This is the first of a mini series of posts about worry and fear…
I don’t know about you, but I have struggled with anxiety, worry and panic for a long long time. I have experienced anxiety attacks, been unable to leave my room at times, avoided all kinds of ‘scary’ things, and worn down my teeth in the night. Worry and fear can rob you of all kinds of joys. Yet so many of us live with it, year after year after year.
So I am very thankful for the excellent authors, Christian counsellors and the NHS CBT therapist which the Lord has brought into my life over the past year or so – who have helped me get started on the reorganisation of my thinking and behaviours; to begin to transform the way I engage with the world and my fears.
I really wanted to share some of what I’ve learned, so this is post number 1.
Worry is an issue of imagination
As a Christian it is easy to think that the answer is just “Stop worrying. Just trust God”, which is why it can be confusing when you are fairly certain you do trust God, but the worry still sticks.
Now, it may be true that we don’t trust God as much as we think we do, and we should always examine our hearts. But it may also be that we’ve forgotten that worry is an issue of imagination, and that worry happens when a good thing that God has given us isn’t functioning quite as it should. We may need to do a bit of re-wiring, in order to get to healthy functioning; so that our genuine trust in the Lord is able to infuse our thinking and living.
I think this is why when Jesus talks about not being worried, one of the things he does is to paint very visual pictures. He harnesses our imaginations.
Human beings are creatures of imagination… Our minds paint pictures when we read books and listen to music. Some of us can even write those books and songs! And each of us, have been given the ability to look into the future and imagine what it will be like. This is a beautiful gift from the Lord. The only problem is that for those of us who are skilled worriers, those ‘What if?’ imaginings are far too often horribly negative and scary. Somehow the world of beautiful possibility, that we believe the Lord is able to bring about, doesn’t get a look in.
When this part of us is functioning well, it makes sure we check the road for cars before we step out, and prevents us from scaling the wall at a zoo to give a lion a cuddle. But it also allows us to imagine the good things that might come from taking a risk. It is what allows the boy to ask the girl out, and it is what makes going into an interview possible. We imagine the possible reward, if we take the risk.
However, when this part of us starts to malfunction, and only one side of the conversation happens, we only imagine horrible futures. We can become paralysed and unable to do anything except the very familiar. Even though, paradoxically, we may still believe that the Lord is working for our good.
It is helpful to remember that our mind does this because it thinks it is being helpful. It thinks that if we can imagine the bad things, we’ll be safer. And so the imagination machine of a worrier’s mind comes up with a hundred terrible things that could happen, and convinces us that they are almost certain. All to keep us – the worrier – safe. And it does this all so rapidly, that it does not give the person space to evaluate the result of those ‘what ifs’ before the fear response is triggered.
Here’s an example…
Imagine that a chronic worrier has been asked to give a presentation on a project they are doing. The inner imagination machine jumps into gear, and generates an inner monologue that goes something like this –
“I have to give a presentation! But what if I make a complete fool of myself? – No…I don’t want to think about that!”
“But what if I do make a complete fool of myself!? …What if I panic, and go bright red? Or I can’t get any of my words out? – No I don’t think about that either!”
“But what if someone asks me a question that I can’t answer, or I make a mess of my answer? Or what if the technology fails? Or what if I forget my notes? Or get them all mixed up?” – Aaargghh.
At this point the worrier gets flooded with overwhelming images and accompanying rising fear and panic.
In these scenarios we often engage in one of the three Fs – Fight, Flight or Freeze. And if none of those seem feasible, then panic sets in. – Maybe I want to run away and avoid the presentation, but I have to do it. I can’t face the thought of all those scary scenarios, so emotionally things begin to fall apart.
There must be a better way!
How about intentionally adding something new to the conversation?
Here’s a ‘what if’ question for you. What if we add two voices to this conversation, right from the start? – The neutral factual voice, and the super optimistic voice. Imagine they are your inner Spock and your inner Olaf.
Here’s what they bring to the party –
Spock’s neutral voice simply presents the “What ifs” of our worries as possible outcomes – “It is possible that this presentation may not go well, and it is possible that I may get flustered” – and calmly repeats them.
In this way, rather than freaking out at a “What if” and trying to bury the scary question, we allow ourselves to calmly imagine this possible future, and get used to the scary thing. It allows me to try on the possible for size, without the addition of the terrifying “what if”. It’s not about scrabbling to stop the “what if”, and triggering the three F’s. Instead it is about sitting in the scenario and getting used to it.
It will seem seem scary, particularly at first! But maybe not quite as much as when I was asking myself “What if?”. I repeat the exercise, as many times as I need. And as I do so my mind gets used to it. It’s a bit like having claustrophobia, but choosing to go into a lift multiple times to get used to it. And as Christians we begin to remember that even if those things were happening to us right now, we’d be there with God.
Olaf’s super optimistic voice, asks some very different “What if” questions.
“What if this presentation goes so well that everyone is genuinely really impressed?”
“Or what if you meet someone at the presentation who can really help you with your project in the future?”
“What if this presentation is the step in the right direction to becoming an awesome public speaker?”
“Or what if you’re already an awesome public speaker, but you just haven’t realised it yet?”
We choose not to evaluate how likely these are – a worrier will likely dismiss them all. Instead we allow these possibilities into the conversation and allow the imagination to paint an entirely different future – in just as vivid detail as the first set of ‘What if’s. These begin to kick start our ability to take a risk. And as a Christian this is where we can begin to paint the picture of what the Lord might do –
“What if the Lord wants to grow you through doing this presentation?”
“Or what if the Lord wants to use your presentation in the lives of the people listening to it?”
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20)
Our inner landscape begins to be filled with the possibilities of what our God might do in us and through us, and optimism starts to become possible. The fear of missing out overwhelms our fear of the situation itself. Risk becomes possible.
On that note, I need to go and do something scary…