Fear gripped the entire world in March when countries began to shut down to stay safe from Covid 19, a new and highly contagious virus. Sheltering in place (nice words for ‘stay home’) was mandated in most countries, requiring people to live isolated in their home or apartment. Change and flexibility was required of everyone. Many awakened each day confused, wondering what day it was as one day melted into another. Sunday became like every other day. Wearing masks and social distancing created fear of others. An emotional roller coaster of fear, worry, anxiety, and depression became rampant as freedoms began slipping away and fear gripped the world. The shutdown, expected to be a couple weeks turned into months! Worry about finances, delayed doctor or dentist visits, empty shelves at stores, irritation about masks and frequent sanitizing, boredom, to name just a few, left many feeling powerless and scared.
How do we face powerlessness? First, emotionally it’s important to realize we are not powerless. The Bible instructs us, “God has not given the spirit of fear but of love, of power and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). This promise is ours when we courageously name and surrender our fear. It’s not easy but necessary and possible! Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search For Meaning writes that while a prisoner at Auchwitz amidst great suffering and powerlessness, implemented the power of the mind by shifting his focus on love rather than hate and onto future events. As he, a psychiatrist, lay helplessly on the operating table without anesthesia, he began to envision himself giving a speech to a room of other psychiatrists one day in the future. He told the story at a group in Vienna years later!
God has endowed us with choice and at any moment we can shift our focus from worry and fear to gratefulness. That takes courage and awareness of this powerful coping mechanism. Philippians 4:6-9 lays out sound psychology giving us a prescription to shift our focus from worry and anxiety to ‘things that are true, lovely and good report – think on these things’. All our emotions are purposeful – some positive and some negative. It is not healthy to deny any of our emotions but to accept and THEN choose to shift the focus. . Gratitude is taught many times throughout the Bible and many academic studies and research today verifies the power to change our brain with the practice of meditation and gratitude. Studies show that by focusing on thankfulness we will improve our well being, sleep improves, we will live longer healthier lives, have more energy, and cope with difficulties better.
Here’s the good news! The brain can be re-wired and changed. Brain research has exploded in the past 10 years and we know that daily practice of gratitude is a powerful way to find peace and joy no matter what the circumstances. Much of the time we are unable to change circumstances, but we can change our thoughts, feelings and behaviors which makes all the difference in our mental and physical health. All of our emotions are important and purposeful. However, when we dwell on negative emotions of fear and worry, those emotions increase and our body produces the hormones of stress – fight or flight. These are the hormones of survival and wonderful when running from a tiger! They alert the body that there is danger signaling that action needs to be taken. However, after we have assessed the danger, action must be taken to shift our mental focus by asking ourself what are my choices? To get stuck in indecision paralyses us and fear and worry grows – ‘what we focus on expands and gets bigger’! This universal law of physics is taught over and over in the Bible. When we choose to shift our focus to positive emotions like gratitude, kindness, and love, our body begins to produce very different hormones, especially oxytocin, known as the love hormone.
Most of the world is focused on fear and as we listen to the news and read news reports with terrifying statistics, we grow even more fearful. Today we hope and pray for medical science and governments to discover new therapeutics and vaccines to rid the world of this virus. However, for each of us, we can experience peace that passeth understanding if we will practice gratitude, and discipline ourselves to quiet our mind and shift the focus.
Begin a daily practice of gratefulness. Some days are more difficult. Writing in a journal is a helpful practice. God tells us to ‘Be still and know that I AM God’. That is so hard when the hormones of fear rage throughout our body. It is hard but not impossible! The simple practice of gratitude is an amazing antidote to fear.