Overcoming Fear, Worry, and Anxiety

Are you tired of struggling with fear? Is worry wearing you out? Anxiety got you by the throat? Jennifer Jill Schwirzer offers hope and explains how building your faith will shrink your fears.

A friend once told me she rejected the Bible. “All that stuff about Creation, the Flood, the Red Sea—it’s so outrageous.” Ironically, a few minutes later she read me a sentimental newspaper clipping about Santa Claus and how precious little children so innocently believe in him. As she read, she began to cry, moved by the faith of the little ones. Even though she ridiculed faith in the Bible, she admired faith in Santa.

We humans are born to believe in something. If not God and the Bible, we will have faith in any number of things from Santa Claus to movie stars to our variable annuities.

What Is Faith—and What Does It Do?

Faith is difficult to define. Metaphors help, but they vary; the Bible alone calls faith a variety of things, including a fight, a race, eating, drinking, a door, a seed, a shield, a hand, and a ship.1 Some of these metaphors are unaggressive (eating, drinking, opening) and some are aggressive (fighting, racing, grasping, shielding). It seems that faith morphs into whatever mode the situation demands—transcending passivity, receptivity, aggression, or defensiveness. It’s bigger and more basic than its manifestations.

Faith is more about what it does than what it is.

Jesus said these mysterious words: “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). According to this explanation of faith, it comes alive when we act on it. Put succinctly, faith moves.

When I was in college the famous New York City dance troop performer Beverly Schmidt came to our school to perform. I saw her sitting quietly, eating an orange before the performance. She looked unimpressive, even homely. Then under the spotlight she blossomed into a work of art. Beauty exuded from every twirl and bend, sculpted by what seemed like a million muscles flexing throughout her body. Beverly looked fantastic when she moved. So does faith. It’s small and unimpressive—like a mustard seed—until it’s put into action, at which point it shimmers with powerful, mountain-moving beauty.

Healthy Faith

In a twisted, sad way our very ability to believe falsehoods proves the existence of faith. The Muslim extremists responsible for the World Trade Center massacre acted in the name of Allah, possessed with the expectation of an instant virgin-filled paradise. The Medieval Inquisition stretched over several centuries, with people killing and torturing in the name of God. The Aztecs brought human sacrifice into the golden age, killing 20,000 a year in appeasement of the sun god. The list of religious atrocities throughout human history reads like a sci-fi war epic. Alongside these wicked deceptions, tamer lies multiply like flu viruses. Obviously we’re born to believe in something. The challenge is how to use faith in a responsible, healthy way, believing in truth instead of lies. I propose that a simple, consistent faith in a loving God, informed by Scripture and enlivened by prayer, is the single best way to train our faculty of faith into a healthy, happy state.

When Faith and Fear Collide

Let’s apply this issue of faith to an area of common concern. We human beings tend to let fear rule us. Even though surrounded with evidences of good, we focus on potential threats. I think of my friend Mark, who grew up in a horrifically abusive environment. For many years he has been safe, away from the perpetrators; yet his nervous system tells him the danger persists. If Mark sees 10 evidences of safety, and just one potential threat, he will believe the potential threat. A man who looks a little like his abusive father. A Facebook message from a nasty relative. A friend saying something mildly insensitive. These negatives loom large, vibrating with living color, while the blessings all around—the loyal roommate, the compassionate boss, the supportive church family—shrink into a dark corner of his imagination.

Blame it on a well-documented psychological phenomenon called the negativity bias. Deep in your brain resides two little almond-shaped organs called the amygdala. These little miracles of nature preside over emotional memories. Fair enough. But the amygdala are ill-tempered little guys; two thirds of their neurons look for bad news, while only one third look for good news. Negative experiences get stored in the memory immediately, while positive ones must be held in mind for several seconds before they’re stored. In response to this, Rick Hanson, Ph.D., says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”2

The good news is that with a little mindfulness, we can retrain our brains to be more positive. We may naturally dwell on the unfortunate and problematic; but we can teach ourselves to keep in mind the bright and happy.

Let’s get back to the fear problem. Many people suffer from debilitating anxiety. In fact, 18 percent of Americans will be diagnosed at some point in their lives with an anxiety disorder. This doesn’t mean 18 percent of Americans will be afraid in their lifetimes: it means that they will be pathologically afraid!

A Story of Overcoming

Let’s use Joe as a case study. Joe suffers from what Forbes magazine lists as one of the nine most common phobias: public speaking. He has been asked by his supervisor to make a presentation to the company’s staff about a long-standing problem with employee parking. In brief: because of the company’s failure to regulate the parking lot, the lot filled up each day with cars of nonemployees, forcing employees to find paid parking. Free parking had been listed as a company benefit, Joe had complained to his supervisor. In response to his complaint, Joe’s supervisor asked him to make a presentation on the matter. Yikes!

Since the moment he received the assignment from his supervisor, Joe’s nervous system seems to be overreacting to everything. The clock is ticking toward his presentation in just a few weeks, and Joe is a mess. To help him work through his overwhelming fear, he makes an appointment with a therapist, who assures Joe that he will be able to manage his fear through prayer, faith, and a few well-chosen action steps.

Joe’s therapist encourages him to keep careful track of his anxiety responses (including the triggering event, how intense it is on a scale of 1-10, and what thought accompanies the fear). This will help him begin to identify a very important concept—that thought processes underpin emotions. If Joe can change his thought processes, his emotions should gradually calm down.

After a few counseling sessions, Joe realizes his fears tend to be irrational—based on distortions, rather than accuracies. He begins a three-step process of changing his distorted thoughts using the acronym F.A.R.: Find, Argue, and Replace (see sidebar on page 34). Essentially, Joe is learning to exercise faith in what is true, rather than believing a lie.

Joe begins to rein in his thoughts and within a few days feels a measure of relief from the nerve-racking anxiety. But the presentation still looms before him. The therapist now teaches Joe about systematic desensitization, a strategy to move Joe past his fears. Avoidance of public speaking has increased his fear of it. He must now cease to avoid it in order to conquer the fear. But to be overexposed to it might actually worsen the situation. Putting Joe on the stage of Carnegie Hall, for example, would cause a complete meltdown and reinforce his avoidance. So the therapist proposes gradual exposure using deep relaxation. This way Joe can build a new association—between public speaking and calmness rather than public speaking and fear.

During a counseling session, the therapist helps Joe learn to relax (see sidebar at left). Once Joe is relaxed, the counselor asks Joe to imagine himself in front of the staff at his company. That’s all for the first session, but the therapist gives Joe homework. He must repeat the relaxation exercise in his car before work, then go into work and ask to meet with a small group of three or four people to talk about his parking lot complaint. The next weekend at church, Joe must offer to do a simple act of public speaking, such as reading a Scripture—of course after relaxing in his car. And so in small ways, Joe exposes himself to the thing most feared. Remember, faith moves.

Gradually Joe’s victories over fear begin to build upon themselves. One of the complications of anxiety problems is what’s called secondary disturbance. We become disturbed, and then we become disturbed about being disturbed. In Joe’s case, he thought the fear itself would engulf him, rendering him useless. But now he sees that through prayerful, thoughtful action, and faith he can reduce his anxiety responses. His secondary disturbance begins to melt away. Now all he has to face is the staff presentation.

The night before the presentation, Joe tossed and turned quite a bit. No worries, though, as the therapist helped Joe understand that some feelings of fear are normal and even expected. Joe realizes that the feelings of fear do not make him a coward. In fact, feelings of fear bring an opportunity for the opposite of cowardice, which is courage. Courage is not the absence of feelings of fear, but the willingness to go forward in spite of them. And Joe is willing.

Although jittery, Joe communicates clearly and effectively to the staff. As a result of his efforts, the company hires a parking lot attendant. Problem solved! But Joe cherishes an even greater victory—that he learned how to master fear through faith.

God said that He has “not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV). Through a living, active faith, you, like Joe, can conquer fear, obtain power, and have this sound mind.

Sources:
1Faith is like a fight (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7); a race (Hebrews 12:1, 2); eating (John 6:44-58); drinking (John 7:37); an open door (Acts 14:27); a shield (Ephesians 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:8); a hand (1 Timothy 1:19; Hebrews 4:14); a ship (1 Timothy 1:19).
2“Confronting the Negativity Bias,” Rick Hanson. Published on October 26, 2010, in Your Wise Brain. www.psychology today.com/blog/your-wise-brain/201010/confronting-the-negativity-bias.