Had a conversation regarding fear and anxiety with someone yesterday. In light of that I am resurrecting a post I wrote from 2007 (with a few edits) regarding the physiology of fear. We often view fear as only a spiritual or faith problem. But for those who want to know what is going on in their bodies when they experience fear, consider the following:
(Those interested in other posts on anxiety can search that and related terms in the search box at the upper right hand of this blog)
Am teaching on anxiety, panic, and OCD tonight. Definition of anxiety: Responding to ambiguous stimuli (life situations) by reading them in the worst or most dangerous possible light. The Scriptures teach us that fear and worry are not good things. Time and time again God tells his people not to be afraid. We see that God wants us to see life through a different set of eyes, much as Elisha wanted his servant to see the army of angels instead of their enemies (2 Kings 6). But given the numerous encouragements to not give in to fear, we must admit it is a common struggle for every human being. Some struggle more than others.
What is going on with those whose lives are filled with worry and fear? Are they less spiritual? More sinful? It is easy to say, “buck up” to folks who are anxious–and entirely unhelpful to most. Logical challenges to fear (e.g., really, what is the chance you will die in a plane crash today?) may help some in the moment, but usually don’t get to the root of the matter. Jesus encourages fearful people by pointing them to see life from 40,000 feet. He doesn’t deny risk and suffering but encourages folks to keep their eyes on him. And with Peter, he reaches out to grab him even when he does start looking at the waves.
But what of the physiology of anxiety? What do we know and how does the christian counselor make use of the data?
- Fear responses are quickly learned and seemingly etched into the amygdala. One bad experience of food poisoning from a turkey sandwich at Applebees means my stomach tenses a little when I see deli turkey, even without remembering the food poisoning. Imagine what happens if you suffer repeated assaults or worse! The earlier the person is exposed to deep fears, the more likely they suffer from hyperarousal and startle responses.
- Neurotransmitters are involved which means you act first and think later. There’s little conscious cognitive processes involved until after anxiety is under way. Fear inducing stimuli lead to immediate neurotransmitter changes that then divert blood from organs to muscles. Tension builds, shallower, less effective breathing begins. Carbon Dioxide levels decrease in the blood stream which in turns creates pain, numbness, and a sense of danger. And so the cycle continues. During and after, we make attributions and so enhance the connections of the feared stimuli and our flight response. The higher the perception of pain, the greater fear/flight response. Despite medical advances, most of our medications either shut down the feed-back loop (beta blockers, anti-anxiety meds like xanax) or attempt to increase the available neurotransmitter serotonin associated with positive outlook.
- OCD, in particular, has some probable links to early exposure to viruses such as Strep and Flu. There is a higher incidence of OCD in people born during winter months and who live in colder climates. The link is not clear.
- PTSD patients have higher right hemisphere brain activity (than do non-PTSD individuals) when exposed to anxiety provoking stimuli. Further, it appears that trauma patients have greater difficulty coming back to “center” after a trigger. Likely the hypothalamus and other brain structures are overactive in the stress response and do not “cool” down quickly.
That’s just a few things we think we know about the physiology of fear. Now, what do we do with fear from a spiritual standpoint?
- Worship. Worship/meditation on other things takes our attention away from the fear stimulus. It forms habits and relationships as we repeat what we want to believe until we actually own it and believe it on its own merits.
- Fight. We do challenge our thinking as soon as we can. Yes, the fight/flight chemicals are coursing through our veins but we challenge just the same so we can break some of the connections and the ways we reinforce our fears. One other way we fight may seem a bit odd. We admit there are real things that are scary and overwhelming out there. We do not try to deny the reality of suffering (past or future) but admit it over and over. It is scary to die. I was assaulted in that alley. I am in pain and more may be coming. But, God is with me and it is good to call on him and ask him tough questions about his protection of me.
- Stay Present. Being present in the moment is essential to avoiding living in the fear of the past or the future. Some fear is indeed in the present but most are not. When I am able to focus or describe the now, I am less likely to be imagining a future feared event. “Right now I am sitting at my desk and looking at a picture of my children and enjoying the smiles on their faces. Right now I am getting ready for bed and working on a sudoku puzzle and noticing that I am getting tired.”
- Work. Building habits where I do not allow myself to run from the feared situations (where appropriate!). Moving myself closer to some of the feared scenarios in a slow and consistent manner. No, this is not flooding (where you are dumped in the pit of snakes because you have a phobia of snakes…). Allow the work to take the time to reorient the deep recesses of the brain. Don’t expect or look for immediate change!