Can fear be good for you?


By Kathy Berken

Can fear be good for you? In the moment, yes. But in the long run, no. We all know the Scripture admonition to “Fear not!” and the oft-quoted line from President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In these complicated and fear-inducing times (think pandemic, war in Ukraine, climate change, crime and politics, for example) many of us live with increasing anxiety, not just for ourselves, but for our families, neighbors and the world. The fear we feel when we think about these things often feels debilitating and keeps us from doing and thinking about the myriad other things in our lives that need tending.

Then how can fear be a good thing? According to North­western University’s Memorial Healthcare site, fear releases stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, increasing blood pressure and heart rate, causing rapid breathing and blood flow changes. What’s good is that “blood actually flows away from your heart and into your limbs, making it easier for you to start throwing punches or run for your life. Your body is preparing for fight-or-flight.” In that sense, the fear response can keep you safe, physically motivating you to act. Think about the Ukrainian citizens who are taking up arms to defend themselves against the invading Russian army or the people who are taking measures to keep the coronavirus at bay.


However, sustained levels of cortisol and adrenaline can seriously damage the body. According to the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, living under constant threat negatively affects our physical health, our memory, brain processing and reactivity, and our mental health. “Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, and decreased fertility.  It can lead to accelerated aging and even premature death,” the center states.

So, what can we do to respect the fear that causes us to act and be safe and, at the same time, prevent our bodies from long-term negative consequences? First, put things into perspective. Fear is often the result of imagining the worst about a situation, when the reality might not be so bad. Second, take charge. Do what you can to lessen the threat, which is empowering and reduces much of the uncertainty. Third, do something physical to lessen the body’s response.

Trauma resolution therapy explains that when an animal is threatened, it will automatically start shaking to send the body into a mode to reduce levels of the fear-inducing hormones, Dr. Peter Levin says. He suggests we do the same. Immediately start jumping up and down, shake your body, run around and shout. I’ve done this when I found myself suddenly afraid and it helps! You are literally “shaking it off.” Fourth, meditate or engage in centering prayer daily for 20 minutes. Harvard Medical School’s findings show that “. . . there are a handful of key areas — including depression, chronic pain, and anxiety — in which well-designed, well-run studies have shown benefits for patients engaging in a mindfulness meditation program, with effects similar to other existing treatments.”

When the angels of Scripture tell us to “Fear not!” they are reminding us that — except at times we need to stay safe — sustained fear is not a path to God. So, when you encounter fearmongers who tell you how much you need to be afraid, remind yourself that God is in charge and that the path to living in peacefulness is one of trust that God has already given us what we need to walk confidently with faith through the mud, the fire and the danger.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23: 4).

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)

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