One of my sons has been having “scary thoughts.” After the boys are in bed, Jamie and I turn on the TV and find something funny to watch. We hear the heavy footsteps on the stairs before he sheepishly comes in and tells us he can’t sleep. It’s not a stalling technique. He has an intense imagination and struggles with his mind and his fears.
So I have been thinking about fear and courage, and I’m watching and listening for advice on how to talk about it with my son. “Mind over matter” does not work for him. We talk about learning to change the channel in your mind, and how it is a life skill he is going to have to learn as he gets older. Although if I’m honest, when I wake up at night, fear is the first thing to creep into my thoughts, and “changing the channel” doesn’t always work for grownups either.
I read an article in The Atlantic today called “Love is Medicine for Fear” by Arthur Brooks. Brooks writes a bi-weekly column for the Atlantic called How to Build a Life. According to his bio, he is a Harvard professor, PhD social scientist, and bestselling author, who specializes in using the highest levels of science and philosophy to provide people with actionable strategies to live their best lives. He says the way to combat fear within ourselves is with its opposite emotion – which is not calmness or even courage. It’s love.
I am fascinated that something I know to be true from my own experience (that love counteracts fear) was chosen by a secular scientist as a self-help topic on How to Build a Life in The Atlantic. It turns out, science says the same thing the Bible does: Love can be an antidote for fear. I have an idea about why this is true in my own life, but first – the science, according to Brooks:
Fear is processed in the part of the brain that detects threats and signals the body to produce stress hormones that make us ready for fight or flight (adrenaline and cortisol). Conversely, there is another hormone called oxytocin which is produced in the brain when we make eye contact, touch, hug or hold hands with someone we love. Oxytocin has been found to reduce fear by slowing the fight or flight stress response. So, Brooks says,
“If you have loving contact with others, the outside world will seem less scary and threatening to you. What Saint John the Apostle asserted is literally true: Perfect love drives out fear.”
A lack of oxytocin is one cited reason for the increase in depression and fear during this pandemic, due to social distancing. Brooks suggests four actions for using love as an antidote for fear:
- Confess your fear to someone you trust.
- Make your love overt by telling someone you love her or him.
- Take a risk by confessing love or admiration for someone who doesn’t know you have those feelings.
- Love your enemies.
Are you struck by these simple suggestions? He is talking about using loving feelings to cause a chemical reaction in our brain. He calls them counter-cultural, but we know why they “work.” It makes sense that if we are created in the image of a loving God, we will feel most whole when we are showing sacrificial love.
The author’s first suggestion, confession, is the only inwardly-focused way to produce this chemical. If I look inward, what am I afraid of when I lay awake at night?
- I’m afraid of someone in my house getting COVID before Friday when we leave on a hiking trip out west.
- I’m afraid of the changes in my industry and how that will affect my work.
- I’m afraid of losing my job.
- I’m afraid of the affects of this pandemic on my kids and their education and friendships. And my friendships.
- I’m afraid of bigger things too, that I don’t want to write here.
I confess these fears in writing and to God, and I pray about what is behind my fears; so many of them boil down to loss of control, health, wealth, reputation, and influence. Looking at the emotions and drivers behind my fears – in the presence of a loving God – brings a sense of clarity and wholeness. In the science of embodied cognition, there is evidence that physically writing down or confessing fears causes our bodies to react as though we have physically let something go. (For more on embodied cognition, see Thalma Lobel’s book “Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence”).
The remaining three suggestions in the Atlantic article are all outwardly focused; expressing love to others in a courageous and sacrificial way. If I wake up at night and fear creeps in, there is one thing that almost always helps my mind to calm down so I can go back to sleep. It is something that my Grandma used to do. I start praying for my extended family one by one, oldest to youngest. Sometimes I make it through all my 40 cousins and their families, but usually I fall asleep. Forcing my mind away from myself and towards other people in a loving way seems to be “medicine for fear.”
I can turn my mind away from myself, because God’s mind is always on me. He is not indifferent to our fear.
“Your pain, grief, hesitancy, confusion, and frustration…well, they’re seen. Your cries are heard. Your questions are valid. We have a God who refuses to watch from a distance. We have a God who came down to be with us, who walked the dusty roads of earth with us who experiences the pain of life with us and felt the sting of death for us. But remember, God also shows the light to us, raises the dead in us, heals the broken in us, brings the life.”Emily P. Freeman, author “The Next Right Thing”
The fears of a boy in elementary school are different from the fears of a grown-up like me. But this formula for treating the condition is similar. How can I help him take the focus off himself and toward others in love?
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and of a sound mind.”
II Timothy 1:7