Moving Beyond the Fear of Fear

By March 4, 1933, the United States was deep into the worst depression it would ever know. Forty-eight of the fifty states had closed their banks.  Two million people were homeless.  A quarter of the workforce was unemployed.  Industrial production had declined by more than 50% from the three years before.  The nation had much to fear.  Up to the podium rose a man, crippled so badly by polio that for the rest of his political life, he would be physically supported by others as he spoke to the country.  It was the first Inauguration Day for the person who would later become the only four-term president this country would ever see.  Few knew him well, and even fewer had any idea just how he would change the fortunes of those listening to him.  Within minutes of his opening, he would deliver a line that became one of the most quoted presidential remarks ever. Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Most of us only know the middle piece. But its full unveiling speaks more deeply about what FDR was trying to say.  The line speaks to the kind of fear—that which is unreasonable and immobilizing—which leads to avoidance of what is needed to move forward.  Although FDR was not a psychologist, his proclamation echoed of the underpinnings of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which would eventually become one of the most well-researched modalities in treating anxiety and depression.  It isn’t that situations, like the Great Depression, shouldn’t evoke fear.  But when fear and anxiety become the guide, and avoidance and immobilization become the response, the negativity cycles into an intrapsychic tornado.

What is clear is that even in the worst of situations, whether a death of a loved one, natural disaster, or chronic illness, humans react very differently. Some never let go of the fear and hopelessness.  Others remain resilient despite deplorable situations.  Situations alone are a poor predictor of emotional well-being.  But what does predict a person’s emotional health is the way that an individual thinks about the circumstances that happen in their lives.  At times, cognitive distortions plague all of us.  By definition, cognitive distortions are irrational patterns of thinking.  When they are transient, people generally manage.  But when they are pervasive and unrelenting, it often leads people to feel depressed or anxious.  Distortions come in many different forms.  For example, catastrophizing is a distorted way of thinking in which even small inconveniences or mishaps are seen as huge disasters.  Filtering occurs when we focus only on the negative details while bypassing all the good things that may occur.  But no matter the type, all cognitive distortions are characterized by a rigid, negative outlook.  Left unchallenged, and not intentionally reframed into more positive thoughts, they can lead to a lifetime of dire consequences.

Unfortunately, many people often experience the holiday season in a fearful, distorted way. Instead of seeing it as a time of hopefulness and renewal, it is viewed with bitterness and derision.  Fear of uncomfortable encounters with family members or situations fraught with guilt about unresolved circumstances or loss lead many to retreat to the confines of their own internal tornado.  And although each person’s situation is unique, fear itself is not, nor are the solutions needed to stem the tide of fear.  In order to sustain true progress forward, we must embrace the four dimensions of our being—social, psychological, physical, and spiritual.  We must reach out to others in a transparent, unselfish way, and forgive when necessary.  We must challenge, and actively change the distorted thoughts that consume us.  We must look at fitness as an avenue for greater contentment, not an inconvenience to a comfortable life.  And we must learn to pray, fervently and frequently, and know when to let go.

One night a few years ago, I found myself stuck in the throngs of my own anxiety. And so I began to write a prayer that would later become part of a devotional entitled Forty Days of Hopeful Prayer. Simply entitled as Fear, it reads as follows:

There are days when the worry seems to dominate me

When I cannot see outside my head

My eyes reflect in those I know well

Although so much is left unsaid


I do not wish to fear the fear that seeps inside

Nor do I desire for the anxiety to take hold

But, as one perseveration seems to improve

Another one begins to unfold


Alas, I receive Your grace

And Your clarity rings through

I sense that with my worry

I am given an opportunity to do


For although the straight path seems more safe

And the unknown has much to fear

I sense that You are urging me

To come much more near


To the purpose You are asking of me

To the image You have created long ago

To the journey that lies in store

Of that of which I do not know


So here I stand at this moment now

If this be the case, I truly implore

That instead of only seeing what may go wrong

Let me see the possibilities in store

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