Rachel worries that she worries too much. She’s anxious about a lot of things, but her biggest concern is people and what they think of her. She doesn’t want the boss to see her limitations. She doesn’t want friends and coworkers to notice her flaws. She’s afraid that God will reject her if she leaves a single sin unconfessed, and she’s equally concerned about her husband’s safety, success, and eternal security. Her uncertainties are focused on issues that bother most of us some of the time. But at this point Rachel’s fears have become acute and constant. If she doesn’t learn to question her anxious thoughts, they’ll destroy her.
Like 20 million other Americans, Rachel is suffering from an anxiety disorder that leaves her disproportionately worried, irritable, explosive, distracted, depressed, and sleepless. She avoids people and situations that trigger panic attacks, but her avoidance mechanisms rob her of opportunities. They compromise her quality of life. How can people like Rachel (and you and me) be free of undue fear and at the same time heed what Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, calls our “brilliant internal guardian”? Fear is nature’s strongest survival signal, says Becker. It cues us to danger, alerts us to potential hazards, and reminds us not to play with guns or stray into dangerous neighborhoods. Such fear is not to be confused with apprehension (dread of some future disaster likely to befall us). Apprehension is immobilizing. Genuine fear is energizing.
In reality, threats of harm come at us from every direction: war, terrorism, politics, movies, TV, and even religion. The psychological fallout of 9/11 and the increasing number of terror attacks since then are a fact of life. But many people are tormented by unwarranted fears—terrified when alone, scared of crowds, nervous when speaking in public, afraid to make decisions, or horrified at the prospect of making a mistake. A biblical example of unhealthy fear is the man who buried his lone talent because he was afraid of failure (Matthew 25:14–30).
Conditioned to fear
When fear holds us back from personal growth or keeps us from taking reasonable risks, it is inappropriate and destructive, says Dr. Susan Jeffers. Crippling anxiety is a result of prior conditioning. “I’ve never heard a mother call out to her child as he or she goes off to school, ‘Take a lot of risks today, darling.’ ” She’s more likely to convey the message be careful, dear, which implies that the world is a dangerous place. Who can argue with that?
Medical professionals aren’t sure what causes healthy fear to become unhealthy anxiety, but most agree that stressful experiences (such as early trauma) create imbalances in brain chemistry that contribute to anxiety disorders, social phobias, panic attacks, etc. In the 1970s, scientists began developing studies designed to map pathways in the brain that are preprogrammed to respond to danger. They learned that fear-related learning takes place in an area of the brain called the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped section that receives signals of potential danger and triggers self-protective mechanisms. The fear response is healthy in most people, but in others, it’s distorted by learning that’s associated with trauma, which lowers the brain’s set point for alarm. “The imprint of horror in memory—and the resulting hypervigilance—can last a lifetime,” according to Dr. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence.
Resetting emotional alarm systems
Is it possible for us to reset our emotional alarm systems? Can we unlearn irrational, limiting thoughts and beliefs? Yes and no. Cognitive-behavioral therapies have been successful in “training” some people to think and behave more rationally, but brain imaging tests indicate that the over-aroused amygdala does not always respond to such training. A lifetime of therapy designed to alter behavior will not stifle the abnormal fear response in these individuals. In such cases, medication can be helpful, but many hesitate to take prescribed medicine because they’re afraid they will become dependent or someone will accuse them of being weak or God will fault them for lack of faith. I don’t believe God would fault anyone for accessing available medical resources, but we each have to make that decision for ourselves.
If our fears can’t be ignored or extinguished by pharmaceuticals or psychotherapy, can they be controlled or managed in some other way? Attempts to control fear often exacerbate it, according to psychologist Robert Sardello. “If we approach fear by hoping to stop it through external means alone, we are bringing the wrong tools to bear. The real power of fear resides in our wish to avoid it.” When we try to repress fear, it gets stronger. Sardello suggests that we learn to value our fears. “This is not to say we need to invite them in, but to understand that they are already here, all around us, some affecting us more, some less.” We begin to find comfort when we accept and acknowledge our feelings.
Bible characters and fear
How did biblical characters handle fear? They frequently faltered in its face! Overwhelmed by political and military threats, David acted out sexually and suffered dire consequences. At other times, he employed more effective coping mechanisms, such as prayer and creative endeavors (poetry and music). Although Abraham twice insisted that Sarah lie to quell his fears, he ultimately surmounted fear and became a man of faith. Terrified of their enemies, the children of Israel hesitated to fulfill God’s promise, retreated to the wilderness to learn important lessons, and finally moved forward in faith. Fear of disapproval led Peter to deny his relationship with Jesus, but his failure led to the formation of an exemplary character.
Notice the following testimonies: David said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Moses advised, “Be strong and courageous . . . the lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” And Joshua admonished the anxious children of Israel to “be strong and very courageous” (Psalm 56:3; Deuteronomy 31:6–8; Joshua 1:7).
Healthy fear calls forth wisdom, inspires caution, and instructs us to avoid dangerous people and places. Everyday, run-of-the-mill anxieties (fear of criticism, fear of change, and fear of disapproval) call forth courage. They provide an opportunity for us to step onto a spiritual path and move forward boldly, which increases strength of character.
Facing fear with faith
The ability to face fear courageously requires three kinds of faith: (1) God-reliance, (2) self-reliance, and (3) people-reliance. God-reliance is trusting God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Self-reliance involves becoming physically fit, building emotional strength, and developing social skills. We may need to turn to counselors who can help us develop competencies such as healthy self-talk, communication and boundary-setting skills, relaxation skills, and other coping strategies. When people grow to their full stature as adults and fully occupy their space, they feel less vulnerable.
People-reliance directs us to mobilize support from trustworthy friends when it’s needed. Supportive people can help allay our irrational fears and offer strength and safety in the presence of real danger. Apart from family and church, which are good sources of encouragement, 12-step groups such as Obsessive-Compulsives Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, and Al-Anon provide powerful opportunities for countering anxiety and fear. They help participants to grow up and take charge of their lives, which automatically lowers anxiety levels and reduces fear. In some cases, the negative-thinking habit is so deeply ingrained that professional help may be required. This can be found in outpatient mental-health programs or intensive residential programs.
It is possible to develop greater faith in God, in ourselves, and in others. We can enjoy freedom from undue anxiety! The apostle Paul describes the ideal antidote to fear, one that promises to bring relief: “Do not be anxious about anything,” he says, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6, 7; emphasis added).