Anxiety, religion, and finding calm

I was reading through some of my old blog entries and noticed that it’s now been almost six months or so since I stopped forcing the issue of religion at all and accepted that it’s just not for me.

The part I realized that surprised me: I found the freedom from anxiety and peace that I was always seeking from religion–but I found it within myself.

Perhaps ironically, it was getting a very Catholic tattoo of the Miraculous Medal that was the turning point. It led to me finally giving up on the tortured struggle I’d been putting myself through for nine years.

When I gave myself permission to let go of trying so hard to believe something that I mostly didn’t that I shifted my focus to developing my own sense of inner peace. I do have a pretty strong sense of my true self and the reason for the years-long religious struggle was because I was fighting against what I really believed.

I don’t have anything against people who choose to believe. I think that it’s really childish to look down on people just because they’re Christian. But as much as I wish I could be a devout believer of an organized religion, I’m just not–that’s not the way I’m wired. I still have a few Catholic practices and sacramentals around my home because that’s a largely cultural thing that brings me some comfort.

But I had a really interesting revelation yesterday. I realized that even though I have moments when I’m scared of my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I am also calm about it.

That doesn’t mean that I never acknowledge the potential gravity of the situation. That doesn’t mean I never cry about it. I don’t even know that I can adequately explain the difference, other than to say that my reaction is free of the anxiety and panic it would have caused in me a year or two ago.

I don’t think it’s because of the medication I’m taking, although I’m sure that doesn’t hurt. In truth, my medication helps my depression. But I had to retrain my brain to fix my anxiety.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that my anxiety was almost always an over-reaction to things that hadn’t happened yet. I let my thoughts of “what if” run away from me, which kept me in an almost perpetual state of panic. Even if I wasn’t in panic mode, it took almost nothing to get me there.

My oldest, who also deals with anxiety and is seeing a therapist (about which I’m SO proud), often talked with me about our mutual tendencies toward what we called catastrophizing. We both had habits — which I’m sure he learned from me, in addition to sharing a genetic component — of assessing a situation and assuming the worst possible outcome, despite a lack of evidence.

We started to gently point it out to each other when the other was doing it. Like most cognitive distortions, I’ve learned that it’s often a habit that can be unlearned with some consistent effort. He has also made a lot of progress.

How you react to anxiety–whether your own or others’–either amplifies it or defuses it. If I overreacted to his anxiety (which I sometimes did in a misguided effort to validate him), I actually gave him more reason to believe that anxiety was a justified reaction.

Being mostly free of the anxiety that was once almost crippling is giving me the sense of peace within myself that I always wanted to find in religion.

But because I’ve also started to honor my true self, I’m no longer bothered by other people’s practice of religion. My husband finds Catholicism very helpful and comforting to him, especially as he’s going through chemo and cancer. I’m fully supportive of him doing what brings him peace. Sometimes I wish it also brought me the same peace, but I no longer beat myself up over the fact that it doesn’t.

I’m grateful that I started doing this work on myself. Really, it started more than a year ago, when I realized I was better off with a much smaller circle so I could focus on healing than to be around people who were actively discouraging it. I’ve read elsewhere that when you want to work on healing yourself, you won’t be able to bring everybody with you. But I at least hope that someday they too will do the same work.

The cool thing is that as you grow, your feeling of peace gets stronger. You discover that you are indeed strong enough to handle things like being permanently disabled with a progressive illness and a husband with cancer. Because your peace is inside you, it never leaves.

All those corny things you read about becoming your own best friend are true. It changes all your closest relationships, too: you just deeply appreciate all of them in a way you couldn’t before. You no longer feel desperate and needy but more like they complement you. If I’ve made this much progress in less than a year, I’m excited to see how things will change with more time. How I’ll react if true disasters do happen.

But so far, my husband’s cancer is the biggest test of my anxiety-management skills. And other than a few scary moments, I really do feel calm and at peace.

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