Fear has only one beneficial purpose—to protect us from impending danger and keep us safe and alive. However, fear is unfavourable and disadvantageous when it interrupts life with anxiety, loss of sleep, panic attacks, constant tension and eroding inner peace. That may be the reason philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Though fear will not magically disappear there are skilful ways to downsize it. Here are five spiritual pathways to disable and overcome fear.
1. cut back on news consumption
The advice of the apostle Paul is for us to fill our minds with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Sadly, many of us do the opposite, filling our minds with an excessive volume of news—which is a leading cause of fear. While being informed is useful, consuming news constantly can become an addiction which produces not only fear but anxiety, anger, division and intolerance. Novelist Rolf Dobelli says that news is “toxic to your body”, adding that “it constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation”. Not only does Dobelli advise against news consumption, but claims avoiding it reaps great benefits:
“I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.” Though cutting back altogether is impractical for most of us, reducing our intake is a good idea.
2. tap into spiritual wisdom
Spiritual warriors from the past also faced and overcame fear. Their experience and wisdom can provide great encouragement for you and I. Some examples include:
Thomas Merton: “I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Florence Nightingale: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”
Edith Stein: “Go forward bravely. Fear nothing. Trust in God—all will be well.”
Joan of Arc: “Lay all your cares about the future trustingly in God’s hands and let yourself be guided by the Lord just like a little child.”
Francis de Sales: “Do not fear what may happen tomorrow. The same loving Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
Mary MacKillop: “Courage, courage, trust in God who helps you in all things.”
3. practise mind management
Popular cultural wisdom asks, “Are you managing your mind or is your mind managing you?” How we think can either support or distort reality. This was something observed by British poet John Milton: “The mind is its own place and, in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” Evidence of the mind falsifying reality can be seen in an incident from a novice monk meditating alone in the forest as the sun was setting. All was peaceful until he heard the sound of an animal rustling nearby. He knew that most jungle animals were harmless, but he had also heard stories from villagers about large tigers, elephants and bears attacking humans. So, he began listening carefully to the approaching animal. By the sound, he determined it was a small creature. “Nothing to worry about,” he told himself as he resumed meditation. Soon, the animal moved closer and became louder. The young monk was becoming a little more concerned. He practised “mindful” listening and soon realised he had underestimated the size of the creature. “From the way I heard it move through the jungle underbrush, it sounded like a mid-sized animal,” he recalls. Still, nothing to worry about so, again, he resumed meditation. Then the animal drew closer and the noises became louder. “I could tell by the crunching of the leaves on the ground and the cracking of twigs of wood that this was a large animal, a very large one, and that it was coming right toward me.” He stopped meditation. His heart was pounding, and in a panic he reached for his torch to scan the jungle for the approaching tiger, elephant or bear. In the beam of his light, the terrifying creature was revealed—a tiny forest mouse.
Here’s the mind management lesson the monk discovered: “I learned that fear magnifies things. When you are frightened, the sound of a mouse resembles a man-eating tiger. Fear magnifies things. Think about how we let that happen routinely—a cat scratch could become rabies, a headache may be the sign of a brain tumour, a meeting with a supervisor means one’s being fired, and the list goes on.” That’s why practising strong mind management is vital for reducing fear.
4. challenge mental distortions
“One of the most life-changing realisations you can have is, ‘I don’t have to believe my thoughts,’” says author and psychologist Tara Brach. Her insight is a reminder to challenge mental distortions when they appear and thereby keep them from having a negative influence over us. We tend to be easily drawn toward thoughts that heighten fear, lower confidence, fuel anxiety and generally make us feel miserable. Therefore, it is critical that we challenge that type of thinking quickly. Peter Grinspoon, a physician and author, makes this observation: “A big part of dismantling our cognitive distortions is simply being aware of them and paying attention to how we are framing things to ourselves. Good mental habits are as important as good physical habits. If we frame things in a healthy, positive way, we almost certainly will experience less anxiety and isolation. This doesn’t mean that we ignore problems, challenges or feelings, just that we approach them with a can-do attitude instead of letting our thoughts and feelings amplify our anxiety.” Making such mental corrections is advised by both Jesus’ disciple Peter: “Get your minds ready for good use. Keep awake” (1 Peter 1:13, NLV) and the apostle Paul: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
5. connect to the God who cares
Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks these reassuring words: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will give you strength, and for sure I will help you. Yes, I will hold you up” (Isaiah 41:10). An earlier biblical verse contains the same reassurance: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Similarly, the apostle Paul advised: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6, 7).
Whenever fears emerge, pause to pray. Express yourself honestly and clearly offering a prayer like this: “Loving God, in moments of fear grant me courage; in moments of anxiety, peace; in moments of weakness, strength; in moments of uncertainty, confidence; in moments of confusion, clarity; in moments of frustration, patience and at all times a deep, abiding trust in your wisdom and love. Amen.”
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister and the author of several books about bereavement including Healing Grief and The Lord is My Shepherd: A Psalm For the Grieving.