Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dealing with Fearful Thoughts

I had received one of those phone calls you never want to receive. “Peter, the school just rang,” said my wife. “Our daughter fell off the playground equipment and hurt her arm. She’s in sickbay, can you go and see if she is okay?”

I got permission to leave work and drove straight to school. When I got to sickbay, I grieved at the sight of my ten-year-old daughter lying on the sickbed, tear streaked face contorted in agony. She had fallen backwards from the top of the playgym and landed on her right wrist. Lifting the arm gently, I saw massive swelling just below the wrist.

I rang my wife and said, “Her arm’s broken, so I’ll take her to hospital.”

“No, Papa, no, I don’t want to go to hospital,” wailed my daughter as fearful images conjured by a mind plagued with pain flooded through her.

“It will be okay, the hospital will know exactly what to do to help your arm get better,” I assured her.

“Noooo,” she sobbed, her fears convincing her that the hospital would only cause more pain.

After the school’s office staff put her arm in a splint, it took some coaxing to get my daughter onto her feet. Then I put my arm around her and walked her towards the car park.

As soon as she was engaged in the activity of walking, as opposed to lying on the sickbed with nothing to do but focus on the pain in her arm and the fears of what would come next, she began to look and feel better. The colour returned to her face, she stopped crying, and she even managed to talk to her friends who followed us. By the time we reached my car, I even elicited some laughs from her.

And there lies an important lesson for those suffering from depression and anxiety. When fearful thoughts come flooding in, the worse thing we can do is to sit or lie down and examine, consider and debate those thoughts. Our mind, already fatigued, becomes even more sluggish, and the fears get blown further and further out of proportion. Adrenalin flows excessively, causing disturbing sensations to abound and we spiral ever downwards.

In contrast, we can see that constructive activity was the best thing my daughter could do.

On one occasion back in 1990, when I lay curled on my bed churning over the fears that haunted me, I somehow managed to fix my eyes upon Jesus and He said, “Come on Peter, you don't need to do this. Come with Me - I have lots of constructive things for us to do together.” So I got off the bed, sat at my desk and painted some models. As this distracted me from focusing upon the fearful thoughts, they began to lose their intensity and slowly faded into the background.

Now that I have recovered from depression, I find it much easier to fix my eyes upon Jesus when assaulted by fears. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Hebrews 12:2. I reflect on John 14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” And as I trust in Him I am able to shrug off those fears.

However, a mind exhausted by depression’s endless cycle of obsessive fearful thoughts loses its flexibility and resilience, and is therefore unable to shrug off fears or focus upon Jesus by choice alone. I know this because I tried with all of my strength and failed.

I became so exasperated by my inability to break free from those fearful thoughts that I said to my counsellor, “I can't stop thinking these obsessive fearful thoughts - I try and try, but I just can't stop!”

Her answer was to run me through a practical exercise that illustrated why force of will was insufficient to stop thinking fearful thoughts for someone who is depressed. I will now share that exercise below.

I would like to ask you, the reader, to do something right now - please think of an elephant. Picture it in your mind - think of its huge, floppy ears, that long curling trunk, those twin ivory tusks, the powerful legs.

Now stop thinking about the elephant.

You failed, yes? You are still thinking about the elephant.

Now let us try that again. Please think of an elephant. Picture it in your mind - think of its huge, floppy ears, that long curling trunk, those twin ivory tusks.

Now, please picture in your mind the cover of your favourite novel. What colour is the title text? What image is on the cover? Does this image accurately represent the story in the novel? Did the book’s cover influence your decision to read or buy the book? Should a book be judged by its cover?

Now, have you noticed that you are no longer thinking of an elephant?

When suffering from depression we cannot break out of the cycle of fearful thoughts by will power alone. However, by concentrating on a constructive activity we distract ourselves from focusing on them. The fears lose their intensity and slowly fade away.

Constructive activity could include going for a walk, jogging, washing the car, gardening, and especially hobbies. Activity weakens fear’s grip on our mind by giving us something else to focus on, and therefore brings relief.

It may be very hard at first to put steps like this into practice. There will be good days and bad days. We must not let the bad days discourage us. We need to be mindful that as we keep at it and rely upon Christ’s strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) and let time pass, while staying constructively busy, we will gradually improve. As we retrain our mind we will break the habit of focusing upon fearful thoughts, and will eventually be able to dismiss them with ease. We will be able to keep our eyes fixed firmly upon Jesus and trust in Him.


Some practical steps in dealing with fearful thoughts:

1. Recognise it is a fearful thought and remind ourselves that:
a. it is just a fearful thought
b. it has no real power and no significance
c. I do not even believe what it is saying!
d. I do not need to debate it, consider it, or listen to it.

2. Then while trusting in God and His Word, busy ourselves in a constructive activity, leaving the fearful thought at the back of our mind, like background music, where it will soon fade away.

3. If the fears clamour for our attention and we are secretly terrified of what they are insinuating, we need to remind ourselves that they are only a trick, a deception.

The Bible says, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” 1 Peter 5:8-9. Of special significance is that the Bible says Satan is only like a roaring lion – he relies upon trickery and deception.

The Bible also says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James 4:7. That is a great promise to stand upon.

Let us remember: For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear), but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of calm and well-balanced mind and discipline and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7 AMP

17 comments:

  1. Excellent, Peter, and so true. I have to admit I'd never thought of it this way, but I've lived it many times. You are doing a wonderful ministry here.

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  2. Thank you for this...been a terrible week for battling thoughts..this advice was so helpful...

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  3. Excellent as always Peter. I like the analogy of your daughter and her broken arm, and the elephant exercise was good too.

    The Father is certainly using you Peter, to help those suffering from the terrible affliction of depression. Thank you for listening and obeying Him.

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  4. Peter,

    Thank you so much for this post! It is so true. And a great illustration with the elephant!

    Our pastor had us watch a video in church this morning with a teaching that implied that we are all too caught up in all the problems we see in the world. We are fearful of what will happen, when what we ought to be doing is being in earnest prayer to God.

    If Christians were praying as they should, their focus would be on God, and He can do all things. He cannot be stopped. Why are we worried about demons? Or the enemy's plans? In reality, he is a defeated foe. He cannot win out over God. But the enemy uses deception and fear to cause us to forget that, in hopes that we will walk in defeat, instead of the victory that has already been won for us!

    Hmmmm... I think I know what my next post will be about...

    Blessings,
    Cheri

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  5. Peter, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. I am finding God-sent encouragement in your words and experiences, as I am a more recent sufferer of anxiety and depression. Using these strategies, I hope that my fears will gradually stop robbing me of sleep like they do. Praise God for his light, and ultimate victory over darkness.

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  6. Hi Tara,
    Thank you for your feedback. I pray that the Lord will help you to overcome anxiety and find relief from fearful thoughts. Also, if you see this comment, can you please pop me an email? There is something I would like to ask you about your insomnia. (I used to have very bad insomnia too.) You can find my email under "view my complete profile."

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  7. One thing I understand is for us to fix our eyes on Jesus and not on our pain, fear or any situation that would befall us.It takes faith and trust to our God almighty believing that he has everything all figured out. We can be rest assured with his Love and sovereignty

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  8. I really enjoyed this post Peter. I agree with Mike, that if we keep Jesus as our main focus in life, then our Holy God will see us through anything that comes up. Being God already knows what is going to happen in our life, all we need to do is trust Him to get us through. It may not be what we want, but it will be His will. God bless, Lloyd

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  9. Hi Lloyd,
    Thanks for dropping by. And I'm in full agreement there, that we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus all the time. Just like Peter who could walk on water while he looked at Jesus, but sank when he looked at the wind and waves. And the encouraging thing there is that Jesus reached out and caught him before he could drown.
    God bless.

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  10. Hello,
    I can't thank you all enough for the bold honesty on this website. I get trapped inside depression as well. The fearful negative thoughts can feel overwhelming. Some are just random curse words but they would make me feel like I was a bad person. It is so nice to see that I am not alone after all. I can finally see God at work here bringing this illness into the light. As we share we learn.

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  11. Thank you...I am so glad I stumbled upon this site.

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  12. Thank You so much for this blog. It's very powerful to me. I am 22 and I haven't read the whole Bible yet and here I can read some excerpts that explain me a lot. You save my life by these articles.

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  13. Dear Anonymous,
    You are most welcome, I am glad that this blog has been of help to you. May I also encourage you to read the Gospel of John in the Bible, as it gives us perhaps the closest picture of Jesus and His teachings.
    God bless
    Peter

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  14. So encouraging to read your site. Do these fearful thoughts ever disappear? I pray they will with time and prayer. Been thru depression before but seems like this time the fear/thoughts are crazy & different and usually occur before I get to sleep or right after i wake up. Sound familiar? But I know its not anything that God cannot take care for you or any of us. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Yes, the fearful thoughts can/will disappear over time. Though sometimes counseling may be necessary to rob them of their power, as they may be related to deep seated issues from our past, or wrong reactions, faulty theology, etc. Sometimes all it needs is to get a healthy person to give us their perspective on the things we fear, and then daily remind ourselves of their perspective until it sinks in. Have a look at this article:
      Getting a new perspective

      God bless
      Peter

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    2. Thank You Peter for your blog, I am 45 year old male , Love Jesus and my wife and with great kids. Own my own business make great money. Didn't stress laid back, never had mental problems 1and half years ago. I woke up with a panic attack, that put a fear in me . Cant sleep without Ambien, tried every antidepressant made me a zombie. I pray to god everyday. Now addicted to Ativan! I don't feel Jesus presents anymore? I get fearful thoughts and feel like I am going crazy. My body is very tired!! I need trust god!

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    3. Dear Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comment. Have you been able to speak with a Christian counselor or a psychologist to help deal with the anxieties that caused these panic attacks? Regarding the medication, have you spoken to the doctor about what dosage to take? If you feel you are taking too much, and the doctor agrees, getting off them can be achieved perhaps by at first halving the dosage each time, then halving it again, etc, until it is so low that you don't need it any longer. But of course, consult your doctor and follow their advice.

      May I also encourage you to read the booklet of this blog's articles in a logical sequence. That may help you to understand, cope with, and overcome anxiety and panic attacks. Free booklet on depression

      God bless
      Peter

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