Since the beginning of 2020, a wave of fear has swept across our nation and world as we have wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, in the United States, a summer of turmoil regarding racial issues has added another layer of fear, anxiety, and frustration for many. Mix in the uncertainty of academic and social structures available to our children and that leaves many moms and dads fearful of what lies ahead for their families.
Fear can be a useful emotion. Fear protects us from potential harm. Fear mobilizes our bodies to take action in a threatening situation. However, excessive fear or fear of things that do not pose an imminent or realistic threat can be harmful. Unnecessary fear restricts our freedom as we isolate or avoid situations that are potentially beneficial. Fear and anxiety, especially over long periods of time, can be debilitating and can lead to serious depression.
Fear can originate in a person in two ways:
1. Innately, biochemically
2. As a learned response
Neuroscientists have identified a brain structure called the amygdala, which is deep in our brains, and which is primarily responsible for a fear response. When the amygdala is overstimulated, it tends to produce a flood of brain chemicals which cause an exaggerated fear response. This sets off a series of physiological responses that produce the fight or flight reactions: pupils dilate, heart rate accelerates, blood pressure goes up, and palms sweat. Too much of this is destructive over time and leads to long-term health problems — notably anxiety and depression.
What may come as a surprise is science tells us that one of the best antidotes to fear is gratitude. Gratitude is the quality of being thankful where we recognize God’s blessings in our lives and are grateful for them. As we are intentional about identifying the bright spots in our lives, fear diminishes, and the amygdala actually shrinks in size. The acts of expressing appreciation to others and returning kindnesses actually pays dividends in reducing fear and anxiety and improving our mental health.
In our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, we often say prayers of gratitude for God’s blessing in our lives and especially for his calm, steady shepherding in these very challenging times. We pray to the Holy Spirit for courage to overcome fear so that we can live our lives with fullness and the reassurance that Christ will be by our side, especially during these difficult times.
So, try your best to show gratitude to God and others. Think about your blessings. Respond in kindness. With each moment of gratitude, any feeling of stress or fear will more than likely fade away.
Dr. Bill Moredock is a clinical psychologist and is principal at Little Flower Catholic School in Springfield.