Dealing with our Fear and Anxiety – A Therapist speaks on emotional responses to current events.
By Melinda Cathey M.A.
We are living in days of unprecedented fear and anxiety. In almost every way the future is uncertain. Though much of the world has from time to time experienced empty shelves in stores, or governments controlling where you can or cannot go, this is very new and disturbing to us. Add to that the eruption of long simmering racial tensions yet again. Add to that the co-opting of meaningful protests by those with a clearly articulated agenda of the violent overthrow and dismantling of all our history, economy, culture, and institutions. All of this has left us reeling; disoriented, overwhelmed, confused and paralyzed. Our internal states and our external behaviors are a far cry from the victorious saints painted in the pictures of Scripture.
World history is rife with violence, corruption, lawlessness, injustice, poverty, greed, gluttony, etc. Though our current situation is new for us, we need to remember it is not new to our Father. It is into these very situations the Lord calls his children to stand, to be lights, to do justice and love kindness, to seek peace, to love our neighbors, to pray for our enemies. But this is difficult, indeed almost impossible, to do if we are racked with fear.
Our fear comes out of a sense of threat and a lack of control to do anything about the threat. Our health, our job security, our 401-K’s, our very way of life, our hopes and dreams and expectations for our futures and that of our children are up in the air.
How does a perfect love cast this out? How can we live in the reality of all the uncertainties with true peace and joy? A peace and joy that will allow us to get deep sleep, be present (not distracted) in each moment, and to have the courage to act. I believe Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians 3:14-20. We are each meant to EXPERIENCE the love of Christ personally. This is what he means when he prays that we would know the love of Christ which is beyond comprehension. Experiencing the love of another goes beyond words and comprehension. It goes into your very body and soul. It is more than a mere idea. It is your reality.
When perfect love becomes our reality, our experience, then we start to be rooted in that love or attached to it (vs. 17). When we have roots, we become grounded and can grow (vs. 19). When our roots are in perfect love, our internal states (our inner man) will be strengthened with power, peace, joy, and all the fruits of this perfect love (vs. 16).
Understanding the attachment cycle has helped me more practically understand these concepts. In Rom. 1: 19-20, we are told that all of creation was given to us to help us see and understand the Lord’s invisible nature and attributes. The attachment cycle is one of His powerful metaphors. This cycle fleshes out how we are designed to develop trust, connect with ourselves, others, and the world around us. It shows how trust and attachment, (or the lack of), actually determine our brain chemistry and brain development; and impacts our very muscles, heart rates, and immune systems. Body, soul, and spirit are impacted by whether or not we EXPERIENCE love.
When a baby is born, it has needs it cannot meet. Physical needs such as being fed, clothed, and diapers being changed. It also has emotional needs for comfort, touch, talking, etc. To get it’s needs met, the only power this helpless vulnerable baby has is to cry. God’s design is that a caretaker will meet those needs in a quick, adequate, predictable, and warm or nurturing way. When a caretaker does this, they give experiential messages of love and care to the baby:
- I see you
- I hear you
- I will be here for you, you are not alone
- I will comfort you
- I will protect you
- I will meet your needs
- I will delight in you
When a baby experiences this cycle of having needs and being cared for, over and over and over again in the first three years of life, he/she incorporates these messages deep inside their soul. They come to believe:
- I am pretty special
- I can get my needs met, I have some power
- I am valued, loved, I belong to someone
- The world is safe and predictable
- People are good and kind and trustworthy
When these are your narratives, you are at peace. You are open to trusting and connecting with others. You will go to others for comfort. Your bodies will be able to relax. This is actually reflected in your muscles, heart rate, digestion, etc. Your brains will secrete balancing and pleasurable neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. And your brain is freed up to develop more connections in the higher functioning part of your brain, the cortex. This is the part of your brain you use to learn, to develop empathy, to have self-control, to reflect, and to attach to others.
This cycle is designed to set us up to easily understand and receive the love, care, and nurturance of our Heavenly Father. If you look closely at the messages a healthy caregiver will give to their baby, you will notice these messages correlate with the names of God. He is:
- The God who sees us (Gen. 16:13)
- The God who hears us (Matt. 7:7-11)
- The God who is always present and will never abandon us (Ps. 139-7-12)
- The God who comforts us (Ps. 103:13-14)
- The God who protects us (Ps. 91:1-9)
- The God who meets our needs (Mt. 6: 25-34)
- The God who delights us ( 3: 17)
Like a helpless baby, we are incapable of meeting our most basic needs; ultimate issues of life and death, health, and finances. This has always been true, though for most of us we only realize it now with our current situation. And it is this realization that is throwing us into a panic. Our vulnerability and dependence is by design. It is meant to cause us to cry out to our Abba Father so we can “taste and see” His goodness and faithfulness to us, to experience His deep and abiding love and protection of us. He alone is the perfect love.
None of us had or are perfect caregivers. This is a problem because it causes kinks in our armor. To whatever degree our attachment cycle was not attended to, will be the degree to which we have difficulty trusting others and the Lord. If we experienced, in our present circumstances, with all the upheaval and uncertainty, that God has our back. The God who created and owns the heavens and the earth. If we knew beyond comprehension that He sees us, He hears us, He will meet all our needs, He will comfort us and protect us, He will never leave us, He delights in us; we would rest in His arms like Jesus did in His Father’s arms in the boat in the storm. We would rest like a content baby swaddled in the strong arms of his/her caretaker. His perfect love would cast out all our fears.
So what does this mean in practical terms? What steps can we take to begin to enter in to experiencing this perfect love?
- Pay attention to your body.
No matter what you think you believe, your body will tell you what you actually believe. If you think you trust the Lord but are having anxiety attacks, difficulty sleeping, racing heart, muscle tension, knots in your stomach or finding yourself constantly distracted you probably have some work to do.
- Ask yourself what you are afraid of in this moment.
This is actually harder than you might think. Often, we don’t know. We just experience this vague cloud of anxiety. This takes some time and reflection to actually understand what we are panicking about. Usually, our fears have something to do with the broader issues of our safety, security, or sense of belonging. Start with these and ask the Lord to reveal the root issues to you.
- Focus mind on promises of God related to that issue.
For example, if I am fearful about my future employment, I will find a passage like Matt. 6:25-34 to hang out in. I might memorize it. I will meditate on it and think about all the times in my life the Lord has been faithful regarding my finances. I will spend time looking at the birds and flowers to see the reality of this promise. I will wrestle with Him about the areas where I still don’t believe.
- Ask Him to meet you in that place- use our power to cry, to pray without ceasing.
I envision myself like that little baby whose only power is to cry. I will cry out to my Abba Father to meet me in this place of panic and doubt. I will thank Him for telling me to pray/cry without ceasing, that He never tires of my cries. That He gives me verses that tell me to wear Him out with my cries! I will ask Him to allow me to taste and see His goodness now in my life. To help me be rooted in His experiential love. This is the casting of all our anxieties upon Him because He cares for us (I Peter 5:7). As we “become anxious for nothing but pray about everything and make our requests known to God, He will grant us the peace of God, which is also beyond comprehension, and guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil: 4: 6-8).
- Wait, listen, worship
This is the hard part, at least for me. I have found it to take a lot of practice. But with practice I am getting better.
He promises to meet our needs, always! Just rarely in our time frame or way. The LORD is our Shepherd, we will not want.
- Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 7(4), 349-367. 10.1080/14616730500365928.
- The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/313183/the-body-keeps-the-score-by-bessel-van-der-kolk-md/
- Mindsight by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. https://www.drdansiegel.com/books/mindsight/
- The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. https://www.drdansiegel.com/books/the_whole_brain_child/
- ACES Study https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
- Wilson, S. L. (2001). Attachment Disorders: Review and Current Status. The Journal of Psychology, 135 (1), 37-51.