Freedom from Fear – Part 3 (of 3)

» Posted in Mental Health, Personal Growth, Psychology and Faith | 0 comments

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Search online and you will find a multitude of books, articles, and blogs written about anxiety and fear.  Many of them are very good and are quite helpful in giving people practical steps to help them overcome their fear.  An excellent resource that I have recommended before is the work of Dr. Daniel Amen, a neuro-psychiatrist (also a professed Christian) who has spent years studying the brain and identifying the ANTs (Automatic Negative Thinking) that underlie much of our struggles with fear and anxiety.

At the basis of much of this advice is a therapeutic technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which seeks to change people’s emotions by changing their cognitions (thoughts) and behaviour.  There is much research to support the efficacy of this approach in treating anxiety and fear-related problems, and certainly in our own practice at LifeCare Centres, these are some of the tools we utilize in helping our clients deal with their fear-based struggles.

Having said that, however, I do want to add that sometimes there are other issues going on that can cause symptoms of anxiety in a person’s life, and you may need a careful analysis by a doctor or therapist to determine if there needs to be other interventions (for example, medication for hormonal imbalances or trauma recovery therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – of which anxiety is one of the symptoms).  Sometimes there is unresolved grief, abusive situations, relationship strife, or a myriad of complications that need to be considered in considering the steps you need to take.  I won’t be tackling all of these issues in this blog and I certainly don’t want to minimize the complexities  of the issues that people struggle with or suggest that a simple CBT, three step solution will solve the problem for everyone.  Instead, I’m choosing to address those of us who struggle with hidden fear and chronic worry as part of the way we do life.  In this case, some of what we learn from CBT can be very useful in helping us break free from fear in our lives.

No disrespect intended to Dr. Aaron Beck, the original founder of CBT, but the funny thing is that this whole idea of changing our thoughts to change our emotions isn’t new – in fact, I believe this ancient idea actually came from God!  As I’ve said in a previous blog (On Why Psychology is Biblical), good science is biblical because it is rooted in truth and in the way God has designed our bodies and lives to function.  An oft-quoted passage of the Bible is John 8:32 (NIV): Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, as well as Romans 12:2a (NCV):  Do not be shaped by this world; instead be changed within by a new way of thinking, reinforcing the importance of truth in our lives and focusing our thoughts on God’s truths.

CBT is based on a model or theory that it’s not the events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them.  Research shows that we all tend to respond to life through a filter – how we see ourselves, others and the world, and even God.  This filter develops through our life experiences and the conclusions that we draw – right or wrong – from those experiences.  We ALL have these filters and they very much affect the way we respond to life.  But what I’ve discovered is that often, many people get things wrong.  They have false beliefs about themselves and life, which impact the way they think, interpret experiences and therefore feel.

For those of us who struggle with fear, false beliefs tend to greatly elevate the dangers we perceive to be around us or our loved ones, or we believe that we can’t handle or cope with distressing events; and from a faith standpoint, we can interpret bad things that happen as God not caring or not being in control.  These negative (and false) thoughts can then trigger extremely strong feelings of fear and panic.  And as a result of believing these negative thoughts, we can cause ourselves untold amounts of stress and suffering.

I know that God does allow pain in our life as part of growing and maturing us, but I do know that God never wants us to experience pain as a result of believing lies because he is the God of truth.  It is his will for us to live in truth and to be free as a result.  Yet so many of us are in bondage to lies we believe about ourselves, about others, about life, about God.  And because our thoughts act as a filter through which we view our world and our circumstances, believing lies can be deadly.  Remember, it’s our thoughts about a given situation, not the situation itself that determines our emotional reactions to it.  This is consistent with Scripture:  Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.”

There is ample research that shows that depressed people regularly see the world in negative ways.  People who struggle with fear and anxiety regularly see the world as frightening and overwhelming.  Their filter is set to notice all the bad things that could happen.  Negative self-talk is pervasive in emotional distress, depression and anxiety.  The key to better understanding our emotions is to realize that they aren’t based on what is happening to us but what we think is happening to us (for example, what would be our different emotional responses if we think it’s an “intruder” trying to open the door or merely our son?)  The emotions are real enough; you’ll feel genuine despair or fear or hurt, not because of the situation, but because of the way you’ve interpreted the situation.

So, on a practical level, what do you do about it?  When you find yourself feeling anxious or afraid, don’t give in to your fear by ruminating on it or by running away from the situation that is triggering your anxiety.  Instead, take the time to do the following ABCs:

1.  Analyze

Ask yourself, what is triggering this feeling of anxiety or fear? What am I afraid of?  Then when you’ve identified the worry or concern, ask yourself, do I have any control over this?  This is what I call the do-I-have-any-control-over-it litmus test.  If the answer is yes, then take the time to problem-solve.  Note, I said, problem-solve, which is a very different activity from worrying.  Problem-solving involves evaluating a situation, coming up with concrete steps for dealing with it, and then putting the plan into action. Worrying, on the other hand, rarely leads to solutions. Productive, solvable worries are those you can take action on right away (for example, if you’re worried about your work being done on time, you could call your boss to ask about changing your work schedule). Unproductive, unsolvable worries are those for which there is no corresponding action (“What if I get cancer someday?” or “What if my son gets into an accident?”).

If the worry is solvable, start brainstorming. Make a list of all the possible solutions you can think of.  Focus on the things you have the power to change, rather than the circumstances or realities beyond your control.  After you’ve evaluated your options, make a plan of action.  Once you have a plan and start doing something about the problem, you’ll feel much less worried.  And in my opinion, involving God – and sometimes advice from godly people – in this problem-solving usually helps bring clarity and wisdom to the problem.

2.  Be Thankful

If after analyzing your fears or worry, you recognize that you have no control over the situation, then it’s time to switch gears.  Keep in mind that for chronic worriers, the vast majority of what you’re anxious about isn’t within your control to solve.  This is a truth that’s hard to accept for many anxious people, as the inability to tolerate uncertainty plays a huge role in anxiety and worry. Chronic worriers can’t stand doubt or unpredictability, and so they don’t like to face the reality that they don’t actually have much control over a given situation. They need to know with 100 percent certainty what’s going to happen.

Worrying is seen as a way to predict what the future has in store—a way to prevent unpleasant surprises and control the outcome. The problem is, it doesn’t work.  Thinking about all the things that could go wrong doesn’t make life any more predictable. Focusing on worst-case scenarios won’t keep bad things from happening. It will only keep you from enjoying the good things you have in the present.

If you’ve determined that you really have no control over the situation, then it’s time to do what I call “thankful prayers” – where all you focus on is praising and thanking God.  Not only does it distract you from your worries, but it takes your mind off your fears and onto the One who DOES have control over your circumstances.  It also puts you in a frame of mind where you’re already celebrating all the good things he has done which will remind you that he WILL take care of your concerns.

Be careful not to get caught up in “worry prayers” – rather than saying God, help with this, help with that, focus instead on thanking him and praising him – that will remind you of his power and sovereignty and goodness. Challenge yourself to ONLY praise and thank him every time the worry hits your mind – don’t even ask him for intervention in your given situation (I know, this may trigger a lot of anxiety but it’ll help you break free of the false belief that it’s only by your prayers that God will intervene, that somehow you’ve doomed yourself if you don’t pray.  Believe or not, he already knows the concerns on your heart and he doesn’t need you to articulate it.  Think of prayer as something for YOU, to bring you closer to God and remind you of his deep involvement in your life.)  Do it out loud as it helps for you to hear it as well as think it (I find that it tends to stick with me and resonate more that way), but also because you are doing spiritual warfare.  For example, thank you that you are sovereign, thank you that you love me and have promised to never leave me or abandon me, thank you that you have promised to use everything in my life for good, and so on.  And don’t stop thanking him until you feel the worry lift.  Focus on biblical truths that really resonate with you and bring you a sense of peace.

3.  Chill

Okay, so Chill isn’t really a scientific term but I was stretching to find a word that fit in with my ABCs!!  What I want to emphasize in this final step is the whole concept of letting go of your worries and fears and giving it all into the very capable hands of God, and then taking steps to relax.  Get busy distracting yourself with worship music that focuses on God’s goodness and love for you, dance a jig, watch a funny or uplifting show on TV, go out for a walk with a good friend, have a cup of tea, do something creative, or anything else that puts your body and mind back in a positive frame of mind.  Remember, there is nothing for you to do in dealing with worries and problems over which you have no control (which are now in God’s hands), so don’t waste another iota of your time and energy thinking about them – instead, focus your energy on what you DO have control over – activities and thoughts that uplift you, bring you joy or peace, and allow you to celebrate the gift of the life that you have. See life as the adventure that God has called us on – with its roller coaster ups and downs, certainly but ultimately, with it’s many gifts for us to enjoy and savour.

Remember that God is sovereign over ALL outcomes, regardless of what you choose to do or not do, regardless of how you mess up or not, regardless of which path you take.  He has promised to use everything for good in your life.  Remember, too, that it will be a daily choice to walk in the truth and to live life out of God’s truth, and that often, part of the struggle in your life will be because it won’t always be easy.  Left unchecked, we will naturally veer towards our old way of thinking.  Instead of worrying about something over which you have no control, concentrate instead on what you DO have control over – that is your power to choose what you focus on.  Choose truth, and choose to live your life with joy and abundance and peace.

Have questions?  Feel free to comment on this blog or send a confidential email to me by clicking on the “contact” option on the menu at the top of this site.  Or if you want to hear more about this topic, send your question to Dr. Lin via the “Ask Dr. Lin” widget on the right side of this screen and she may select your question to blog about on her “Ask Dr. Lin” postings on Fridays.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the rest of this series, be sure to check out Parts 1 and 2.

 

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