‘Praying away’ vs. ‘Accepting’ mental illness: Are those the only two options?

Over a decade ago when first starting to research mental health narratives, I was struck by one pattern that kept coming up in my faith community – seemingly everywhere I turned. Individuals newly diagnosed with mental illness would recollect a previous time in life when they held the notion that praying or reading scriptures might be a central or powerful engine for alleviating their problem. From their new vantage point in understanding the “truth about mental illness,” however, that idea was now seen as naïve – compared to their newfound appreciation of the reality that mental illness doesn’t easily ‘go away’ in response to this kind of direct spiritual effort.

And of course, for the most part, they’re right. When was the last time you tried begging God to make something go away in your life – or make something happen…or make something right?

Awhile back, my two toddler boys started demanding certain things from Daddy and Mommy with loud, dramatic, insistent voices – “I want that NOW…No, NOW!…I really, really want it!”  Daddy and Mommy’s responses went something like, “Ummm, guess what.  It’s really hard to listen to you when you talk that way…”

I can’t imagine that God almighty is eager to hear similar desperate begging from us, despite a popular interpretation of the Parable of the Importunate Widow (Luke 18) that advances  the effectiveness of precisely that kind of entreaty.[1]

Apart from the occasional story of dramatic and miraculous intervention, I’ve rarely seen the practice of singularly desperate and urgent worship to be that ‘effective’ in making anything change. This is epitomized, once again, by the commonly heard disappointment after people facing mental illness pray and plead for God to “take this away” or “heal me”!

When that kind of a plea doesn’t ‘work,’ well then, it’s time to move on to something else, right? Many people thus push away from this ‘pray it away’ option into what is often assumed to be the only ‘other option’:  just accept that your mental illness is what you have to face, that your body and brain are just this way…and that your life is going to be like this for good.

Once that sort of acceptance happens, other things follow – including a willingness to identify with a particular diagnostic category and its likely prognosis, and a willingness to accept whatever treatment is prescribed in an attempt to remedy the illness. Acceptance thus seemingly floods across the whole experience – embracing the experience, the mental illness, the prognosis and the prescribed treatment, etc.

Isn’t this mindfulness at its best? Accepting things exactly as they are?

Well, sort of…

Another kind of acceptance.  In our Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction classes, we DO invite participants throughout various meditations – starting with the body scan – to “accept whatever they are experiencing in that moment” – with this one caveat: “without trying to force or fix or control or make things change in any way.”

Compared to the acceptance of mental illness described above, this mindfulness approach aspires for a deeper allowance of whatever feelings, thoughts and physical sensations  exist to be exactly as you find them…without trying to make them change.

Wow!! How would that ever make sense with serious mental or emotional distress? After all, if someone starts to have hallucinations or delusions, we need to do something to make them go away, right? And if someone’s moods are fluctuating up and down, we better get them something to make sure they level out, right? And if someone’s sorrow is too great or anxiety to big, we need to ensure that those symptoms come down, right?

That is not only commonly the unquestioned assumption; it is often the urgent demand made upon people. One man told me in an interview of his mother’s response when he was started getting symptoms of depression: “We’ve just GOT to do something…”

This urgency is understandable given the intense pain people face – and the dark outcomes that can ensue. Indeed, that same man also spoke of his own urgency to make something change: “Things had gotten so bad for me that I said, ―I‘ll do anything . . . I will do anything if you tell me that it will make me feel better… If you told me the problem lived in my finger and I had to cut it off…I would have done anything to make that go away.”

On one hand, this kind of urgent concern is, once again, understandable in the face of the intensity of serious mental or emotional problems. On the other hand, infusing an intense situation with additional fear, worry, panic and often even some aggression, might actually make things worse (See Fighting Against What Hurts Part I & II). Indeed, it all starts to feel like quite the opposite of acceptance.

What would it mean to bring a different level of gentle acceptance to a painful experience like depression or anxiety? That’s essentially the question that researchers have been asking about mindfulness-based interventions for two decades. And the answer has surprised pretty much everyone:  It helps…like a lot!

Most immediately, a gentle, mindfulness-based approach appears to offer some immediate relief for depression and anxiety, with 8-week groups showing significant improvements compared with control groups (see here and here for depression and here for anxiety). This is true for both adults and youth. In collaboration with colleagues at Florida State and the University of Utah, I recently conducted a randomized-controlled trial (RCT) of a teenage adaptation of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction developed by the University of Massachusetts. Over the course of 8 weeks, we saw depression, anxiety and attention all moving in the right direction for teens in the mindfulness group, compared to a wait-list control (results forthcoming).

The Madness of Mindfulness. Despite these results, this kind of a mindfulness-based approach is by no means a ‘no-brainer’ for everyone.  Especially when compared to efforts that promise a decrease in immediate symptoms of emotional distress, it can be hard to understand why you would want to pursue mindfulness-based approaches that, in fact, involve an increase in awareness of distress initially. This happens as individuals are invited to turn towards symptoms with careful, gentle attention to what is going on (see Witnessing the Storm).[2]

It’s worth asking why anyone want to feel or experience their distress more – especially if there are so many ways to apparently avoid it?

The answer to that question only really becomes clear over the long-term, where empirical studies confirm that mindfulness-based and conventional approaches lead to very different places over time. On the one hand, attempts to control symptoms and make the distress go away initially have been shown in long-term studies to lead (generally and statistically speaking) to an aggravation of those same symptoms over long-periods of time; this is especially true when those treatment attempts are used continuously over a long period. By comparison, more gentle mindfulness-based efforts (which invite people to work immediately with initial symptoms in creative ways), have been shown in long-term studies to lead (generally and statistically speaking) to an alleviation of symptoms over the long-term – e.g., including a decrease in relapse of recurrent depression.

So there you have it…another way to approach ‘acceptance’ distinct from the popular way of ‘accepting mental illness (and its treatment).’  We might even think of this as a discussion comparing ‘Two Kinds of Acceptance’ in working with mental illness.

All this begs the question of what prayer and scriptures would or could mean for mental or emotional distress – IF, rather than employed in an instrumental, means-end attempt to MAKE THE DISTRESS GO AWAY, they were practiced out of this same sense of gentleness, mindfulness and deeper acceptance. For instance:

  • Praying not to make something go away, but to commune, to seek intimacy, understand and insight in God’s presence (seeking His agenda – not ours).
  • Reading sacred text not to garner divine favor in hopes of making something go away, but instead to deepen our understanding, insight and especially our intimacy with the Divine (that being the desired outcome).

From a place of mindfulness, my experience has been that personal worship becomes a very different, richer and more relational experience. Rather than a daily entreaty for God to do what I want Him to do…it becomes something else.  Something intimate…and soothing.  A dialogue.  An exploration.  Not a mean’s to my end – but a mean to His end.  And our relationship together.

For anyone – including those facing distressing thoughts and feelings – I hope a mindfulness-based approach to worship and intense emotion itself could offer some significant relief. I’m curious to hear others experiences and thoughts?


[1] When my brother Sam was facing cancer, we were taught that a proper interpretation of that parable in the New Testament meant if we wearied God with our prayers, He would probably listen…(IF we plead long enough and hard enough)!! This interpretation turned out to be as disappointing as it was a mismatch of our experience of God and His will.  After Sam died, it became clear that our focus in prayer should have been more on Him, than on the outcome that we wanted ourselves.

[2] Apart from this initial discomfort of paying closer attention to the pain and surfacing discomfort already there in the body or mind, there are no other significant ‘side-effects’ associated with mindfulness-based interventions – and certainly none that endure.

One response

  1. My daughter has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality disorder – Emotion Dysregulation. What a nightmarish experience it has been for her – and our whole family. My faith in the Lord is what’s gotten me through to this point – but that faith has been challenged so much because the match up between “prayers and results” don’t seem to be there in concrete like they were “in Sunday’s lessons.” Your words express some cloudy thoughts that have been condensing in my mind lately: “From a place of mindfulness, my experience has been that personal worship becomes a very different, richer and more relational experience. Rather than a daily entreaty for God to do what I want Him to do…it becomes something else. Something intimate…and soothing. A dialogue. An exploration. Not a mean’s to my end – but a mean to His end. And our relationship together.”

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