A psychologist shares his advice for addressing the root of our fears.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety in a significant way, you know that the most visceral reaction to that experience is one of self-preservation. Whether the anxiety stems from an actual threat, such as grizzly bear or a lightning bolt, or an existential threat, such as fear of embarrassment — it’s a frightening experience.
Even in situations where anxiety stems from a positive event, such as a wedding, the feeling of nervousness can be disconcerting at best. Due to the inherent discomfort, all anxiety impels the receiver to one of two actions (or both): avoidance or control.
Human beings find comfort in what they can control and what they can avoid, even if they (explicitly or implicitly) know that doing so repeatedly can bring about negative outcomes in the long term, such as the inability to function in social situations or the development of impairing compulsions designed to reduce obsessive fears.
At the heart of all anxiety is the fear of loss — loss of health, loss of status (e.g., respect), loss of affiliation (e.g., belonging, love), and loss of life. To be clear, some anxiety is both productive and necessary in preserving the human species. So it seems we were created with anxiety in order preserve what is most important — including communion with each other.
And yet, there is no doubt that fear is running the show more than ever these days. We are a people so fearful of our fears that we can hardly see the tremendous blessings that run through them.
The irony is that the more we possess, the more fearful we become. If this is true then we find ourselves in a very uncomfortable place. It’s as if we are more concerned with protecting what we have, and at times, acquiring even more, than embracing what we’ve been given. If this is true, then only a radical change in our mindset will be the catalyst for reducing these incessant, stifling fears.
So what is this remarkable perspective shift that I am proposing?
It begins with two of the most basic ideas, and then cascades from there. Most of us already know that the most repeated phrase in the Bible is some variation of “do not be afraid.” As I noted earlier, all fear is grounded in loss. Anxiety always brings us back to this notion. Unhealthy anxiety creates the biggest lie of all. If we are going to free ourselves from overwhelming anxiety, we must turn the tables on the big lie of anxiety.
Simply put, the lie is this: That we deserve what we’ve been given. Whether it’s our health, the provision of our basic needs, our comforts, or even our indulgences, we should expect it.
I truly believe that in thwarting the greatest lie anxiety has ever told, we must first come to regard all aspects of life (even when encased in trials) as gifts to be embraced, and not losses to be protected against, or assets to be acquired. In order to do this, we must also embrace the idea that life by its nature is a grand adventure full of triumphs and tribulations (sometimes one in the same), and not prosperity threatened by unfortunate circumstances to be avoided at all costs.
If this sounds trite to you, you’ve missed my point. What I’m saying is that when standing in a store having a panic attack, or washing your hands for the 30th time in the last hour, or cowering in the closet to avoid the next spousal rage, or finding yourself breathless in the middle of a crowd — there are two distinct phrases that must enter your mind at some juncture if you’re going to begin the journey of freeing yourself from the slavery of fear:
Thank you God that I am still alive to fear, as dead people have no anxiety at all.
Thank you God for this adventure of life, even though right now I am scared I’m going to die (bodily or existentially).
We must repeatedly confront the lies that anxiety perpetuates … I am not going to be able to breathe — Thank you God that I am still breathing; People are going to think that I am weird — Thank you God that I have the awareness to worry about the impressions others have of me; I am going to get COVID and die — Thank you God for the immune system you have given to me so that it is very possible I will not; We are going to go bankrupt and my kids won’t have what they need —Thank you God for giving me enough financial security to have met my kids’ needs to this point. And so on.
Ultimately, the radical mindset shift that is needed to combat a world full of rampant fear and can be best expressed in a prayer like this:
Dear God, I thank you for every gift You provide. Thank you for the people in my life, the natural world, and ultimately the mysterious gift of You. Free me from my unnecessary worries by helping me embrace all the gifts you’ve given me. When I fear loss of health, let me first embrace every aspect of well-being that I have been granted. When I fear loss of status, let me first embrace the respect I have been given. When I fear loss of affiliation, let me first embrace the love I have been bestowed. When I fear death, let me first embrace the life I have been given. In all of my fears, let me first see the gifts given rather than losses which may come. I know I will die someday, but in the meantime, help me cast away my anxieties and find great beauty, purpose, and peace in this adventure of life. Amen.