their corresponding emotions. The question then becomes whether more is going on.

Can my self-awareness, my will, moral responsibility, creativity and emotions be wholly explained by chemical determinism? Am I merely a complex chemical machine? Or does the web of cause and effect include a related, but partially transcendent element – a spark or life force, a soul or spirit?

We infer that mere chemical cause and effect can not wholly explain human existence, that there is a transcendent element in the network, what we might call the human spirit. And we here assume that spirit can both be influenced by the body and cause effects on it.

In short, there is such a thing as "spiritual anxiety" using the sense of "spirit" implied here, a form of anxiety which over time at least seems to work in tandem with what can be observed in the body – like tensed muscles , hyperventilation, rapid heart rate, digestive problems, sweating and so on. And while admitting that there are chemicals and physical exercises that can affect spiritual anxiety positively or negatively, our interest at present is limited to the question how we can use our spirits to become less anxious.

II. Motivation and Spiritual Anxiety

One challenge that comes immediately to mind is our inability by willing or wishing to turn off the worry or anxiety. Yet neither is the human will without influence over how we feel. Our choices of what to think and say and do have their impact. There seems to be a higher order, a human spirit, that can influence our emotions.

The problem may come then when we have spiritual anxiety, here meaning when the human spirit itself is infected, if you will, with fear. I am not one to argue that the human spirit exists or can exist in some other realm independent of the troubles and pleasures of human existence, however varied that existence may be. At least not while the body lives.

I can then suggest two responses. One, we humans may be observed to influence how we ourselves think and feel, and two, our spirits may be influenced by a higher Spirit still, a Being some call God. That may not be where you would go, but to me it is an explanation that seems to make sense of the evidence.

This is not to say that chemical causation inside our bodies can always be reversed by our spirits, though attitude apparently has more of an affect on our health and well-being than we may care to admit. Nor is it to say that our spirits necessarily have the ability to reduce anxiety. Nonetheless apparently some have overcome spiritual anxiety and anxiety disorders in no small measure because of their un-coerced choices, attitudes, and perspectives – that is apparently partly because of their spirits. Motivation is a key.

III. Beyond Spiritual Anxiety

Thus there appears to be an interplay between the anxious spirit as victim of anxiety's causes and the anxious spirit as responsible moral agent. My anxiety may be influenced by genetic predisposition and an under-active thyroid (or whatever), but faced with an abusive relationship or exposure to an emotionally traumatic event (perhaps a fatality in a car crash), one's spirit may rise above tragedy and evil to live in hope.

The question for the spiritually anxious reader is then whether there can be hope of peace or recovery for oneself. This assumes spiritual anxiety is entirely negative – as it feels – but it may be worth considering a possible silver lining. For example, is it possible spiritual anxiety motivates improvement, restrains pride, and provokes important questions about life priorities?

Be that as it may, an answer to the downside is that others have overcome (so why not you?), That a "higher Spirit" gives meaning and purpose even to anxiety, and that there are methods of coping and overcoming that can be tried. The question then remains: "What will you do to go beyond being anxious in your spirit?"