|Fear. God. Love.—Jennifer Schwirzer, LPC|
(From the October 2010 edition of HopeSpeak)
Test your knowledge. Put your hand over the screen and guess the three most common mental disorders in the U.S. They are, in order, with lifetime prevalence rates: Anxiety disorders (about 18%), mood disorders (about 10%), and ADHD (about 5%).
It might come as a surprise that anxiety rates higher than depression. Actually, anxiety diagnoses multiply like rabbits in the Diagnostic Manual put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Here are the primary ones: acute stress disorder (“shellshocked,” “gunshy,” “once-burned, twice shy”), agoraphobia (fear of being trapped), panic disorder (panic attacks), social phobia (extreme shyness), specific phobia (such as fear of snakes), obsessive-compulsive disorder (using rituals to stave off fear), post-traumatic stress disorder (trauma-induced flashbacks and nightmares, etc.), generalized anxiety disorder (fear of everything). Sum up these diagnoses and you have the staggering near 20% lifetime prevalence rate.
PTSD often appears in victims of abuse. Beyond the nightmares and flashbacks, survivors find themselves “triggered” by circumstances that remind them of the trauma. This is why attending the same church and hearing the abusing pastor’s voice week after week can be devastatingly difficult. A transfer of membership helps for a while, but triggers continue to arise. Fortunately, anxiety disorders such as PTSD can be overcome. One of the keys to conquering anxiety is redirection.
Make a fearful face for a moment. Notice your eyes—they’re wide open. Notice the “o” of your lips and your flared nostrils. Fear literally opens up the orifices of the face so that we can take in more information about the potential threat. We can see, smell and taste it better, process the information, and scream if necessary. In other words, when afraid we pay extremely close attention to the object of fear. Fear engages focus.
Focusing on a car barreling down my lane enables a life-saving swerve. Noticing a snarling Doberman, I pick up a rock. Fear can be a good, protective thing. But pathological fear leads us to focus exclusively on non-threats such that we miss actual threats. Post-traumatic stress possesses this tragic feature, leading victims into dissociative hyper-vigilance. We can be so afraid of thugs in dark alleys that we miss the white-collar criminal at the front door. In addition, long-term, unabated stress causes a plethora of health complications.
I believe the Bible contains a very simple formula for anxiety management. It involves redirecting our fear to a place where fear can be ultimately resolved. Recall Jesus’ words: “Fear not those who can kill the body but not the soul, but fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell,” Matthew 10:28. Here Jesus redirects our fear from “them”—human threats, to “Him,” God. The reason? God is actually more threatening than “them.” He can do more damage. He “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Don’t fear the housecat; fear the lion. Don’t fear the BB gun; fear the assault rifle. Don’t fear the common cold; fear cancer. If you’re going to fear, fear intelligently.
The problem is, this hardly puts God in a flattering light. We might think He’s encouraging a kind of mindless terror of Him simply because He can dominate. But remember that fear serves the valid purpose of arresting our attention. And remember that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs 9:10. Once He has our attention, He can speak to us. He can pour in new information. He can tell us things like: “I laid aside my divine power so I could suffer alongside you as a human. I lived a life of self-sacrifice and compassion such that children and small animals trusted Me. I submitted myself to hate and persecution, and ultimately carried your sins to a rough, lonely cross where they crushed Me. My eyes grew wide with terror as I felt God’s wrath. My nostrils flared with the fear of separation from Him. My mouth froze into a woeful circle, never to smile again in this life. I finally yielded up My spirit and lay in a grave where I kept Adonai’s Sabbath. When the sun rose I burst forth, carrying with me a new, glorified humanity, sealing you to everlasting life. I am Love. Far from wanting to destroy, I was willing to be destroyed in order to save.”
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear,” 1 John 4:18. Fear intelligently and God will put your fears to rest in the warm embrace of His everlasting love. He’ll turn your fears to tears of repentance for ever doubting His goodness. Go to Him now, submit to His Word, surrender yourself, “and you will find rest to your souls,” Matthew 11:29.
Jennifer Schwirzer is a licensed professional counselor, musician and author who serves on the board of directors of The Hope of Survivors.