When Prayer Makes Anxiety Worse

by Kevin Halloran April 6, 2022

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

Year after year, search data on major Bible websites show Philippians 4:6–7 to be one of the most popular passages in Scripture, and with good reason: it shows us God’s proven path from anxiety to peace.

Unfortunately, our desperate hearts easily get off-track seeking a remedy for our stress. We treat this precious passage as a talisman, missing the true meaning and path to peace. A recent situation of mine illustrates this.

As I thought through my stressful situation practically, my anxiety worsened. The same thing happened when I tried to fix my attention on something else—anxiety would boomerang back around in no time.

Then Philippians 4:6-7 came to mind. Prayer is the answer!

So I knelt down to pray.

My prayer started out fine, but soon I felt like I was trapped in a hot car, breathing the same air over and over again. Each line of my prayer gasped for breath and brought a deeper longing for fresh air. Prayer made my anxiety worse.

What happened? Was God’s promise in Philippians 4:6–7 a sham?

As I reflected on this troubling episode, I realized that God’s promise wasn’t a sham but rather I had it all wrong.

A pity party will not lead you to peace.

My anxiety-driven prayer didn’t make things better. That’s because God doesn’t promise any type of prayer to be the silver-bullet anxiety stopper. He prescribes supplication with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). A heart lacking gratitude will not encounter the peace of God.

I soon realized my lack. My lame attempts to thank God were not from the heart but were always preceded with a “but,” as if to say, “God, I thank you for this, but you owe me.” Sidestepping true thanksgiving leads to a cocktail of other sins, including self-centered grumbling, cynicism, coveting the situations of others, entitlement, and ultimately unbelief. These are all the opposite of thankfulness.

My self-centered pity party lamented my situation always instead of rejoicing in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). We are to pray with thanksgiving “in everything” (Philippians 4:6). A thankful heart isn’t just a remedy for anxiety; it’s a part of a healthy spiritual diet for every circumstance (see 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).

Meditating on your anxieties will not lead you to peace.

A second error of my prayer attempt was misplaced meditation. My prayers repeated the details of my anxious situation before the Lord, pouring gasoline on the fire of my anxiety.

What I was doing was leaning on my own understanding, which we’re taught not to do for a few reasons: first, it’s the opposite of trust in the Lord, and second, it presumes we have the ability to understand our situations—no matter how simple or complex they seem (Proverbs 3:5–6).

The only way to douse the fires of anxiety is to thankfully set our minds on the good stuff of Philippians 4:8 (“whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”).

Setting our minds on these things isn’t a one-time action since the fires of anxiety can quickly returnit is a continual mediation.

Paul offers another place to set your mind: his example.

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:9).

Paul had reason for anxiety; he wrote Philippians and several other of his epistles from prison. But Paul’s approach to combatting anxiety not only adopted God’s perspective but it also was fueled by His power. He could learn contentment in hunger, abundance, or need:

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

It’s not just Paul we can learn from. We have a great cloud of witnesses in the Scriptures (Hebrews 11), the examples of faithful men and women from church history, and believers in our churches today who model lives of peace through tribulation.

Following these examples will help you battle.

Peace at all times?

We’re not promised a problem-free life; if anything, the opposite. What sets the Christian life apart is that while we are promised trouble, our Savior has overcome our problems because He has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Even when our understanding of the circumstances go from bad to unimaginably worse like it did for Habakkuk, our peace and joy can rest not in our circumstances themselves, but in our faithful Father who judges evil and saves His people and is sovereign over our circumstances (Habakkuk 3:17–19).

Our anxieties may flow from petty situations, serious ones, or somewhere in between, but we can always be confident of His faithful, comforting presence (Psalm 23:4, Matthew 20:20).

The Way of Peace

As I reflected on my postmortem analysis of my anxious episode, I became less confident in my power to manufacture peace myself and more confident in God’s ability to provide it in the bleakest of circumstances.

What makes His peace special isn’t that a simple prayer zaps all our problems immediately; it is that we can know the One who transcends it all, and we can call Him our sovereign and loving Father. We can trust that He often allows life’s situations to draw us to Himself and grow us more like Christ.

Our emotions are not slaves to our circumstances, rather Christ set them free to enjoy heavenly peace and joy now no matter what. This is peace the world longs for, peace God longs to give, and peace that is ours in Christ.