Stop Calling it “Stress.” It’s Fear. And it Won’t be “Managed.”

Job, marriage, kids, money, image, things.

We worry. A lot. Too much.

Sometime around the industrial revolution, we coined a term for our worry. We downgraded it to “stress,” and began to treat it like something you can manage, something that can be controlled. And when we failed to call it what it really is, it became a permanent part of our culture, and our day-to-day lives.

We should have called it fear.

“Stress” has the same effect as fear – adrenaline, the “fight-or-flight” response, an inability to focus on anything else until the threat is mitigated.

The biggest problem with “stress” is that it’s not the kind of fear that you’d get from, say, being chased by a bear. It’s not a temporary, one-off thing. “Stress” is a long-term, ongoing event, constantly taxing our nervous system, making us tired, grumpy, discouraged, and not-so-fun to be around.

But because we’re so afraid to call it fear, we try to manage our “stress” – vacations, drinking, hobbies, drugs (legal and beyond), sex, etc. And while we might get a brief respite, our “stress” will be waiting when the vacation’s over, or the affair gets old, or the buzz wears off.

If the goal of “stress” management is a very short break from scary things, I guess you could say it works. The marketing world sure seems to think so.

But there’s no such thing as fear management. Fear is a big thing, much bigger than “stress.” It must be dealt with directly, forcefully, with a view towards permanent annihilation.  When we downgrade our fears to something that’s “manageable,” we’re welcoming them into our lives as permanent guests.

The best first step to take is to say to ourselves, and maybe to a few close friends, “I’m scared. Really scared. So scared that it’s making me tired, hard to get along with. I can’t sleep at night because I’m so scared.”

Our “stress” needs an upgrade.

And that’s something that most of us won’t do. We don’t like saying “I’m scared.”

Fear is weakness. How would it sound if you were hanging out with friends and you said something akin to “I really screwed up at work and I’m scared of what people are saying about me. Really scared. So scared that it’s keeping me up at night.” How awkward would that be? Your friends would have to be super healthy people to respond appropriately.

Far better to say, “Jeeze, I really screwed up at work and it’s stressing me out.” Then everyone can say, “Oh yeah, stress,” and seamlessly move to the next topic.

I think most psychotherapeutic professionals would call that weak. Facing our fears, and taking the very important first step of calling them what they are requires strength, as does any step you might take towards the total obliteration of fears.

I realize that I’m talking a big game here. Can we get rid of our fears? Can we find complete freedom from the things that scare the crap out us?

I can’t. I’ve tried.

I’ve lived most of my life with a debilitating fear of being rejected. I was a nerd in junior high/high school, got picked on, laughed at, etc. and frequently went to bed worried about what would happen at school the next day.

I didn’t know who to talk to, or how to talk about it, so I did my best to plod through the trauma – alone.

Years later I went to seminary and started a career as a pastor. I wasn’t very good at it, but got enough exposure to get a good taste of how mean God’s people can be. If you need everyone to like you, don’t go into ministry.

People talked about me behind my back, some laughed at my mistakes and my awkwardness – not because I was worse than other pastors – it’s simply/unfortunately common to the calling. But I couldn’t focus on all the good things that were going on. I was scared. All the old memories of my teen years came flooding in, the unhealed hurts, the trauma. It was overwhelming. So I quit and started a web business, which was much more “friendly.”

A few years later, I was offered a volunteer position as a pastor in the church we were attending. I was honored, took the position, and jumped back into the world of helping others, making mistakes, delivering bad sermons, and knowing that not everybody was a fan.

All the fears came flooding back in, but in the middle of the sleepless nights something new came to bear. I took an inventory of all my “fans” – the people who I’d helped, mentored, pastored, etc. There were many. In spite of my detractors, I was winning, moving forward. Things were working.

I’d always been afraid that if someone didn’t like me, others would follow suit, and I’d be ruined. That wasn’t the case here. I didn’t actually have anything to be afraid of. I also noticed that people who talk about others aren’t healthy – there’s something broken inside that’s driving them to focus on the mistakes and frailties of other people.

I can’t say that I’m completely free from the fear of rejection, but I’m closer to freedom.

And none of that would have happened if I hadn’t admitted, “I’m scared.”

I still have plenty of sleepless nights, a mountain of fear, but I’ve learned two things. First, telling myself and others, “I’m scared” is the best first step I can take towards getting rid of these fears. Second, while I’ll never totally eradicate my fears, I can take small steps towards a fear-free life.

I know, I just said “set your goals high in life and you will go far,” but it happens to be true in this case.

The point isn’t total annihilation, it’s more freedom, but we won’t get more freedom unless we shoot for total annihilation.

And none of that will happen if we’re too scared to say “I’m scared.”

Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Pick something that “stresses” you out – Job, marriage, kids, money, image, things, whatever. Take an hour alone and admit how scared you are, and how your fear of this thing is running your life, and stealing from it. Don’t downplay it, don’t say things like “but everybody gets scared,” or, “it’s not really that bad.”

Face it, admit it.

Then take it to the next level. Grab someone close to you, sit down with them and confess what you just admitted to yourself. Make it a big deal, formal. This will be awkward. And scary. You’ll really want to downplay it, make it sound like you’re not that “weak.”

If you do this right, what you’ll find is that there’s something powerful in saying “I’m scared.” I have no idea how it works, maybe it’s a God thing, but it works.

These aren’t the only steps to freedom, there’ll be more work to do. But like most difficult things, especially freedom, the process gets much more clear once we’ve taken first steps.

3 thoughts on “Stop Calling it “Stress.” It’s Fear. And it Won’t be “Managed.”

  • I read a great way to address fear, and it is certainly illustrated in Mark’s post. (Full disclosure: Mark is my son, to put this comment in perspective.) The approach was to understand that evolution has endowed us with three ‘layers’ of brain. The oldest is the ‘reptilian’ brain, which stimulates us to fight or flee, eat when we’re hungry, and breathe in and out. Then came (in evolutionary time), the mammalian brain, which introduces such things as nurturing of the young (as opposed to laying eggs and forgetting) and emotions, which are necessary to nurturing the young due to the longer time that it takes their brains to mature, at the top of this stack is the neo-cortex brain, with which we ‘know that we know’, and which permits us to get perspective on the things that we sense.
    All three brains are ‘on line’ all the time, but the lower the brain in the stack, the more immediately felt are its stimuli. That’s why we get angry (fight or flight) before our neo-cortex has a chance to ask, “Is there really something to get angry at?”
    The real measure of our personal (and societal) evolution is to develop the skill of activating our neo cortex before we act on the stimuli from our lower brain, commonly expressed in terms such as “take a deep breath”, or “look before you leap”. Doing so is a common mark of maturity in nearly every culture, and our Western bible is rife with examples of how to do it, Once we develop such a skill we start to find fewer things to make us anxious.
    For some hints of how this pays off, see Paul’s ‘Fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23)..

  • This is so good. What I’ve found is that when I face those fears, when I really verbalize that “this scares the crap out of me,” that’s generally when I figure out that even if the worst should happen, it’s not unthinkable, and even then, the chances of that are fairly slim. So at the most, I might be inconvenienced. Or worst, I might have to admit I was wrong about something.

    Okay, so that’s oversimplification. If my worst fears were realized about my Type I Diabetic son, I would be calling 911 at 6 a.m. because he would be in a low-sugar coma. So yes, fears are real.

    But so is God, and what I do know is that even in THAT situation, He would be there. And that in 100 years, none of us will be worried about that particular scenario, and we have all of eternity to live in bodies that don’t have that problem, so what exactly was I afraid of again?

    So even my worst fear… not as hard to face as I thought. The reality of trying to keep ignoring it, though, that’s just downright unlivable.

  • Thanks for this post. I hadn’t thought about the fear factor in “stress.” I believe you are so right about that.

    God knows we are fearful people. Look at how many times in Scripture He tells us not to fear, don’t be afraid. Why? Because He is with us. He cares for us. It is so freeing to admit those fears, and turn them over to the God of the Universe, knowing He cares about each fear and is able to handle it all so much better than I do on my own.

    I appreciated mattlandry1940’s reference to the Fruit of the Spirit. Can there even be fear when those things are in me? Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control.

    I don’t know how it works, but I know I sleep much better when I am fear-less. And God is always faithful. I pray that all of us reading your insightful post will upgrade our stress and call it what it is. Fear. Then may we take those fears to our fearless Leader, and let Him replace them with Himself.

    God bless you, dear one. And may He continue to make you a blessing to others.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.