by Dr. Bruce Arnold
I would like to say that it is obvious to anyone who attends to the mass media that fear plays a major role in our ideas about illness. I would like to say that, but I have found it is not true. Many if not most of those who I talk to do not recognize it at all. They are immersed in the fear-based approach to illness, and believe it to be common sense rather than fear.
Recently I had a conversation with a 2nd grade school-teacher. I presented this proposition to her, that a great deal of illness is fear-based. She did not accept the proposition, because “I look at the kids I teach and they aren’t going around scared all the time.” I wish the conversation had not been interrupted at that point. I would have liked to hear more of what she had to say in order to improve my own understanding of the frame of my mind which she represents. This is a person who is educated, observant, aware, and intelligent. Yet the role of fear in illness is hidden from her.
How is that?
For one thing, it is not necessary for fear to be apparent to be real. Suppose one of my friend’s second-graders has a phobia about dogs. She will have canvassed the whole neighborhood, probably subliminally. She knows where all the dogs are. She knows which ones are behind fences, and exactly how close she can get before feeling uncomfortable. She knows which ones stay inside most of the time but are let outside without a leash or chain at times. She knows which of her relatives has a dog, and does not go to their home, perhaps by becoming sick – not feigning sickness, but really becoming sick. All of this is very real. In some ways her life has become restricted on all sides by the presence of dogs in the world. She herself may not be aware how often she makes choices to go here or avoid going there because of canine infestation.
My friend, who only sees her at school, is completely unaware of this. They don’t have dogs at school. She has never been confronted with her student’s irrational fear of Fido. She thinks her student is a well-balanced child.
She is no more aware of her other students’ fears than she is about this phobia. Unless it has come up in her presence, there is no reason she would know. I am not blaming her. This is predictable; it is the norm. It is a rare child who is so fearful in general that many people in many settings would have the opportunity to witness it.
And that is just fear in general. Now let us turn to the connection between fear and disease.
Dr. Edward Bach said it very well:
“There is a factor which science is unable to explain on physical grounds, and that is why some people become affected by disease whilst others escape, although both classes may be open to the same possibility of infection. Fear, by its depressing effect on our mentality, thus causing disharmony in our physical and magnetic bodies, paves the way for invasion, and if bacteria and such physical means were the sure and only cause of disease, then indeed there might be but little encouragement not to be afraid. But when we realize that in the worsts epidemics only a proportion of those exposed to infection are attacked and that, as we have already seen, the real cause of disease lies in our own personality and is within our control, then have we reason to go about without dread and fearless, knowing that the remedy lies within ourselves. We can put all fear of physical means alone as a cause of disease out of our minds, knowing that such anxiety merely renders us susceptible, and that if we are endeavoring to bring harmony into our personality we need anticipate illness no more than we dread being struck by lightning or hit by a fragment of a meteor.” ( Edward Bach, Heal Thyself)
Let’s be clear that we are talking about projected psychological fears, not the natural instinctual response to actual danger which is a healthy mechanism of survival.
Some of these fears are particular to certain individual people. Not everyone, for instance, fears germs so much that they wash their hands 30 times a day, although every seasoned psychotherapist has seen people of this kind. Some people may worry more about cancer, while others worry about strokes. For that matter, some may worry more about illness, while others worry about financial insecurity. The latter are making themselves susceptible to illness in just the same way as the former. However, fear of illness itself is a most powerful suggestion to the subconscious that will likely result in illness of some sort.
Fear is not the only emotional precursor to illness. Anger, grief, confusion, boredom, or any other strong emotion takes a physical toll in stress, decreased immune response, and so on. I have experienced them in extreme measure, as has virtually everyone. I know they had a powerful effect on my physical economy. So why focus on fear?
For one thing, fear creates physical results. Adrenaline, increased blood pressure, rapid heart rate, acid stomach, and other bodily changes accompany fear. These may be valuable when faced with an actual danger, but our body responds the same way to any anxiety, warranted or not. It cannot tell the difference. These reactions have both short and long-term consequences for health. That is one side of it.
The other side is that fear is founded in a lack of trust and security. Fear assumes that something bad is going to happen. Because emotions have such a powerful effect on our mind, fear has the characteristic of spurring the imagination to picture unpleasant or unwanted outcomes. Due to the intensity of the emotion, the subconscious will often take this as an important suggestion, and go to work to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The lack of trust and security go to the heart of the problem. Fear assumes that what is happening should not be allowed to happen. It feels out of control. It drives people to seek to assume an illusory control over events that can never be attained. This disruption of the harmony of the spirit, for it is spiritual as much as it is emotional, must result after some time in disruption of the entire organism, as all of the healing systems we have reviewed have demonstrated. The vital force will exhaust itself in trying to overcome this spiritual debility, and then the person will be open to disruptions of every sort, physical, emotional, cognitive, etc.
It is not only fear of illness that creates illness. I would like to emphasize this point. Living in fear of any sort will derange the physical economy. Consider the example above, of the little girl who is afraid of dogs. When she has to go where dogs are unavoidable, she may become really and truly sick. Her fear has been able to manifest this condition as a protective mechanism. An ineffective and constricting protective mechanism, to be sure, but it solves the immediate problem. This is not hypochondria or even faking. It is real illness. This is something that happens all the time.
If she does not become sick, then the fear floods her body with adrenaline, her blood pressure goes up, her fine motor dexterity goes down, etc. Can anyone doubt that repeated episodes of this will have a lasting effect on her body as well as mind?
It is amazing to see the grip that fear has on people’s outlook. I recently had a conversation with three well-educated people. One is a teacher, one is a health educator, and one is a retired businesswoman. They were talking about weight, diet, cholesterol levels, and how these affect their health. I suggested that the single most potent change they could make would be to eliminate fear from their ideas about health, so that they would be able to make sensible choices rather than fear-based choices. Each wanted to know more. Each said things that showed they had understood the idea that was presented. One said that she was aware that most of today’s medicine is based on fear. And then they went right back to talking about weight, diet, cholesterol levels, and how these affect their health, in the same fearful way as before.
Fear is a powerful emotion, and it has a powerful hold. We cannot expect that people will let go of it just on the basis of intellectual agreement (although this has its place in the process.) It also takes determination to recognize it and root it out. And it takes the practice of something such as contemplative prayer, yoga, meditation, or tai ch’i, which will allow one to experience the vital force directly and become used to letting it take the lead in such matters. We need never fear, when we are following the rejuvenatory and evolutionary power of the vital force, working with rather than against it.
Finally, I would like to point out that it is not only obvious illness, such as hypertension or influenza, which is associated with fear. I would like to present an example from my practice of a man who we will call Marvin. Marvin’s wife was an intelligent person who worked for years in government service. They loved to travel and play bridge and many other activities. Late in life, she developed dementia. As they had retired to a town where they had no family, he became the primary caretaker. During the first year, things were not so bad, but Marvin could see the steady deterioration. He became despondent, and this is when he started coming to see me, to help him maintain his own balance. We worked well together and he found his spirits and his energy much improved.
With every change in her condition, the despair would re-emerge, and we would have to go through the process once more of recognizing what she had lost, what he had lost, and how it affected them. With each new change, I would recommend steps he could take to help the situation, such as getting someone to help with chores and cooking. At each step, I would ask him to consider the eventual need for her to be on a dementia unit, and whether sooner might not be better than later. And at each step of the way, he balked. Not because of anything rational, but because of fear. Fear that if he admitted he could not handle this particular step, he would have to admit that he could not handle the whole process. I tried as best I could to address that fear. He had some awareness of what he was doing, and we found humor to be very effective in this regard, as he was willing to make fun of both my efforts and his resistance.
He would always agree to the particular recommendation about six months after it became needed. This also happened to be about two months before the next stage of deterioration would occur. So in effect he got two months worth of real benefit out of each bit of help he received, and then, while the help was still needed, it would not be enough to get the two of them through the next part of what was going on. After a chore helper, and then a helper/cook, we added an LPN who could help with bathing and other activities of daily life. Somewhere in there was a person who could come take Mrs. M. out to get her hair done and so forth, just to give Marvin a chance to get away on his own.
Eventually, he had to accept what his doctors, his daughters, his helpers, and I were all telling him: it was neglectful not to admit her to a dementia unit where she could be properly and safely cared for. He found one right here in our town, not 15 minutes from where he lived, so he could visit her every day. She no longer knew who he was, but he felt he had to continue. I have been to this facility. It is very pleasant, well-staffed, well-run. After an initial adjustment, she settled in well. She died a month later.
In those two short years, I watched a man go from a healthy and active life to a shell of his former self. His fears had made him unable to deal with reality, or make practical choices. He paid a huge toll for it in the reduction of his own vital force. The change was remarkable to all who knew him. He became physically frail and emotionally querulous. He ceased to take the kind of care of himself and his home that he always had. And it was not long before he passed away. He had not contracted some specific illness. He just overspent his vital force and was unable to replenish it, and died as a consequence.
This kind of fear has an important underpinning which may not be well-recognized. The core fear in all of these examples is that “I will not be loved.” If the dog bites me, it doesn’t love me. If I don’t treat my wife a certain way, I will be unworthy of her love. And both of these assume that the universe is a very unloving place.
We focus so much on the importance of loving others, but we are so often blocked in our ability to receive love. Giving love doesn’t make us lovable; we are lovable simply because we are.
The parts of ourselves that we fear are unlovable — secretly or not — are exactly the places where are unable to love anyone else. Instead, feeling unloved, we try to make up for it with experiences that make us “feel good.” But feeling good is no substitute for being loved, and the efforts we make to feel good twist and distort our relationships with others and ourselves. Among other things, they produce fear. Fear that love is in short supply, and we will not get enough of it.
The fear that we are unloved is the most profound fear there is. All other fears are derived from it. Not, as said above, those real fears we might experience during an automobile accident or over the serious illness of a loved one, but all those other fears, the fear of things that mostly never happen. We tell ourselves that we are worried about This or That, when underneath we are really afraid that we will not be loved.
There are two ways to approach fear. One is to treat it. There are specific symptoms of anxiety and they can be treated with medication and counseling. The other is to heal it. If we find out what causes the fear, and alter the character of the person who feels it, then it will cease to be an outlet for disharmony. However we approach this healing process – whether from traditional psychotherapy or from a spiritual view – the same outcome will take place: the person who felt the fear will become more resilient, more secure, more trusting. In other words, they will experience faith.
This may or may not be faith in a particular deity or creed, but it will be faith in something – something which is infinitely more comprehensive than the ego which suffers from the fear. It must be something larger than the ego, because the ego can manipulate anything less, and will, since it is part of the ego’s nature to be the top dog in whatever is going on. This has been well-shown by the 12 Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which prescribe faith in a “power greater than myself” to their members, and for exactly this reason: the ego is too wily to give up control or power to anything less. “Ego deflation” is a necessary part of the process of working the 12 Steps.
That all this is so is nothing new. We have not just recently discovered this concept. Our great brother Jesus of Nazareth said much the same thing, 2,000 years ago. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, he said,
“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, what shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Haven’t we enough to do, just taking care of what must be done today, without building great castles in the sky, or dungeons more like; things over which we spend our vital force in agonies of worry, which never come to pass? And doesn’t all this worry rob the day of its savor? And doesn’t it introduce tension, and excess of adrenaline, acid, and bile, and don’t these have consequences in our physical as well as mental well-being?
Bach points out that the answer to spiritual malaise is not to fight against it or try to remove it, but to so flood the mind and spirit with the opposite, positive emotion that there is no room for the negative one. In the case of fear, it is faith that will supplant it. In keeping with the understanding of the healing systems we have reviewed, the end result is that we have strengthened the organism to handle life on its own, rather than making it dependent on outside assistance for its security. “For example, should there be cruelty in our nature, we can continually say, ‘I will not be cruel,’ and so prevent ourselves from erring in that direction; but the success of this depends on the strength of the mind, and should it weaken we might for the moment forget our good resolve. But should we, on the other hand, develop real sympathy towards our fellow-men, this quality will once and for all make cruelty impossible, for we should shun the very act with horror because of our fellow-feeling. About this there is no suppression, no hidden enemy to come forward at moments when we are off our guard, because our sympathy will have completely eradicated from our nature the possibility of any act which would hurt another.”
The same thing is said in the I Ching, in Chapter 43, entitled “Breakthrough” in the Wilhelm/Baynes edition. It says,
“In a resolute struggle of the good against evil, there are, however, definite rules that must not be disregarded it it is to succeed. First, resolution must be based on a union of strength and friendliness. Second, a compromise with evil is not possible; evil must under all circumstances be openly discredited. Nor must our own passions and shortcomings be glossed over. Third, the struggle must not be carried on directly by force. If evil is branded, it thinks of weapons, and if we do it the favor of fighting against it blow for blow, we lose in the end because thus we ourselves get entangled in hatred and passion. Therefore it is important to begin at home, to be on guard in our own persons against the faults we have branded. In this way, finding no opponent, the sharp edges of the weapons of evil become dulled. For the same reasons, we should not combat our own faults directly. As long as we wrestle with them, they continue victorious. Finally, the best way to fight evil is to make energetic progress in the good.” [Emphasis mine.]
Love is not in short supply. It is not a zero-sum game. More love for you does not mean less love for me. The more love there is, the more love there is, and no one need fear that there is not enough.