"Let us examine and probe our ways" (Lamentations 3:40).
Marjorie couldn't remember when her button problem started. At some indefinable time she began to have a fear of those shiny little fasteners holding her clothes together-particularly when they lay harmlessly in another person's hand. At first, the sight of a button in someone else's hand created just a slight sense of dread within Marjorie, but with time the feeling increased and her anxiety became more pronounced. Finally, anyone opening his palm and revealing a button would send Marjorie into a panic attack. While no good reason for the overwhelming fear seemed to exist, Marjorie had a phobia of buttons.
Mary Brown preferred to stay in the house. Often when sitting in a public place like church or a basketball game, Mary would be gripped by fear. She wanted to stand up and scream, "Somebody call an ambulance! I'm suffocating. Help me!" Mary's first attack occurred during her teenage years. As the years went by, her dread of crowds grew, and by the time she reached college she did everything she could to stay out of packed areas such as football games. On some occasions, she would break out in hot and cold flashes. Her heart would start to pound and Mary quickly felt dizzy. As her panic grew worse, she would shake. The world seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. Mary Brown’s entire life seemed to be shrinking to an intolerable size. Mary suffered from agoraphobia.
The origin of a phobia is often difficult to trace. Probably some situation or experience created a sense of urgency, and that's were the problem started. But many times a therapist cannot find the root cause. Phobias simply may feel as if they floated in through our bedroom window and grabbed us! Consequently, the source isn't the issue with this problem.
A Vast Array of "What-Ifs"
The director of Washington's Center of Behavioral Medicine called phobias "the malignant disease of the 'what-if's,' the exponential growth of imaginary disasters that can choke rational thought." And that's the problem! The capacity of a long-held dread to emerge from insignificance and grow so large it keeps us from thinking intelligently makes phobias difficult to face. The contamination of our rationality keeps us from enjoying life in a full and meaningful way.
You may be surprised to discover that people can develop compulsive fears of everything from darkness to dolls to dust. Some of the more common fears are of heights, cats, people, spiders, closed spaces, germs, darkness, flying, and mice. These phobias typically arise from a fear of physical danger or personal injury.
What is a Phobia?
Phobias are obsessive, compulsive, constant fears that remain one of the most powerful forces in the human psyche. Born out of the concern for self-protection, a phobia raises our apprehensions about survival to the ultimate level of self-preoccupation. Even though fulfillment of most of our phobias demands that we negate what logic tells us can't be denied, the fear still "feels" rational-even when we know it's irrational.
One of the strange dimensions of this fearful intrusion is that people with phobias already recognize the absurdity of their situation. While people who are paranoid believe there is a basis for their apprehensions, phobics know this isn't the case-but it doesn't make any difference. The obsessive fear continues. Even though it's irrational, the people with a phobia don't imagine they are afraid, they truly are afraid!
But wait! There's good news ahead.
While the origin of a phobia may be difficult to identify and the effects of the fear can prove overwhelming, phobias are one of the most curable emotional problems. A wide variety of therapeutic techniques can help phobics find relief.
What Can We Do?
You may be surprised to learn that early in the Bible is an important story about one of the first phobias noted in literature. Because this man's greatness remained so vast, we don't usually explore his emotional needs but he did have a significant problem.
Turn to Exodus 3, and you'll read the story of the Lord confronting Moses with the task of returning to Egypt to challenge the pharaoh. The earlier chapters reveal a picture of a normal, emotionally healthy man, but as this chapter opens we discover Moses had a phobia about speaking in public. All the classic symptoms are there. While Moses could act with considerable boldness, speaking brought him to his knees because of his phobic reaction.
This man of God had a mission paramount to Israel's future and ultimately the Lord's intentions for the entire world. Moses surely needed the miraculous gifts God gave him for the task. He could turn his rod into a snake or the waters of the Nile into blood. But God instructed Moses to use his brother, Aaron, as his spokesman. In other words, Moses was left to confront his psychological problem in much the same way we are! And that's what causes us to grow.
Reading between the lines, we can pick up some important clues from the story of Moses for how we can find help in dealing with phobias. Here are three specific ways you can start bringing change.
1. Recognize You're Not Alone-Moses had to recognize that he wasn't by himself up there on the mountain when God spoke through the burning bush. His first step was to recognize that God walked with him. At every moment of his life, the Creator of the universe stood by Moses-and if you are His, He stands beside you as well.
Feel like a freak in a normal world? It isn't true. The world is filled with millions of people struggling with exactly the same fears. Many people seek out support groups that allow them to talk about their fears with a larger framework of friends who share the same phobias. These friends can call each other when they feel their phobias gaining control. Such emotional support lifts strugglers to a new level of competency.
The most important discovery is that God has always been with you during this conflict. You need to call on Him to help you keep from thinking your all alone in a huge, unconcerned world.
2. Enlist Your Family-Understanding and bolstering from our family members makes a world of difference. You need to be honest and straightforward about your fear. Their help may be needed in getting you involved with professional care. More important, you need to be able to talk with someone close at hand about what you're feeling. Having the people you care about listen with openness and compassion can give you emotional strength to face your phobia.
3. Get Help-if you need insight, input, and direction to find your way out of the maze of your phobia, you can turn to a counseling professional with special skills in this area. No one should spend his life struggling with overwhelming fear and anxiety attacks. Visit newlife.com to learn about our New Life Weekend and the program offered for fear and anxiety. Remember, as terrible as phobias feel, they are the most curable of all emotional problems!
Ephesians 5:13 says, "Everything exposed by the light becomes visible." It's important for you to be wiling to allow God's light to shine on your life and make known those things hidden in darkness. Ephesians 5:14 goes on to provide a rallying cry for all who are stuck in fear:
"Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you."
So whatever is holding you back, whatever excuse has kept you dead in fear, rise and wake up to a world of people you want to help you experience the freedom that can be found when fear is resolved.
The above piece is an adaptation from the book Fear Less for Life, by Steve Arterburn, Paul Meier, and Robert L. Wise. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002.
Stephen Arterburn is the founder of New Life Clinics, the largest provider of Christian counseling and treatment in North America. As host of the daily New Life Live! radio program, he is heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at www.newlife.com. Steve is the lead speaker at The New Life Weekend, a conference with specialty programs for Marriage, Anger, Fear, Boundaries, Depression, Weight Loss, Abuse, and Forgiveness. Steve is also the creator of Women of Faith® Conferences and the author/coauthor of over fifty books, including Healing is a Choice, Lose it For Life, The God of Second Chances, Every Man's Battle, Avoiding Mr. Wrong, Reframe Your Life, and Midlife Manual for Men.