How Phobia Has Made Me Think About Fear

Thankful for this one from Joey Jekel. But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I […]

Guest Contributor / 9.25.19

Thankful for this one from Joey Jekel.

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:8-10

Around my sixteenth birthday, I was diagnosed with two mental disorders. I may not have received a verbal affirmation of my diagnoses from my psychiatrist, but it has become clear that I have specific phobia anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Both of these remain centered around an irrational fear of vomiting, which translates into fears concerning general illness, germs, food preparation, human contact—the list could go on. After doing some research, one could more specifically diagnose me with emetophobia, the irrational fear of vomiting.

I performed, and sometimes still perform, liturgies that stem from, and I think perpetuate, my clinical anxiety disorders. I wash my hands constantly; it’s not just excessive but compulsive. Several times it has been so bad that my hands have started to crack and bleed, or have even begun peeling like a molting snake.

I often feel overwhelmed by all the things and all the people I’m trying to keep myself from in order to prevent myself from contracting any illness. This means that I often withdraw, usually into absolute solitude, as I brood in my own circular thoughts, entertaining fears and distracting myself from them at the same time.

I also have a tic that, if I’m particularly anxious, I will scratch my sternum until I’ve eroded what few hairs are there in the first place. This tic, and my other habits, are ways that I have coped with fear. They are ways I have attempted to maintain control over something that makes me feel so utterly helpless.

As someone with a phobic disorder—an ‘expert’ on fear, if you will—I want to consider the human function of fear, and how it often turns into a twisted vocation. A small instance of fear turns into a life of it. I mainly want to focus my attention on how human beings learn the habit of fear.

Before I continue, it’s necessary that I differentiate between clinical mental disorders and fear. First, I do think that our habits and practices form us in significant ways, and certain habits might induce the onset of a clinical mental condition. However, habits are not the only factor in mental disorders and their causes. In addition, habits and practices may have little to do with why someone develops or possesses a mental disorder. Therefore, my thoughts on fear are just that— thoughts on fear. They are not thoughts on mental disorders and clinical anxiety. I talk about mental disorders because my own conditions give me unique insights into the topic of fear.

It seems clear that fear, in one way or another, is a learned function of the human condition. Of course, certain aspects of fear are latent within us from birth. For example, perhaps I fear vomiting because I fear illness and death, and my desire to survive is innate. This assuredly remains part of the equation. However, it has proved true that survival is far from the heart of my fear. What I really fear is not being in control of what happens to me, and this is a developed fear.

Marilynne Robinson discusses the topic of fear in an essay from her collection, The Givenness of Things. While her essay deals specifically with the topic of gun control, I think what she says relates here: “Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on the one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.” How have these natural fears formed into lives of irrational fear? How have I gotten to this point of “fear[ing] indiscriminately” and “seeing threat everywhere”?

I have gotten to this point of living in fear by learning the habit of it. I have learned this habit from the culture around me, from my own flawed view of the world, and from my repertoire of unhealthy habits and practices. I think Robinson is correct when she speaks of fear in this way: “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.” This second sentence has been my anxious refrain for the past eight years, and it’s been America’s for longer.

From the large-scale fear of global terrorism to the small-scale fear of looking bad in front of others, the people around us and the institutions of our country and age are telling us indirectly that we need to live from fear.

Not only does our culture influence us and how we have come to live in fear, but who we are and what we think and believe can form us in fearful ways. In his book Finding Quiet, J. P. Moreland quotes two neuroscientists: “What you allow to occupy your mind will sooner or later determine your feelings, your speech and your actions. Thoughts … have a real impact on how you feel and behave.”

Let’s say that I lose my job. If I am an agnostic, I will feel differently than if I were someone who believes in a real, good, loving, and just God. What you believe truly affects the way you encounter the world you live in, the people around you, and your circumstances.

If you believe the world has no order, that there’s no God, and that everything ‘just happens,’ it would make sense that you would naturally live in fear more often than not. If you believe that God is loving and just and good, you have much more reason to abstain from a life of fear. What you believe dictates how you fear.

Your thoughts and beliefs dictate the ways you feel fear. In addition, what you do, especially what you do again and again, guides who you are and how you feel. Moreland also speaks to this aspect of fear and habitual learning:

In some ways, anxiety is a learned habit that, through repeated flesh-forming activities (e.g. engaging in “what if?” thinking about the future and exaggerating what might happen if the “what if?” actually happens), forms grooves in the brain, heart muscle, and nervous system that trigger uncontrollable anxiety.

While there are scientific studies on this phenomenon, it seems sufficient to consider my experience to better understand how habits have formed me into fear. Maybe it’s like that for others as well.

Above, I mentioned some obsessive liturgies I inhabit. In addition to these, I also find myself holding my breath while crossing paths with people. My fear is that if I breathe in the same air, then I may catch any sicknesses they have or had. And since I pass by so many people each day, I had better hold my breath because who knows how many people they’ve been around.

Now, this isn’t just some isolated obsessive liturgy. This is a habit that is teaching me to continue in fear. This is a practice that is training me to try and control everything and everyone around me. So, at least from an experiential point of view, this idea of habits forming humans into lives of fear makes sense to what I have experienced.

So our culture, our beliefs, and our habits are training us into lives of fear. If I don’t want to live in fear—if I know I’m not intended to live in fear of the things of this world—what am I to do? In a certain sense, maybe there’s nothing that I can do and nothing I should do. Maybe there’s someone who’s actions have already done the work to free me from my fears. Someone who has given everything, even himself, in order to free me from fear and into love. Or, at the very least, maybe there’s someone who has brought his love into my fears.

I think the only thing someone who is addicted to fear needs to ‘do’ is surrender their fear to the love of Christ. Admit your fear to him and know he has already dealt with that fear, even if you continue to experience it. Know that God is in the business of redeeming your earthly fears into the holy fear of the LORD.