Anxiety affects one in four teens, locking their thoughts, minds, souls, and bodies in a frozen jail. This confinement creates a boundary between the creation and the Creator, between the teen and God. God is with us, but sometimes our anxiety cages us away from knowing the abundance of God’s love.
“It is like God is here,” said a 15-year-old teen as she finished the powerfully simple prayer of awareness developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola: the Examen. With five basic movements, the Examen maps out the teen’s life with God in the past 24 hours, freeing the teen from the unknown while raising awareness of God’s accompaniment. Here are the steps of guiding a teen with anxiety through the Examen.
The first step in the Examen is to become aware that the Holy Spirit is with us. Teens, especially those struggling with anxiety, are oftentimes unable to quiet their minds and be present to the existing moment. Sometimes a preliminary grounding helps those with anxiety be present. If the door to God is prayer, then the doorknob is awareness. The grounding before prayer points to the Holy Spirit.
The second step is gratitude. Ignatius invites us to savor the good that God has given us. The Examen begins with focusing on, relishing, and giving thanks for the many ways in which God is present in all things. Teenagers are people in transition. Their great metamorphosis often gives teens a feeling of quick movement and change. By pausing for gratitude, time slows and allows savoring of the changes of adolescence.
After naming moments of gratitude, review the last 24 hours, and notice where God was present. This practice encourages growth in understanding and awareness. In the first annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius notes that just as physical exercise prepares the body, prayer can prepare the soul. As our capacity to notice God’s presence grows, our understanding of God’s precious care of us increases.
This step is the heart and soul of the Examen. When we notice the moments where God accompanies us, our souls become enflamed. When we notice that our heart is enflamed with God, we receive an increase in faith, hope, and charity. In noticing God’s care, teens (and all people) with anxiety are grounded in the present rather than the future or the past.
Continue reviewing the last 24 hours, and notice the seeming lack of God’s presence. Noticing the places where God did not seem present in the last 24 hours is essential in deciding how to move forward into the next day. Were there moments in the last 24 hours that felt restless or tinged with anxiety? If so, when and where? Awareness of these moments in which a teen might feel a decrease in faith, hope, and charity gives a name to the parts of her or his day that should be addressed. Can this situation be avoided or changed in the next 24 hours? Can a change in this situation shed light? Is this the place to request God’s grace and accompaniment? This can help young people avoid spiraling into negativity.
Noticing times when God felt absent exercises our ability to slowly and carefully wipe away the clutter that blocks our view of God. This exercise can be compared to the gentle cleaning of glasses with a soft cloth to see more clearly.
Lastly, ask God for grace for the next 24 hours. The Examen ends looking into the future by asking God for grace. For teens, finishing this statement helps: “God, give me the grace to….”
When asking for the grace, we seek to open our heart like a sponge. Believe that God will grant us grace like a drop of water on our spongey heart. St. Ignatius notes in the rules for the second week of the Spiritual Exercises that this is how God’s voice touches us lightly and gently, like water onto a sponge. If something feels noisy and disquieting like a drop on a stone, it is not the voice of God. The grace of God soaks into the restlessness of an anxious teen.
Praying the Examen can help teens become aware that God is gently accompanying them. And knowing that they are not alone can greatly reduce any feelings of anxiety.