Last week, the internet flipped out over a scary but fishy story about something that probably didn’t even happen. The details don’t matter. The question is, How can we avoid freaking out, especially when at least half of our brain recognises that there’s no good reason to be afraid?
Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”
How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.
I’ve gathered some tidbits of information from friends and from my own experience. Please note: I am no kind of expert, and I have zero credentials! If you’re struggling with fear, nothing you read here will solve your problem entirely. Some of these ideas may even contradict others; and some only work well in concert with other approaches.
Nevertheless, there may be some useful thought that catches your attention and sends you down a path to managing your fear so you can live.
Pray every day. Prayer on its own won’t usually chase out fear; but prayer can have a sorting, clarifying, or strengthening effect, giving you the courage or peace or strength or insight to figure out what to do next, and to follow through.
Pray to St Michael. He’s the one with the sword. Rampant fear is from the devil, so explicitly call out fear as an evil from Hell, and ask for divine help in chasing it out – and explicitly ask for help in being open to peace and healing.
Pray for trust. Trust doesn’t mean pretending everything will be fine. It means surrendering our lives and our circumstances to God and asking Him for help in dealing with whatever does happen.
Pray because it isn’t all up to you. We are responsible for dealing with what we can, but no human is responsible for the entire weight of any situation. When we pray, we shrug part of our burden off on God, who is happy to receive it.
Remember that life isn’t about escaping suffering and harm; life is about finding our way back to God. That knowledge sometimes puts a different light on fearful circumstances.
Recognise fear and pain as a gift in themselves. One friend said, “While feeling maybe the deepest pain I’d ever felt in my life thus far, I simultaneously felt in solidarity and unity with the entire world that I could never have felt before. Not everyone will know joy and peace in this world. But every single human in existence will know pain and suffering. That in itself provided me with a profound peace.”
Acknowledge that fear is, in itself, a kind of suffering, and not just a precursor to suffering — and, like any kind of suffering, it can be offered up to God. If we unite our fear with the fear and dread that Jesus felt in Gethsemane, and it will not go to waste.
Do some real research on the thing we are afraid of, rather than just listening to rumours or anecdotes. Look up statistics and see how likely it is that the thing we fear will really happen. Fear has a way of shouting down reason, and making us feel like we have no time or no room to think. We should at least try to fight back with the brain God gave us.
Be savvy about how fear sells. If we see a scary story, or a series of scary news stories, everywhere, we should ask ourselves why they are suddenly everywhere. Who’s profiting off making people afraid? Has anything really changed since last week, when no one cared about this alleged threat?
Give fears the ending we want them to have. If we find ourselves circling back and back, over and over a terrifying incident, firmly cap it with the good or neutral that ended up happening, and focus on that. Thoughts, like water, run in the paths that have been dug for them, so we can to take charge of digging a new path by deliberately thinking more useful thoughts.
Ask, “Whose voice is this?” If it’s in our heads, we can easily assume it’s our idea; but we get ideas from all sorts of external sources. Sometimes, if we realise, “Oh, I heard that on the news,” or “That’s just that thing that Aunt Minnie is always fretting about,” it makes the fear easier to shrug off.
Ask, “What’s the worst that can actually happen?” We can think it through, plan how we might respond, and maybe realise that it wouldn’t be that bad – if it even happens at all.
Learn from experience. Sometimes living through a terrible event is the only way to cure fear. We were afraid of it, it happened, and we’re still alive. It puts things in perspective.
Remember that we feel incapable of controlling everything because we are incapable of controlling everything. Rather than rushing around figuring out how to fix everything, learn to live with and even to enjoy the fact that we can’t. We simply can’t. Rest in that notion. It’s very freeing.
Identify and call out the bad effects that fear is having on our lives and relationships, and make a decision (or a series of thousands of decisions, more likely) to behave with love and hope, rather than fear and dread. Rather than trying to chase fear out, imagine actively, deliberately replacing fear with love.
Understand that there may be something systemic at work, and we may not be able to get ahead of fear by addressing the more obvious aspects of it. We may need professional help to identify and work through the buried root causes of fear, which may have no obvious connection to the current situation.
A good many Catholics mistrust or even despise the idea of seeking professional help. This is foolish and ill-founded. Good therapy enhances our spiritual life.
Identify the people and activities that feed fear, and get rid of anything extraneous. We don’t have to watch the nightly news; we don’t have to hang around with friends who are always in a panic about the latest threat. If it’s causing trouble, get rid of it. We are more susceptible to outside influences than we think, so it’s important to take charge of them, and to be deliberate about which ones are in our lives.
Focus not on the thing we’re afraid of, but on our response to fear. Once we learn to identify, take charge of, and change our physical and mental responses to fear, it becomes easier to assess the true risk in the thing we’re afraid of. Often, when we’re more calm and in control, it’s easier to see that it doesn’t deserve a huge response, if any.
Focus on breathing. Breathe in deeply down to the toes, hold it for a couple of seconds, and them breathe out slowly through your pursed lips. Do this for four minutes, if possible; and do it four times a day.
Go to a sympathetic ear. Our interior voices may be panicked and irrational, but if we’re forced to slow down and articulate out loud what we’re afraid of to someone who cares about us, we’ll often see for ourselves that the fear isn’t as rational or as urgent as it seemed when it was a thought.
Make a conscious decision to trust someone trustworthy and rational, who is less fearful than we are. It could be someone we know and can talk to, or just someone we admire and can imitate. If that person doesn’t think the fear is rational, then we can deliberately decide to ally yourself with him or her.
Reassure yourself firmly but kindly in the third person, mentally or out loud. I have no idea why this works, but it often does.
Meet fear halfway. If we have a persistent worry, we might allow ourselves a little room to indulge that worry, up to a point. We may discover that, if we take small steps that make us feel safe, it calms us enough so that big steps aren’t necessary. Even if it feels silly, we’re telling ourselves, “I hear you. Here’s a little something to help.”
Try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a therapist. It’s a short-term, goal-based program, and it’s not effective for everybody, but for some, this technique offers specific, practical exercises to help you change ingrained patterns of thought or behaviour. (The books available in stores offer mixed results.)
For parents who are overcome with fear while raising their kids:
Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy
How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
For a more general audience:
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart by Fr Jacques Philippe
Hyperlinks added. Photo by Jon Rawlinson, cc 2.0, altered colour temperature.