Research carried out in February by Oxford’s Professor Irene Tracey found that the pain we expect, correlates to the pain we experience. This is what’s known as the ‘nocebo’ effect – the flip-side to the better-known placebo. In her study, volunteers given pain relief were told that the drug had worn off before this was the case. Each time, their pain returned to the level it was at before relief was given. In another example, a 1980s study found that heart patients were far more likely to suffer side-effects from their blood-thinning medication if they were first warned of its side effects. Sometimes our daily anxieties can be medicalised, when in fact they’re a result of the worry that can kill.
It seems to me that anxiety is a feature of modern existence. But is it entirely negative? Instead of something to get rid of, perhaps it’s more like an invitation. An opportunity – to discover more about our hearts and to get to know the Lord better.
This is easy to say. (In fact, if the post ends here, it’s because I’ve been hit by hypocrisy-induced lightning). I’ve tried very hard to fear-proof my life. My home and schedule are rigged with a million distractions. The flashing phone. The daily routines. A constant, comforting blanket of white noise. Mail to be sorted. Dishes to be washed. Cats to feed. Just a hint of stress and I’m tempted to retire to the chaise longue with my smelling salts. But I rarely take these worries to the Lord, or face up to what might underlie them.
This morning I was struck by a prickly little verse from 1 Peter, which describes a beautiful woman as one who ‘isn’t frightened by anything alarming’ (1 Peter 3:6).
Imagine how that would feel. To not get frightened, even in alarming situations. Not to wake up sweating in case the bills can’t be paid. Or the carbon monoxide detector’s faulty. Or X-Factor hasn’t taped. Or…well, you get the picture. Because it’s not just a nice idea. These verses tell us that peace is possible – even in the midst of storms.
Conquering our fears means being ok with the stress that provokes them. Pressure is a part of life. Sometimes what ruins our lives are our attempts to stress-proof them.
A few verses later, Peter says this: “Don’t be surprised by the fiery trial you’re facing, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) He says this because too often that’s exactly what we do. We get stressed and so we panic. Instead such trials are a natural part of life – and cannot ultimately hurt us.
Anxiety may be natural – but left unchallenged, it can grow and spread to every area of our lives. Stress is neutral – even positive. It’s what we do with it that matters.