Healthwatch: Is it fear or anxiety?

By Dr. Michael Jacobson, D.O., M.P.H., CHM Medical Director

*Editor’s note: This information was published in the August 2022 issue of Heartfelt Magazine, CHM’s monthly magazine that provides CHM membership-related tips and tricks, medical advice from doctors, testimonies from CHM members, and more. Please refer to the CHM Guidelines and applicable web pages for the most up-to-date information regarding CHM membership, sharing eligibility, and ministry news.*

 

As you address nervousness in your life, it’s helpful to know what exactly you’re dealing with: anxiety or fear?

While mental health professionals recognize there’s considerable overlap, they point to important differences between the two. Anxiety is a persistent, vague uneasiness, not clearly linked to a known or defined threat. Fear relates to a known or understood threat. Fear can contribute to anxiety, and anxiety can trigger fear. In both cases, our physical response is framed by the mind’s perception of the danger.

 “I’m scared”

When any human being (or animal) notices danger, a fight-or-flight response is triggered. The body reacts without conscious thought, activating the autonomic nervous system and dumping adrenaline into the tissues and bloodstream. This produces symptoms such as fast heart and respiratory rates as well as muscle tightening.

This fight-or-flight response is essential for survival, as it alerts us to danger, warns us to take immediate action, and may either cause us to “freeze” or empower us to act. Stories abound of people doing superhuman feats fueled by an adrenaline surge. Though valuable, an alarm state can also be too much of a good thing.

Our bodies can’t distinguish between real or imagined threats. Threats trigger the autonomic nervous system regardless of whether there’s any genuine danger. This heightened sense of alarm can preserve life or limb in immediate danger, but a sustained state of alertness and the accompanying elevated stress hormone levels ultimately break down our defense mechanisms, causing a host of health problems. Our bodies weren’t designed to be on high alert all the time.

What the Bible says about anxiety and fear

From a biblical standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether the underlying problem is fear or anxiety. As Christians, we’re admonished not to cave to either. From the New Testament to the Old Testament, Scriptures command us to “fear not.” Further, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’… For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31, 32b).

This is the priceless secret to peace. A child finds their security in a parent they believe will protect them from harm. We too need to have that unquestioned confidence in a power greater than ourselves. With every threat, there must be the surety that God “has our back.”

But therein lies the trouble.

Many of us have had traumatic experiences causing deep wounds in our souls. We may hide these wounds below the ‘surface.’ But, when life throws us a curveball, our wound is triggered and can cause us to question whether the heavenly Father truly loves and watches over us. We’ll never run into the arms of someone we don’t trust. And, just like a child, when we don’t have One who is stronger than ourselves, we feel vulnerable and defenseless—fearful and anxious.

How to calm anxiety as a Christian

For years, I tried to overcome fears and anxiety by quoting Bible verses such as, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). What I came to realize is that if I never dealt with the underlying wounds, I couldn’t help but have the same fearful response to perceived threats.

That’s why it’s essential to address and resolve past hurts. In my experience, nearly everyone would benefit from counseling, therapy, or some of the modalities that I’ve written about to treat anxiety. Once healed, we’re able to benefit from the encouragement of the Scriptures in a much more tangible way.

Jesus said it bluntly. “These things I have spoken to you that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” We’ll all face serious threats in this life. It’s an undeniable and universal part of the human existence.

However, we have One who is greater than each of these difficulties. And God has promised that “He will not leave you nor forsake you” (Genesis 28:15b, Hebrews 13:5). “Peace I [Jesus] leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

Regardless of whether your problem is fear, anxiety, or both, seek Him for healing and wholeness. “And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

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