COVID-19: Managing Fear and Finding Rest in Uncertain Days

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The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has rapidly changed our daily lives, and for many of us, it stirs up fear. Kerry Williamson, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S, CST, shares about fear and the brain and offers a biblical understanding of finding release from the cycle of worry and embracing abundant life in the present moment.

Who would ever have thought that we’d be standing in line in front of H-E-B, hoping some toilet paper and bread would be left? We are all living in the unexpected, aren’t we? COVID-19 has introduced many things into our lives, but the one thing that seems to be universal is fear and its subcategories of worry and anxiety. As we move through this crisis together, a skill that can help us to become more resilient is learning to understand and to manage fear well.
 
I want you to know that not all fear is hurtful to us. In fact, God gave us a special part of the brain that manages our fear…and without it, we would be dead. Imagine what would happen if you had no way to determine if something was a threat to you. What would happen if there was nothing keeping you from reaching for a coiled snake or reaching for the beautiful flames of a fire? How would you know whether or not something was dangerous? The amygdala is that special part of the brain that keeps us safe. From birth, it has worked with other parts of the brain to customize our alert system based on what we have experienced, what we have been exposed to, and what we have been told. Often, it accurately sounds the alarm and warns us to avoid emotional and physical harm.
 
However, because of its limitations, the amygdala can sometimes warn us of a threat that is not really a threat. For example, I know rationally that by and large, dogs will not bite me. But because of a traumatic event that happened to me as a young child, when I was bit by a German Shepherd, my amygdala often warns me LOUD and CLEAR that they will, so that it feels like TRUTH! In these instances, my amygdala is working hard to keep me safe, according to a threat it recognizes from the past, and yet it’s actually getting in my way.
 
There are some very real threats to prepare for with COVID-19, yet some of what is triggered in our brains right now may be unhelpful and even counter-productive. We may be experiencing feelings that seem to reflect truth, but don't. We may have had to face hard places in our lives before that are resurfacing now as the anxiety of today stirs the memories of yesterday, activating old pain and old fear. Our freezers and pantries may be full, or full enough, and door knobs wiped down again, but still, there is a gnawing sense of anxiety about what is to come.

Photo Credit: Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist.

So, what is your amygdala telling you these days? How are you doing? Take some moments to check in with yourself. Fear is a future-based emotion, and our worry and anxiety is often based on painful experiences from the past. I know this is not the first time the unexpected has happened to you. What do you tend to do when you realize you can't control what is happening in your life? If you’re feeling trapped by the “truths” your amygdala offers you, what can you do?
 
One of my favorite verses speaks to the chaos that some of us may feel inside. John 10:10 says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly." In this verse, Jesus is speaking and He is explaining the difference between Himself and Satan.
 
You see, Satan loves to take life from people. He robs. He kills. He destroys. He does this by pulling people into a circular pattern of focusing on the past, then focusing on the future, then back to the past, then back to the future… round and round it goes. He tells us that we can control the future and avoid the things from the past that we don't want to experience again. This can begin a cycle of wasting energy, of spinning, thinking, and rethinking, studying all the possible "what if's" and trying desperately to avoid them all, determined not to be hurt again. The inner narrative can be a lot like those amygdala’s “truths” that aren’t true at all: ”If something unwanted happens, it’s your fault! You should have planned better, seen it coming, and been more careful.” This exhausting pattern may feel like a carnival ride that we can’t get off of. Satan has us hooked into a cycle that seems to be for our good, but it is actually taking life away from us as we study the past in order to control the future. There is no rest. There is always more to consider and more to plan for. The worst part is, there is no need for faith, because in this pattern, you are your own security, and you are the one who you count on. You have slowly moved away from the One you used to say was your security and rest. Now, you don't trust Him either. What a mess. Thank goodness there is more to this verse! Jesus steps in and invites us to stop this sickening, nauseating ride that is eroding our life. He says there is more.
 
Maybe, this unique time in all of our lives has pressed pause for you. Would you reflect on Jesus' words, "…I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly." Doesn't that sound better? Aren't you tired?
 
Faith does not equal control. It equals surrender. Faith says that I can rest not knowing what tomorrow will bring, because I am trusting in the One who not only knows tomorrow, but also loves me personally. This posture of surrender and faith is that of a child who trusts their parent in the face of something frightening, after hearing their words: “I know you don't understand this, but I do and I will be with you."
 
Peace and rest are not dependent on avoiding the unwanted or understanding difficult times. Instead, they come with relationship with the One who created peace and rest. They were His idea and His invitation…"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). This stillness is what Jesus is stating in John 10:10. We don't find life or abundant life from striving. Yes, we are to work hard. Yes, we are to be wise and seek understanding. Yes, we are to have a vision and plan for the future. But, all of these can easily become more about us and less about Him. Abundant life is grounded in Christ and happens in the present. Abundant life does not mean that we are free of difficulty and pain. Instead, we are living abundantly when our faith is active in this moment. Abundant life is surrender. It is trust. It is patience. It is confession. It is generosity. It is kindness. It is prayer. It is now. You may have had abundant life in the past and you may have more in the future, but abundant life is now and it is for you.
 
So let me encourage you, aside from preparing for the upcoming days with an adequate food supply and cleanliness, to prepare for this season by taking some time to reflect. What are some familiar fears from past experiences that may be stirring right now? What are some patterns of control that may be creeping into your "new normal," creating tension with those who are now uncomfortably close to you on a daily basis? What are some ways your fight or flight response needs to be monitored and managed in order to protect yourself, and those you love, from unnecessary stress and anxiety? What do you need to release to the Father in order to walk in faith and receive His rest? Rather than react instinctively to the messages your amygdala is telling you, I hope you can monitor and manage your fear response. And as we weather the days ahead together, no matter what they bring, I hope you can embrace surrender and deeper trust in God and receive the gift He freely offers you: abundant life.
Kerry is the founder and director of Abundant Life Counseling Services. He works with individuals on a wide range of issues, but specializes in marriage counseling, sex therapy, counseling for sexual addiction, affair recovery counseling, and counseling for same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Kerry counsels clients from our North Austin location. For more information about Kerry's practice, or to schedule an appointment with Kerry, call us today!

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