Friday, January 30, 2009

Breaking the Fear Cycle

I Corinthians 10:13
Bob Rakestraw

In the previous posting on this blog (“In the Grip of Anxiety”) I described and started to analyze some horrific times of fear I had recently experienced. (I use the word “horrific” deliberately.) These were truly frightening times, and I have been learning lately that many people have them.

Because I have been so helped by a certain book—in addition to the prayers and encouragement of God’s people, my doctors, medications, and my lifetime experience with God and the Bible—I felt it may be helpful to hand on some of the insights from the book to you for possible use either now or in the future. Even if you never face this awful scourge (and I hope you never do), the following materials may be something you can use to help yourself or others in the practical business of daily living.

First I will summarize briefly the four steps for dealing with serious anxiety presented forty years ago by Dr. Claire Weekes in her excellent work (with a somewhat archaic title), Hope and Help for Your Nerves. Her book is still considered by some mental-health professionals to be one of the best of the lot in this type of literature. Here are her steps.

1. Facing

Look at yourself and your emotions, and note how tensely you are fighting the fears rising within you. Do exactly the opposite. Sit comfortably and do not shrink from the upsetting sensations. Face and examine the awful feelings. Don’t fight them. By your anxiety you are stimulating an excessive flow of adrenaline which then produces the very sensations that are troubling you. Face the fact (for it is a fact) that most people with this problem eventually find the cure from within themselves, with the guidance of an outside helper or helpers.

2. Accepting

Be prepared to accept and live with your illness for some time. Your body has quite likely been through some very serious episodes, and your nerves have been highly sensitized. Small triggers may set off your sensitized nerves very easily, so be sure that you truly accept (not “put up with”) your physical illness and symptoms. This means 100% acceptance (not 99%) at the very peak of your crisis experience!

Try to live and work with your symptoms without paying them too much attention. Weekes says, “Symptoms can be intensified only by further fear and its resulting tension, never by facing and accepting.” The reason acceptance is key to recovery is that with this attitude adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system are not being triggered, hence there are no symptoms.

3. Floating

“To float is just as important as to accept, and it works similar magic,” according to Weekes. Let “float” not “fight” be your slogan. Just as a person, floating on smooth water, lets him or her self be carried this way or that by the gentle movement of the water, so should the anxious person let his body “go with the flow” of his anxious feelings instead of trying to withdraw from them or force his way through them. When a person “floats” through the most intense crises, he or she will sense relaxation, not panic. Let the terrifying thoughts float away—picture them leaving your body. Realize they are only thoughts; don’t be bluffed by them.

Stop holding tensely onto yourself, trying to control your fear. This simply generates more fear. Don’t even strive to relax. “Simply let the thought of relaxation be in your mind, in your attitude toward your body,” says Weekes. “The very act of being prepared to accept your tenseness relaxes your mind, and relaxation of body generally follows. You don’t have to strive for relaxation. You have to wait for it.” Calm breathing, where you allow your abdomen to move out and in with each breath, helps tremendously. In fact, in stress clinics, patients often say that the most helpful exercise they learn is abdominal or “belly” breathing, whether sitting or lying down.

4. Letting Time Pass

Despite your new approach to your illness, your symptoms will almost certainly continue to return for some time—perhaps, at first, as acutely as before you learned these techniques. Weekes says that “your adrenaline-releasing nerves will continue to be fatigued and sensitized for some time longer, in spite of your new approach.” Instead of finding yourself disappointed and depressed for days after learning how to help yourself, your “understanding and willingness to let more time pass finally work the miracle.” Weekes adds: “Do no think I expect you to do this without the help of a sedative,…[but] you must have a doctor’s help in choosing the type and dose of sedative.”

It is important to stay occupied even while the troublesome symptoms and feelings are present. But do not feverishly seek occupation in order to forget yourself. This is running away from fear, and you can’t run far from fear. Calmly accept what is happening, and the fear gradually subsides. Every short respite from fear helps to calm your nerves in a very real, physical way, so that they become less and less responsive to stimulation and your sensations become less and less intense.

Resensitization of nerves may occur at some future time, but because you have developed an inner core of confidence and strength you will pass through the fear. “Because this confidence has been born the hard way, from your own experience, you will never quite lose it. You may falter but you will never be completely overwhelmed again.”

Parallels to Everyday Living

My guess is that you have already spotted in the above a number of parallels to life experiences apart from the specific problem of serious anxiety episodes. So many experiences in life tend to make us fearful, worried, sad, discouraged, depressed, lonely, impatient, angry, frustrated, or seeking escape in harmful ways. The four steps given by Weekes can be helpful in dealing with each of these disturbing conditions, whether you are a religious person or not.

However, if you are a follower of Jesus, and desire to live faithfully as his disciple, you have an enormous body of additional material (the scriptures) and a powerful indwelling presence (the Holy Spirit) to comfort, guide and sustain you through the most awful episodes of nerve sensitization or other mental-health conditions. You even have the assurance that God the Son and God the Spirit are actively praying (interceding) for you in your trials (Romans 8:26, 31, 34). We also have the community of God to encourage us and pray for us, as we do for them.

The four steps given above—facing, accepting, floating, and letting time pass—apply very helpfully to the struggles, temptations, anxieties, and other spiritual battles of the Christian life. For example, when you are tempted to make an angry phone call or send an angry e-mail, the four steps may help you choose a wise course of action.

Face the Problem

Admit you are angry—even furious. Allow yourself to fume and don’t stuff your emotions. Sit down comfortably, breathe deeply, and ask God for his gracious help to keep you stable. Thank God for allowing you to experience this situation even though you detest the circumstances.

Accept the Problem

Fully admit that this is a serious situation—to you at least. Your nervous system is highly charged, and you need to become calm by accepting this difficulty as from the hand of God. Not that God inspired any wrongdoing on the other person’s part or yours, but he is letting you go through this so that you will be stronger—to develop your character (Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:4-15). The scriptures say not only to give thanks in everything, but for everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18; Ephesians 5:20). Ask God for the grace of acceptance, with gratitude that he is willing to give it to you, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Float with the Problem

Don’t keep fighting the battle in your mind. It is understandable to review the circumstances that led to this crisis, and to consider possible courses of action, but invite God to guide you and guard you from erroneous thinking and acting. After a while, take a break. Do something else, take a walk, talk to someone, listen to some calming music. Take a nap.

Don’t strive to relax, but ask God to give you thoughts of peace and relaxation. Quote Bible verses in your mind, such as Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep in perfect peace the one whose mind is stayed on you.” Tell God you trust him in this situation, and thank him for his understanding of every detail of your life. Continue to breathe with abdominal or “belly” breathing, not with rapid, shallow breaths into your upper chest only.

Let Time Pass

The above three steps may take two hours or two days. Before you make any decision (and remember, sometimes the best action is no action), read James chapter one carefully and prayerfully, asking God for wisdom to do what is most honoring to him. When you arrive at a tentative decision, let some time pass before you take any action. Ask God to rest your troubled soul. Set a time, such as 2 p.m. today, when you intend to act, and then let your tentative decision marinate for a while. Try not to visit it every five minutes. Above all, when 2:00 p.m. arrives, let neither sinful anger nor cowardice motivate you, but the love of God for your neighbor. Sometimes love must be tough, but it should never be nasty. It should always be kind.

Once again I leave this theme for now without delving into the powerful scripture from 1 Corinthians 10:13. I do want to quote it here, however, to encourage you to ponder it in the light of these last two postings on anxiety and fear. If you read it as I do, you see how the text bristles with insights on our topic. Next time I trust to be able to examine this remarkable verse.

“No testing [or temptation] has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (NRSV).

No comments: