Picture yourself in line to ride the biggest, fastest rollercoaster at Six Flags Great America. You feel nervous as the people all around you rave about the steep drops, the banked turns, and the cobra roll.
You inch toward the platform, notice your quickened heartbeat and upset stomach, and wonder, “Will this rollercoaster be fun or a nightmare? Should I stick it out or bail? Is it better to engage my fear or avoid it?”
Anxiety Versus Excitement
There is a shade of difference between anxiety and excitement. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Excitement, in contrast, is a feeling of great enthusiasm and eagerness.
It depends on one’s perspective. Where one person perceives a roller coaster ride as a danger, someone else experiences it as positive, even outrageously fun. This is similar with fear, worry, and panic.
Riding an elevator, going to the dentist, driving on a highway, and thinking about your health–these and similar activities are not inherently dangerous. However, if you worry about them, or if you have had panic attacks in relation to them, you may perceive them as a danger to be avoided. A problem with avoidance is it often backfires and worsens anxiety.
Avoidance Worsens Fear
Avoidance is a primary goal of a fearful person. But if we let anxiety dictate our choices because we want to avoid discomfort, our anxiety will often worsen. We might depict this anxiety cycle this way:
perceive danger > AVOID! > rush of relief > anxiety grows
This cycle helps to illustrate why anxiety increases as we avoid places or situations. While avoidance leads to a temporary rush of relief that we love, it backfires. And as we imagine more dangers, our fear can become our prison.
Just because something feels dangerous doesn’t mean it is.
In the moment, avoidance may seem good and reasonable, and our brain loves the temporary relief and wants more! Peace, comfort, and control become our idols.
How Fear Imprisons
Having had a difficult upbringing and married at 17, author and speaker Patsy Clairmont became a prisoner in her home, refusing to leave her bedroom. She lived a lifestyle of avoidance. She speaks from experience and gives hope:
A cloud in the sky meant a dangerous storm. An unexplained glance from someone meant she despised me. A simple rash meant a deadly disease. I could go on and on. There was no end to how I could take almost any life experience and dip it into nerve-racking scrutiny, which eventually painted me into the corner of agoraphobia.
She identified her fight-flight-freeze response.
After time, I realized that the anxiety controlling my life was mine. I was aware that my lifestyle supported my anxiety; watching sad movies, listening to the same threatening news, calling everyone I knew to talk up a problem. I also didn’t eat well, stewed over the past, didn’t exercise and slept way too much. I woke up one morning almost non-functional. I didn’t want to get out of bed, bathe, dress or take care of my family. On that eye-opening day, I made a decision…that I wanted to live.
Her lifestyle choices were making her worse. Then she decided to engage in the battle.
The decision was huge. My journey wasn’t easy, but with the hourly choice to move forward things began to shift. With much prayer and strenuous effort, I gradually replaced negative life patterns. At first, it’s a wrestling match, but with time it becomes more of a natural response.
Four Considerations to Engage Fear
- Identify One’s Highest Values and Act Accordingly. When we value love over fear, we take loving action (1 John 4:18). What mother would not face her fear of snakes and scoop up her preschooler playing in a sandbox when a fanged reptile came near?
- Remember God’s Utmost Desire. Ask, what is God’s heart in the face of fear? What is His utmost desire? Since God commands that we love Him and love others, how might a fearful counselee trust and obey Him while fearful? How might she put off fear and put on love?
- Expect Discomfort. Taking the risk to face fear rather than avoid it will feel uncomfortable. Expect it; encourage your fearful counselee to speak truth to her soul (Ps. 42:5, 22; Phil. 4:8). She might tell herself, “I am feeling discomfort. I am not in danger. I am safe. The Lord is with me.”
- Trust God. He knows our fears; He cares (Ps. 139:7-10). Trust the Prince of Peace who desires that no anxious fear enslaves us. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Be encouraged—we can engage our fear wisely as we recognize that avoidance is a problem. Avoidance increases anxiety and fails to depend on God, who is our safe place (Ps. 46:1). We must train our anxiety-ridden hearts and our minds to turn to Him to overcome fear, worry, and panic.
I pray that this Scripture speaks peace to a fearful heart.
“God is our safe place and our strength. He is always our help when we are in trouble. So we will not be afraid, even if the earth is shaken and the mountains fall into the center of the sea, and even if its waters go wild with storm and the mountains shake with its action” (Ps. 46:1-3, NLV).
Questions for Reflection
- In what ways do you or your fearful counselee avoid situations due to fear? Plan how love might overcome fear.
- How can you practically engage fear?