RELIGION: Fear is an interesting thing

Fear is an interesting thing ... if it can be called a "thing." A brief definition is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat. That unpleasant emotion can be mild to severe, from a concern to emotional paralysis.

Northwestern Medicine Clinical Psychologist Zachary Sikora, PsyD, says, "Fear is our survival response. Some people -- roller-coaster fans and horror movie buffs -- thrive on it, while other people avoid it."

Fear is experienced in our mind, but it triggers a strong physical reaction in our body. As soon as we recognize fear, our amygdala (small organ in the middle of our brain) goes to work. It alerts our nervous system, which sets our body's fear response into motion. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase. We start breathing faster. Even our blood flow changes -- blood flows away from our organs and into our limbs, making it easier for us to start throwing punches or run for our life.

As some parts of our brains are revving up, others are shutting down. When the amygdala senses fear, the cerebral cortex (area of the brain that governs reasoning and judgment) becomes impaired, which sometimes makes it difficult to make good decisions or think clearly.

The difference between fear and phobia is simple. Fears are common reactions to events or objects. But a fear becomes a phobia when it interferes with our ability to function and maintain a consistent quality of life. If we start taking extreme measures to avoid something (like water, spiders, crowds, etc.) we may have a phobia.

Properly understood, fear is a God-ordained response meant to help us be safe.

Some fears are instinctive. Some are learned. And some fear is imagined. We get scared because of what we imagine could happen. In fact, because our brains are so efficient, we begin to fear a range of stimuli that are not scary (conditioned fear) or not even present (anticipatory anxiety).

Think about this: The more scared you feel, the scarier things will seem. Through a process called potentiation, your fear response is amplified if you are already in a state of fear. When you are primed for fear, even harmless events seem scary. If you are watching a documentary about venomous spiders, a tickle on your neck caused by a loose thread in your sweater could make you jump out of your seat in terror.

Fear of being restricted, confined or trapped is commonly called claustrophobia. Humans are socially inclined and fear of being alone can be one of the biggest fears we experience. Fear of failure is common. It can easily hold people back from achieving many things that an individual can do if they overcome that fear.

Fear of loss is one of the most prominent and powerful fears which can hold individuals back in their personal and professional lives. People often respond with emotional outbursts of anger, which only makes things worse. Fear of losing a family member can be unbearable.

Fear not only clouds our thinking but also weakens the immune system. Prolonged exposure to fear can cause cardiovascular damage and gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

On the other hand, fear can hamper certain parts of your brain, such as the hippocampus, which can lead to long-term memory damage. Chronic fear also causes memory damage, which makes a person more anxious and fragile.

The opposite of fear is sound judgment and self-discipline, which is based on faith and trust in God. Scripture tells us more than 365 times not to fear. Philippians 4:6-7 encourages us, "Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Then you will experience God's peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus."

"Everything" includes obvious and hidden concerns. It includes fears that are easy to admit (like a child's illness or a lost job), those that are embarrassing to confess (like the fallout from a dumb mistake or consequence of a wrong choice) and those that we may not understand (like the cause of lost sleep or panic attacks). Whatever you feel, admit it to God.

Prayer involves honestly and openly speaking to God. It's easy to hear from God if we spend time communicating with Him. If you learn to trust God, you'll have a healthier and more peaceful life.