Imagine this. You are sitting in an easy chair enjoying a good book and a cup of hot chocolate. Something catches your eye and you see a huge black bear breaking through the glass door. He appears to be hungry and may be in the attack mode. What do you do?
You would, of course, jump from your chair and run for your life! If unable to do so, you might likely grab anything possible to fight for your life, knowing that you must subdue the animal before it injures, kills and devours you.
Such is recognized as the fight or flight response, a survival mechanism which, thanks to the autonomic nervous system, has the brain send an emergency message to the adrenal glands. It is then that adrenalin, a high-octane energy, bursts into the system to provide heroic levels of energy. Only then is one able to take flight or to fight for one’s life. It is only then are humans actually able to perform otherwise impossible tasks like lifting a car to free an injured person.
This fight or flight response, in my opinion, is a marvelous gift of God, a survival mechanism which operates for our protection completely apart from the cognitive process. We simply react without thinking and, in so doing, we survive.
Fortunately, most of us are not likely to be attacked by a bear. The very thought of such an attack generates fear. If we were to experience such an attack, there would be a very real threat to our safety and to our lives.
While modern life protects us from animal predators, we often experience fear just as if there were a real bear attacking us. Those “bears”, according to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, include among others the fear of corruption of government, terrorist attack, having insufficient funds for the future, restriction of firearms, death of a loved one, natural disasters, crime, one’s physical and cognitive limitations, illegal immigration, a partner cheating, growing old, being fired.
The human body responds to these fears just as if a bear is actually attacking. The brain sends a red alert message to the adrenal glands, high octane energy is immediately dumped into the blood stream, and the body prepares to fight or take flight to preserve one’s life. Yet we are unable to run from the possibility of a terrorist attack or to directly fight a corrupt government. Thus we often live in a perpetual state of fear, feeling tense, afraid and anxious, sometimes not even recognizing what is causing our fear. We sometimes live in a state of heightened arousal which results in anxiety and in panic attacks. These are often evidenced by physical symptoms, headaches, backaches, muscle cramps, digestive disorders, rashes, teeth grinding, changes in appetite, feeling excessively cold or sweating profusely. Psychological symptoms might include not only anxiety disorders and depression, but compulsive behaviors, mood swings, flaring tempers, crying spells, and problems with relationships.
Coping strategies include full spectrum light therapy, exercise, proper nutrition, sleep hygiene, positive thinking, healthy relationships, and the practice of spiritual disciplines (thank you, John Wesley!).
Sadly, we Christians sometimes seem to imply to each other that we will experience no fear whatsoever if we have enough faith, perhaps implying that our fears are evidence of a lack of faith.
Fear and faith are not polar opposites. To have faith means to choose to act in spite of one’s feelings of fear. Faith means acting in spite of!
In spite of my fears, because of my faith in Christ, I intend, like Paul, to say that “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11b). In today’s world of uncertainty, in spite of our fears, may it ever be so!