Fathom Mag
Article

This Is Your Brain on Fear

Controlling emotions can end up controlling us.

Published on:
June 10, 2020
Read time:
4 min.
Share this article:

The coronavirus entered Italy in late February. The next two weeks consisted of tightening restrictions which culminated in the entire country entering what would be a near three-month lockdown. Those first two weeks felt like an eternity. Just as I convinced myself I could live with the current state of things, a new restriction would be instituted—always at 10 p.m.—to go into effect the very next day. I would have to go through all the stages of grief trying to resolve myself to it. 

The inward spiral of regulations and the days that followed the lockdown were, for me, the worst of the entire time we have been in quarantine. I was incredibly and uncontrollably irritable—which, I was pretty sure, was a lot of pent up anxiety pushing its way out.

When we treat negative emotions simply as sins from which to flee, we ignore the very purpose those emotions serve.

In my experience, Evangelicalism’s answer to the kind of anxiety and fear I was experiencing is simply, “Don’t be.” To be fair, scripture is full of commands not to be anxious, not to worry, not to be angry, and not to fear. But too often we try to obey by getting rid of those emotions as quickly as possible. We try to “take every [anxious] thought captive” and change it to something more positive immediately. Why we are afraid or anxious matters less to us than leaving the feeling behind. But when we treat negative emotions simply as sins from which to flee, we ignore the very purpose those emotions serve. 

Our Hyper-Alert Brains 

Our brains have been beautifully designed to keep us alive—a helpful feature in a fallen world. When our bodies receive information through the senses, the info packet goes immediately to the thalamus which judges its importance to our survival. If the thalamus thinks the info nugget is super important, it forwards it marked express to the amygdala, which then makes one of the only two judgments it is capable of: either “yes, safe, move toward it” or “nope, dangerous, move very far away.”

When the amygdala calls for a “nope” response and the particular info-nugget poses an imminent threat, it then “helpfully” turns off our cortex. That center where we reason, think logically, and solve problems takes a very long time to process information. Instead, the amygdala activates our fight-or-flight response system, sending blood away from our brains and into our arms and legs to get us ready to get out fast or put up a good fight.

Unfortunately, your amygdala can’t tell the difference between a physical threat and an existential one. And sometimes, if the threat is ongoing—like COVID-19—your amygdala can turn off your reasoning center and leave you on hyper-alert for weeks or months. Because after all, its job is to help you stay alive.

Emotions like fear are a form of common grace; they act like little red flags on top of landmines. They alert us to the presence of something important. When we ignore the flags or try to get rid of them as quickly as possible, we clear away much needed attention-grabbers and end up walking recklessly over our own emotional minefield. When we ignore or suppress our fear response and its accompanying emotions, we run the risk of either overreacting or underreacting to our circumstances. In a sincere effort to control emotions, we often end up avoiding them and thus being unconsciously controlled by them.

Our Hyper-Alert Hearts

Openness to emotions is an essential component of emotional health, and emotional health is an essential part of spiritual health. Only when we accept our emotions with curiosity about what sort of landmines lie beneath will we be able to make reasoned choices based on a more complete view of reality. However, we are often afraid to attend with curiosity to our own emotions because of what we dread we will find. 

When our inadequate systems of self-protection are exposed, we have two choices: we can either dig in our heels and commit ourselves to rebuilding the systems we have made, or we can admit the inadequacy of those systems and allow God whose lovingkindness leads us to repentance to melt the false selves we project.

My journey into overwhelming emotions didn’t start with COVID-19. It started years ago in my graduate program in counseling. At age twenty-one, I was caught completely by surprise as I experienced emotions I didn’t know I had. And, beneath those, wounds I hadn’t even realized I had suffered. As I started the slow work of digging painstakingly and carefully around my own red flags, I discovered that landmines take a lifetime to dismantle. But I also found that each landmine had been dropped on top of seeds—seeds of good desires that the Lord has given each of us and that we attempt to meet in broken ways. Desires for intimacy, meaning, and security drive us all, and when these things go missing in our lives, we will inevitably become experts at self-engineering landmines in our own life.

God began exposing the ways I had built myself up by making me dependent. When my husband and I moved to Italy, I left behind everything that gave my life meaning, without even a slight idea how I would be able to find joy in the tasks that lay ahead. I wasn’t wrong to be wary. The transition destroyed everything I thought I knew about myself. But I made the decision to come on this journey simply because I knew that following Jesus is dying to myself. If moving to Italy could allow all the false ways I made my own security, love, and affirmation to fall away, then moving to Italy could make me more like Jesus. I didn’t come to do great things. Which is good because I haven’t. I came to be made more like Jesus. 

COVID-19 has been earth-shattering because it has robbed us of the complex and genius systems we devise to make ourselves feel safe, loved, and worthy. It has left many of us feeling exposed not just to a physical threat, but to existential annihilation. Since God designed us to be able to function best only when we feel secure, loved, and worthy, experiencing a lack in any of these areas can be terrifying.

When our inadequate systems of self-protection are exposed, we have two choices: we can either dig in our heels and commit ourselves to rebuilding the systems we have made, or we can admit the inadequacy of those systems and allow God whose lovingkindness leads us to repentance to melt the false selves we project. As we tap into his compassion for us, we will be able to cultivate wonder about the dark corners of our souls, allowing them to be exposed to his light and rebuilt in his image.

Amy Morgan
Amy is a licensed counselor with PhD in Psychology and Counseling, and she has focused professionally on trauma. She and her husband Steve live in Europe with their emotionally needy Great Dane, Kat, and work with refugees. You can follow Amy on Twitter @acmorgan02 where she tweets mostly about trauma, spirituality, and emotional health.

Cover image by Alina Grubnyak.

Sign Up Today

You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.

Already a subscriber? Log in here

Next story