By Magna Porterfield, Ph.D.
Fear! Anxiety! Most of us have experienced these at one time or another. This is not all bad. There are times when fear and anxiety can be beneficial in that they can motivate us, increase our productivity, and even enable us to protect when faced with danger.
For many, however, fear and anxiety is a real problem. Some health experts report that fear and anxiety have increased in the United States since 9/11 and heightened even more with the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest and economic downturn in our world. Anxiety disorders – a psychiatric term used for different forms of abnormal and pathological fear and anxiety – are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older (18% of U.S. population). It is also one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses.
How does a person know that his or her anxiety has become a problem? When it does the following:
Disrupts daily activity
Leads to one easily feeling upset
Lasts for an extended period of time
Feels as if it is out of one’s control
If you or someone you know is experiencing this type of debilitating fear and anxiety, take heart because there is hope!
Overcoming Fear and Anxiety
It is important to point out that fear and anxiety are interrelated, but slightly different. Fear is an emotional response to a known danger or threat. Anxiety is a response to an unknown threat and danger. Even though they are different, they typically produce the same response when one is faced with either an actual or perceived threatening situation – increased heart rate, tensing of muscles, shallow breathing, avoidance behavior, etc. For purposes of this article, we will address them as one in the same phenomenon.
If you are dealing with anxiety or fear that is affecting your life, you may consider consulting a health professional. However, at the same time, there are certain steps you may be able to implement yourself as you seek to overcome your challenges in this area.
First of all, you must acknowledge that you have a choice in how you will deal with your anxiety and fear. You may feel that you cannot control your fears, but the truth is that you can. Once you acknowledge this and recognize that God has given us the power of choice to exercise – even in overcoming anxiety – this will be a springboard from which you can begin to take steps in the right direction.
Another important step in overcoming fear and anxiety is to identify self-talk – which is what a person is telling himself or herself when faced with a perceived or real dangerous situation. The wise man Solomon tells us “As a man thinketh, so is he.” Many people who struggle with anxiety and fear do so because they tell themselves things that are not necessarily true. For example, I was recently talking to someone who used to be anxious about driving on freeways. She stated that she used to tell herself, “I won’t be able to drive next to big trucks” or “The traffic moves so fast that I will not be able to keep up.” Statements such as these are assumptions that we make that we have not proven to be true. This same woman told me that she overcame her anxiety by one day deciding to drive on the freeway. She discovered that she was able to drive with the trucks and could drive with the fast-moving traffic.
For some, it may not be this easy to conquer their fear and anxiety. But, the point is that they can begin to address this issue by asking themselves, “What am I telling myself when I feel afraid” and then addressing each thought with the truth. For example, if you are faced with a fear of doing something that feels overwhelming, instead of saying “I can’t do this” you can say, “Even though this is scary for me, with God’s help, I can do it.” Or, if you didn’t do well in a particular situation, instead of saying “I am a failure. I cannot do many things right” you can say, “I am disappointed that I didn’t do well. But, this is not the end of the world. I will try again or I will try something else.”
Challenging and changing your self-talk takes practice. You must learn to identify what you typically tell yourself and then replace those thoughts with more healthy thinking. One of the main sources for gathering truth-filled information is the Scriptures. Reading and memorizing various promises and admonitions will help you as you seek to change the thoughts that contribute to unhealthy fear and anxiety.
Still another point to remember is that we cannot wait for our fearful feelings to go away in order to face a situation that produces anxiety. I once heard a speaker say that we must “do it afraid.” In other words, we must address the situation that makes us anxious, while still feeling the fear. It is as we do this that our fears will start to subside. One psychologist says ,“Do you want to know the surefire way to stay anxious? Don’t do the thing that makes you nervous.”1
Taking care of our brains is also essential for overcoming fear and anxiety. For example, there is increasing evidence that exercise can be very useful for managing anxiety. In a review of about 40 clinical trials, researchers found that, on average, patients who exercised regularly reported a 20 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to those who did not exercise.2
Another practice for enhancing brain function is proper rest. Not only is it essential to get adequate sleep (7 to 8 hours for adults and more for children/adolescents) but the time that we go to bed is equally important. Specifically, going to bed before 10 pm can be especially helpful because this increases melatonin. Melatonin is useful because there is some limited evidence that it can reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that increases with anxiety.
Foods that strengthen the brain/nervous system are also essential for addressing anxiety. Some specific foods that are beneficial include whole grains – because of their complex carbohydrates and B vitamins, and nuts – which have several nutrients that promote optimal brain function. Of course, plenty of vegetables and fruits should also be added to the diet. And, staying away from stimulants – like caffeine, alcohol, processed foods and even reducing or even cutting out animal products is also strongly recommended.
An additional helpful tip for managing anxiety and fear is to spend more time in nature. One study revealed that those who live close to nature have lower rates of anxiety (and depression) than those who live in the city – among buildings.3 If you don’t live close to nature, but are suffering from fear and anxiety, you should make a concerted effort to get out to a park or other area that has ample grass, trees, flowers, etc. as often as possible.
Finally and probably the most important step to overcoming fear and anxiety is to ask God to increase your faith. If your fears are greater than your faith, say to God “Help thou my unbelief,” as did the father who sought healing for his son from Jesus. He can do this. One practical step for increasing faith is to read and memorize Scripture promises that focus on what God can and will do for those who believe in Him. These may include:
“Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
“And which of you with taking thought (or “by worrying”) can add to his stature one cubit.” (Luke 12:25)
“Fear thou not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am with thee; be not dismayed: for I am thy God… (Isaiah 41:10)
If you implement these steps and ask God for help in doing so, you will see a difference in your fears and your anxieties will decrease. Remember, with God all things are possible!
1. Quoted by Latrina Kase, American author and psychologist.
2. The effects of exercise training on anxiety symptom among patients. Archives of Internal Medicine, February 22, 2010.
3. Morbidity is related to a green living environment. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. October 15, 2009.