Facing Down Fear
Collective wisdom from young adults
Threats and fears have plagued human beings ever since sin entered the world. In these fast-changing times it seems that just as we figure out how to manage one set of threats, the context and culture change, and the next generation finds itself navigating new fears. During the twentieth century children and young adults in the United States worried about nuclear disaster, about wars, about friendships, finding love, and fitting in. Now, in the twenty-first century, what fears do young adults face?
In pondering this question, we thought we’d ask the experts, young adults themselves. We ran a survey inviting university students to answer two questions: (1) What are your top fears? and (2) What strategies do you use to deal with fear?
Although this was an informal research study, we learned some interesting things from the nearly 90 young adults who responded to the survey. It may be helpful to note that not all of those responding to the survey were Seventh-day Adventists. However, all were students enrolled in a Seventh-day Adventist university, and they were candid in writing about their fears.
“What Are Your Top Fears?”
The greatest fear identified by young adults is the fear of failure. Young adults—particularly those in college or graduate school—think constantly about the future, and they have a sense that the future is not secure. They are afraid of failing in life, failing in their academic studies, failing in meeting their parents’ expectations, failing at finding love, and failing to meet the goals they set for themselves.
Our fidelity to God, and our service to others, is always more important than the appearance of success.
The popular culture, their parents, and their teachers set high expectations for them. One student mentioned the fear of “feeling like you can do more but simply not achieving it.” Their characterizations of failure were poignant: “Not living up to my full potential,” “Being mediocre,” “Never becoming a successful adult,” “Not making a difference in the world.”
In a world in which young adults can collect constant electronic and immediate affirmation, and in which they set high value on what others think of them, they develop unrealistically high expectations of what their own lives should become. The fear of not realizing those expectations is a deep and abiding one.
The second most frequently mentioned fear is that of death. But it wasn’t their own death that young adults most frequently feared, although a few were afraid of dying in painful ways. More often they mentioned being afraid of the death of a family member, or fear of a loved one suffering and dying. “My parents dying before I do,” said one respondent. “Losing my children,” said another. “Losing a family member while I am abroad.” Millennials typically experience close and abiding relationships with their families and friends, and the thought of losing any of these treasured people creates great dread.
The other fears mentioned by young adults were far less frequent than failure and death, but they are interesting: heights, spiders, bugs, snakes, rejection, spiritual loss, rape and violence, financial distress, and public speaking.
There was just one mention of “end of the world,” and being among those who are lost when Jesus comes again. But not a single mention of some of the deep eschatological fears voiced by some of Adventism’s previous generations, such as the close of probation and standing up for one’s faith in the face of laws limiting religious freedom.
“How Do You Deal With Fear?”
We also asked young adults for their approaches to dealing with fear. Responses revealed a handful of strategies in common, plus some that were less frequently mentioned but apparently effective.
Young adults’ most-cited strategy for dealing with fear was turning to another human being for support, consultation, and social strength. They wrote of seeking out close family members, spouses, friends, and pastors to talk with them, advise them, and comfort them. “I am close with my family, which allows me to open up and share my fears,” wrote one. Another wrote, “[I] surround myself with people I love, call someone if I am upset.”
Almost as often as they mentioned seeking out emotional support to face fear, young adults responded that they deal with their fears by avoiding them. They distract themselves with other activities, stay away from things that would threaten or tempt them, and choose not to focus on their fears. One individual mentioned singing hymns, and another said, “Working on a personal project with my hands helps. The best cure to sorrow is work.” Others pursue strategies to prevent their fears from becoming real. “I plan ahead,” said one young adult, “and make good decisions.”
Our fidelity to God, and our service to others, is always more important than the appearance of success.
Many respondents mentioned deliberately choosing constructive attitudes in the face of fear. “I stop thought patterns before they stop me,” said one. “Sometimes I just picture Jesus and sunflowers as a happy thought,” said a respondent who indicated having survived a trauma in life. Another wrote: “Every day I try to consciously remind myself how blessed and fortunate I am. The mind is a muscle; if trained through daily effort to be positive, it will be positive. This effort helps remove fear from my life by reminding me how many good things happen every day as opposed to the bad. Just knowing that the vast majority of what happens in my life is good helps reduce my fear of the few bad things that happen from time to time.”
Again and again these young adults indicated that they deliberately choose attitudes to help them successfully fight their fears.
Young adults also frequently mentioned turning to prayer, meditation, and dependence on a relationship with God. “I pray to make the nightmares go away,” said the student who had experienced a personal trauma. “[I] pray until I fall asleep,” said another young adult who had fears related to physical safety and sustaining a faithful marriage. A student who feared the death of loved ones wrote, “There is no strategy to deal with death, other than taking God at His word that one day all things will be made new. Humans were not designed to die or deal with the deaths of those we love. It’s entirely unnatural, and, as hard as we try, we cannot healthfully confront death without trust in God.”
Another strategy young adults used was that of personal effort, simply facing up to their fears and working to overcome perceived threats. “Do something and get progress done,” said one who feared failure. “Make myself qualified for more opportunities,” said another who feared not succeeding in career and never attaining financial stability. “Give my best with everything I do and be OK with it,” said another. It seems that paralysis in the face of fear is not an option for most of these young adults.
A smattering of other interesting approaches for dealing with fear were shared. These included exercising, being willing to fail and learn from the experience, breathing techniques, writing in a journal, seeing a therapist, having a sense of humor, making music, and going to church. Only a few mentioned alcohol and substance abuse, or of turning to self-harm in face of fear.
A Few Suggestions
The collective wisdom of these young adults impressed and touched us. Drawing from their responses and adding the guidance of Scripture, we suggest the following strategies for dealing with fear:
Arm yourself. God’s Word is full of wisdom for dealing with our fears as He provides for our needs. Spend time collecting and meditating on key passages. Don’t overlook God’s invitations to rest and recalibrate. In times of worship and reflection the Holy Spirit can pull us back from things that take our energy and prevent us from developing our strengths.
As His words sink deep into our hearts, our lives will be changed. God, speaking through Isaiah, said, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:10). Other helpful Bible verses include 2 Timothy 1:7; Romans 8:15; 1 John 4:18; Matthew 6:33; and Matthew 11:29, 30.
Diversify your support system. “Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov. 11:14, NASB).* Seek out a variety of advisers, listen, then chart a course based on their collective wisdom. This same principle may work when seeking affirmation. When we move in various circles, we have more sources of consultation and feedback.
Diversify your efforts. Solomon wisely said, “Sow your seed in the morning and do not be idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed, or whether both of them alike will be good” (Eccl. 11:6, NASB). Since the future is uncertain, let’s work diligently at those things that exercise our strengths. But let’s avoid weakening our impact by trying too many things at the same time. It’s been said, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”
Avoid dependence on click approval. A “like” in social media brings a sudden release of dopamine that provides a tiny burst of pleasure and a brief sense of belonging. Dopamine is the self-produced chemical that is also released by other addictive behaviors such as smoking, drinking, gaming, and gambling. We know that teenage drinking arrests social development. The affirmations found in social media, as pleasurable as they can be, may keep us from building the off-screen social networks we need as we face real-life threats, disappointments, and trials.
Fortify yourself. No matter how much we know about managing fear, our emotions can crowd out our best thinking and allow fear and dread back into our hearts. When facing an event, an evaluation, or other situation that leaves us vulnerable to the judgments of others, we can fortify ourselves with the encouragement found in Hebrews 12:1-3. Jesus ignored the shame (emotional/social baggage) of the cross as He focused on the joy of what would be accomplished. We are encouraged to follow His example. So try this:
Visualize. See through the anxiety-producing event to reconnect with why it is coming. What is to be gained? Can we take the perspective of the people we will be serving, performing for, or communicating with? How can we meet their needs and share with them a taste of God’s glory? Our fidelity to God, and our service to others, is always more important than the appearance of success.
Endure. Focus on the vision; simply hold on. Time will pass, and we will still be here. Twenty-four hours (or a week, or a month) from now it will be over, and we will continue with our lives. In fact, Ephesians 6:10-20 tells us all about the weapons of spiritual warfare, but it never actually tells us to fight. Four times it tells us to “stand.” When times are confusing, we can plant our feet and let time pass as we wait for clarity. Often it is seen in the rearview mirror.
Remember this encouragement from Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (NASB).
* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Ginger Ketting-Weller is dean of the School of Education at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. She has been an educator for 31 years. Jim C. Weller is principal of Loma Linda Academy Junior High. He has been an educator for 37 years.