Eric Scalise, Ph.D.
One can hardly turn on the news or see an Internet feed and not hear or read about the latest natural disaster, heartrending tragedy, untimely accident, senseless shooting, or act of violent terrorism. Indeed, the world seems filled with turmoil. Our nation is increasingly on edge, and thousands wake up every day wondering if the headlines will scream at us once again. Indeed, many live in a near constant state of hypervigilence and anxiety-fueled fear. Twenty-four hour information cycles keep the images and the graphic realities front and center. The consequences of trauma are usually far reaching. The emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual residue can be like an untreated wound that becomes infected… and infections have a way of spreading. They leave us tied up in knots, paralyzed by fear and held captive to its whims.
Sadly, children and young people are often the most impacted. According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, one out of every four children will experience at least one significant traumatic event before they reach the age of 16, with 15% of girls and 6% of boys developing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The DSM-5 (diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals) now includes a separate category for minors under the age of six. Based on the theory of Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD), this new classification was endorsed because the previous descriptors for PTSD were inadequate in addressing childhood traumatization. Children and adolescents who have experienced repetitive trauma suffer greater emotional and physiological dysregulation because there is a chronic over activation of certain neurobiological systems that produce stronger and more immediate reactions to emotional stimuli. The effects often linger far into adulthood. In fact, recent research suggests that complex trauma in younger children actually changes their neuro-psychological development, which in turn, can change learning patterns, behaviors, certain beliefs, cognition, self-identity, and the acquisition of important social skills.
There is a wide range of issues that can produce fearful responses. In the 2015 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, participants were asked to identify situations of which they were either “afraid” or “very afraid.” Here are some of the results:
- Terrorist Attacks 44%
- Bio-warfare 41%
- War 37%
- Pandemic 34%
- Nuclear Attack 34%
- Global Warming 31%
- Earthquakes 27%
- Floods 27%
- Hurricanes 27%
- Mass Shootings 16%
Fear is an emotion induced by perceived or real threats, which cause people to quickly pull far away from the source and engage in avoidance behaviors. It is a basic survival mechanism toward a specific stimulus, such as pain or danger. Fear typically leads to an urge to either confront the source or flee from it (also known as the fight or flight response), but in extreme cases (horror and terror), a freeze or paralysis response can occur.
In contrast, phobias are defined as persistent fears of an object or situation in which the person goes to great lengths in terms of avoidance behavior – typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, and often recognized as being irrational. They are a common form of anxiety disorder, and in the event the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the person will endure the situation or object with marked distress and significant interference in social, academic or occupational activities. Fear-based and phobic symptoms can range from mild feelings of apprehension and anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. Physical signs include difficulty breathing, a racing or pounding heart, chest pain/tightness, trembling/shaking, feeling dizzy/lightheaded, a churning stomach, hot/cold flashes, and profuse sweating. Emotional signs can include overwhelming anxiety, panic, an intense need to escape, the fear of losing control, as well as feeling detached, powerless, and that you are about to pass out or die.
So, where and how did fear originate? Once again, we have to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and fell into sin, their immediate reaction was to hide because they were afraid and ashamed (Gen. 3:9-10). Ever since the fall, whenever we are aware of our own “nakedness” – not in the literal sense, but when we fail or experience rejection – our natural tendency is to likewise hide in fear. No wonder the first words Jesus used with someone, especially post-resurrection, were usually, “Peace” or “Fear not.”
Here is my definition of fear: fear is the darkroom that develops all my negatives. Now if you are a millennial, you might be asking, “What’s a negative?” (I’m smiling). Fear is a dark place in the soul and mind of a person where negative things grow and reproduce. The only thing I know of that will stop a photograph from developing any further is light – that’s because light has the ability to penetrate and darkness cannot. Ephesians 5:13 indicates that everything exposed to the light becomes visible. If you’re a parent, you have probably been called into your child’s darkened room at night as they tell you about the “monster” under the bed or in the closet. Simply turning the light on reveals the truth and the fear dissipates.
The same is true for matters of the heart. God’s Word is a “lamp” to our feet and a “light” to our path (Ps. 119:105). As a matter of fact, there are 366 “Fear Nots” in the Bible. The Lord has graciously provided one for every day of the year and then threw in an extra for leap years! We need to face our fears – one step at a time – challenge negative thoughts, and allow God to bring things into the light. Only then can we move from fear knots to fear nots… in our marriages… in our families and homes… in the workplace… and in our daily walk of faith.
One of the most beloved titles for Christ is Prince of Peace. Prior to their own night of terror when Jesus was arrested in front of them and then crucified, He shared words of encouragement with His closest friends, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). We too can take great comfort in the very same promise, being confident we have been found in the company of overcomers.
Will there continue to be events on this side of eternity that come unexpectedly and with the intent to trouble and terrorize? The answer is, “Yes,” and it’s not an “If,” but a “When.” However, there is good news in this regard from God Himself: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… you are precious in My sight… you are honored and I love you” (Is. 43:1-4).
Eric Scalise, Ph.D., is the former Vice President for Professional Development with the American Association of Christian Counselors, as well as a current consultant and their Senior Editor. He is also the President of LIV Enterprises & Consulting, LLC, and a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with more than 36 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field. Specialty areas include professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, marriage and family issues, leadership development, addictions, and lay counselor training. He is an author, a national and international conference speaker, and frequently consults with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues.