Overcoming Impulse Through Relaxation and the Prayer

lilies-of-the-fieldIn a previous post, I wrote about our innate double-mindedness and how those two minds are often at war with each other when it comes to addictive attractions. At the time of temptation, the rational mind finds itself hijacked by a hyperactive impulsive system that grabs our inner steering wheel driving us down the road of impulsive behavior. For the impulsive, there are certain triggers that are experienced through anyone of their five senses (or even memories of those sense impressions) that excite them and propel them toward the impulsive behavior. Focusing on those triggers or even fighting against those triggers both seem to lead inexorably to opening the refrigerator door, looking for a lighter, or clicking on an inappropriate internet advertisement. In the meantime, the adrenalin rush begins and the impulse’s power grows exponentially. Rather than fuel the excitement with the anticipation of the expected pleasure, studies have shown that we can learn to step back, relax, and then have enough good sense to avoid the destructive scenario.

The process involves using images to make the triggering input from the senses less compelling and is thus called imaginal de-sensitization. A. Blasczynski and L. Nower speak of this process as follows: “Imaginal desensitization is a relatively simple procedure that utilizes relaxation-based imagery to assist clients in regaining control over recurrent urges to carry out behaviors that result is significant harm to themselves or others. The technique is designed to teach clients an effective strategy that they can apply in an in-vivo setting where they are exposed to cues that trigger off a drive or urge to carry out an impulsive behavior.”  This technique is meant to shift one’s overall frame of mind, broaden one’s horizons, so that the racing thoughts of pleasure that took up one’s entire field of vision are seen for what they are. With some degree of calm from a soothing and peaceful image fully explored, the rational system regains its ability to assess a potentially harmful situation and make the firm decision to move away from it. In particular, Blasczynski and Nower write, “Impulse control disorders are characterized by increasing tension prior to committing the act and a sense of gratification or pleasure on its completion followed by an experience of remorse or guilt. Imaginal desensitization uses imagery combined with physical relaxation to manage the arousal associated with environmental cues that typically trigger the behavioral urge.”  According to this line of thought, if the level of anxiety or arousal is decreased, the level of attraction to commit the impulsive act is proportionately lowered as well.

In practical terms, this involves sitting in a comfortable position, taking a deep breath, and just noticing the process of breathing with the lungs expanding as they fill with air and then contracting as the air is let out. Progressive muscle relaxation may follow in which you tense and then relax one muscle group after another, tensing your feet, relaxing your feet, noticing the difference, tensing the calves, relaxing the calves, noticing the difference, and so on. Then in a more relaxed state, you imagines a relaxing scene such as the beach in which you can feel the grainy sand beneath your bare feet, in which you can sense the warmth of the sun touching your face, in which you hear the sound of the ocean’s waves rhythmically striking the shore as well as the seagulls calling out to each other, and in which you smell the fresh ocean air.  The refrigerator door or the cigarette lighter is of course still there, but if the relaxation technique has been done properly, their call to the impulsive should be significantly less.

For the Christian, the beauty and calmness of such a scene is never complete without a grateful ascent to God, knowing full well that “the sea is His, and He made it: and His hands formed the dry land” (Psalm 95:5). His presence—so peaceful, so calming, so refreshing—makes the soul feel safe and free. After all, He is the one that allows us to feel the warmth of the sun, the sound of the waves, and the freshness of the ocean air. They are all gifts from Him. Can any addictive behavior compare to those gifts of ineffable beauty and goodness? Moreover, like the disciples of old, we can also be assured that “Jesus stands on the shore” (John 21:4) waiting to dine with us and reveal Himself to us. Whenever we add the presence of God to whatever situation we find ourselves in, we suddenly find strength, hope, courage, and the ability to do what alone we could never hope to do, saying with Saint Paul, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”  (Philippians 4:13).

While being or becoming relaxed is not a part of Christian ascetic tradition, being calm and peaceful certainly is. And just as the relaxed, experience less stress, so do the calm and peaceful. Although the Jesus Prayer is meant for communion with God, there is scientific studies that indicate that it also has an affect on psychological well-being. In a 1998 study, Boston University psychologist George Stavros found that the recitation of the Jesus Prayer for ten minutes a day for 30 days had a profound effect on the study’s participants.  Repeating the contemplative prayer deepened the commitment of these Christians to a relationship with a transcendent reality. Not only that, it reduced depression, anxiety, hostility, and feelings of inferiority to others. So powerful were the psychological effects of the prayer that Stavros urges his colleagues to keep it in mind as a healing intervention for clients.

What Dr. Stavros confirmed in his study, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote in his work, On the Prayer of Jesus.  “By the power of the name of Jesus, the mind is freed from doubt, indecision, and hesitation; the will is strengthened; and correctness is given to zeal and other properties of the soul.  Then only thoughts and feelings pleasing to God, thoughts and feelings belonging to undepraved human nature, only such thoughts and feelings are allowed to remain in the soul.  There is no place then for other thoughts and feelings, for God will save Zion and the cities of Judah will be built.” Keeping one’s mind on Christ allows the soul to see clearly what is in her best interests.

Of course, no technique, no matter how effective, is a panacea for those struggling with addictive or impulsive behavior. What is needed is not a technique but a whole way of life in which our feet are guided into “the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). Christians have such a way of life that brings a gladsome calmness that in modern parlance reduces stress. When troubled, they can also make the sign of the Cross, “the weapon of peace,” call on the name of Christ, “the Prince of peace,” and attend the divine services in which one is blessed again and again with the peace of God. They can reconcile themselves with those who have offended them and those whom they have offended. They can reconcile themselves with God in the mystery of confession. They can pray for those who hurt them. They can “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God?” (Micah 6:8), and find themselves not just relaxed, but peaceful. Relying on the peace and power of God to restore our restless heart, we become what God intended us to be-free sons and daughters of the living God.