How to Stop Thinking Fearful Thoughts—and What to Think About Instead

So you’ve decided that, when it comes to fear running your life, enough is enough. Tomorrow morning, you’re starting a fear fast (see previous post for more on this). But you realize that, ironically enough, you’re scared of the thought of living fearlessly. And how is this fast supposed to work? After all, it’s one thing to say, “I’m abstaining from fear for seven days,” but it’s another to know what, exactly, you’re supposed to do when that first anxious thought starts plaguing you. Everyone knows that if you tell someone to not think about a hippo in a tutu, he or she is immediately going to think about a hippo in a tutu . . .

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All these concerns boil down to two key questions:
1: How do I train my mind to stop thinking fearful thoughts?
2:  What do I think about instead?

Let’s tackle Question #1 first: The best way to explain what to do when the anxious thoughts begin is to imagine turning your head away from a graphic scene and looking the other way.

For example, we’ve all been stuck in a miles-long traffic jam because of rubber-neckers who slow down to gawk at the scene of an accident. And we’ve all been that annoying rubber-necker because the impulse to look is so strong. You know you shouldn’t look; you know you’ll be a happier person for not looking—but everyone else does it, and surely it’s OK to just peek . . .

But that doesn’t work, does it? One brief glimpse, and you’re pulled in. You’ve seen too much, and you’ll be awake at 3:00 in the morning with unwanted images in your head.

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The pull of fear is at least as powerful as this. Driving past a gory accident without looking is difficult, and so is ignoring a fearful thought. Both are challenging, but both are possible. The next time an anxious thought swoops down on you, “turn the other way”—that is, turn your attention elsewhere. You can not give it even a moment’s consideration. I know that when I’m doing a typical food fast, if I give in to hunger and nibble on the corner of a cupcake, I’ll cave in and eat the whole thing (and then another one). The best thing I can do is to remember that that cupcake is off limits and walk away. Likewise, when you’re tempted during your fear fast, remember that you’ve consecrated yourself to God by giving up your “right” to engage in fear. Fear is not an option. It’s off limits.

Now, keep in mind that when you choose to avert your eyes from a car accident, it doesn’t cease to exist. As you drive by with your eyes fixed on the road in front of you, the wrecked cars and injured drivers are still there. Your refusal to acknowledge them doesn’t make them disappear. So it is with fear, especially in the beginning: when you refuse to let a fearful thought occupy your attention, you’ll sense that it’s still right there, just out of your “line of sight,” and it would swallow you whole if you gave it your attention for even a split second. There are times you’ll feel like the adolescent who stifles her brother’s taunts by covering her ears, squeezing her eyes shut, and yelling, “Lalalalalalala, I can’t hear you, lalalalala!” It’s OK. The moment will pass.

Question #2: What do I think about instead?
Answer: Whatever is right in front of you, i.e., the present experience.

The vast majority of fear is future-based. Peace, however, is always in the now. When anxiety looms, bring your attention to the task at hand, no matter what that is. If you’re having a conversation, attend to the other person and his or her words. If you’re working out, focus on your muscles and “the burn.” If you’re reading, involve yourself in the story. Come back to where you are. If you fully give yourself to your present circumstance, you won’t be able to give yourself to the fear.

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As you begin to discipline your thought life, you’ll better understand what Paul meant when he said, “We are demolishing arguments and ideas, every high-and-mighty philosophy that pits itself against the knowledge of the one true God. We are taking prisoners of every thought, every emotion, and subduing them into obedience to the Anointed One” (2 Cor. 10:5, Voice).

That’s all for now. More next week…

 

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