Recently the Virginia Tech massacre once again filled our news and talk shows with one of their favorite enemies of the people, terror. We all need to know how to cope with fear, so I’ll give you here my favorite enemies of fear. Those who study and rehearse these can keep them handy as an emergency tool kit for terror.

Fear-fighting techniques for the body and mind are taught in the award-winning self-help book, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, edited by Dr. Ed Bourne. This book was written to keep people who suffer from worry and fear from having to pay to come see a therapist like me.

Most fear-fighting techniques for the body teach us that peace comes from tuning out the involuntary nervous system (the nerves that carry messages from the body to the brain, for example, telling it how tense the body feels). Recovery is found in deliberately paying attention to the voluntary nervous system, which gives and carries orders from the brain to the body.

Here are the three basic steps to a relaxed body: One, tune out the involuntary nervous system and tune in the voluntary nervous system. Two, watch a relaxing movie in the theater of your mind. And three, go back to your body and feel the calm. Let’s see some ways to do these three things.

1. Take slow, deep breaths, and keep doing it. Be sure to push all the air out of your lungs before taking the next breath. Change your location, or at least your position: get away from immediate physical sources of stress. Do "systematic muscle relaxation": tense up the muscles in one area of your body (legs, arms, torso or face), hold the tension a few seconds, let your muscles relax, and then move on to the next area of your body to do the same thing.

If you can’t go to sleep, get out of bed and go sit in an uncomfortable chair you designate as a Worry Chair: pray out/write down/talk out your worries, then return to bed, and refuse to think about these things again there. If you can’t stop the worries, take yourself back to the Worry Chair—such discipline teaches the brain a lesson. Note that you may not be able to "go to your happy place" mentally until you’ve done this first step physically.

2. Take a comfortable seat in the wonderful movie theater built into your right brain. Visualize carefully being in a beautiful, safe place (a beach, a lake, grandmother’s couch, a big stream-side tree in a meadow). Take in what all of your senses are experiencing there (sun and breeze on your skin, natural sounds, beautiful sights left and right). Imagine a loved one joining you there (a person, angel or God). Look, listen and feel for signs and words of love (a hug, encouragement, or blessing which you imagine). Do this at least once a day when you’re not scared, until you find you can do these things effectively in the midst of a stress storm.

3. Let your mind go back to your body and feel the difference all this has made. This is a good time to repeat to yourself words of assurance and calm that will now sink in. Good words to say are found in Bourne’s Workbook, which teaches how to change negative self-talk into positive. I’ll describe some of my favorite techniques next time. These will make the chat room found on the left side of your brain as peaceful as the happy place you’ve now created over on the right side.

The key to managing worry and fear is learning how to change the channels in your mind. We learned last time how to switch awareness from the involuntary nervous system that takes feelings TO the brain, and give it to the voluntary nerves taking messages FROM the brain out to the muscles. We also learned how to go into the right brain that imagines scenes, and change the channels there.

Overcoming fear might start with changing the channels on your TV. The best breeding grounds I know for fear are horror and action movies, crime shows, and the evening news. Then learn to change the channels in your left brain, where words live. That’s where fear talks to you, and if you’re smart, where you’ll learn to talk back to it.

Write down all the negative things fear says to you, and later when you’re not afraid, write down comebacks that express your faith. Rather than running from pain, solitude and death, embrace the thoughts of them. Don’t let them be impersonal, faceless foes, but talk with them. Learn to think of them as your friends and teachers.

Whatever you believe in as being stronger, wiser and better than yourself, that is your god, and you can substitute that for "God" in the guidance below. Speak to your fears in your left brain and if you can, out loud, with words like these:

This too shall pass. . . . Let go, let God. . . . One day at a time, one moment at a time. . . . I don’t need worry—it’s just the interest paid on borrowed trouble. . . . No one can take my self-esteem without my permission. . . . Focus on the fire drill, not the fire. . . . If I focus on the problem I watch the problem grow, but as I focus on the solution I am watching the solution grow. . . . I will not act frozen as if I’m a slave to fear, but I’ll act out my freedom and my faith. . . .I can see God holding me, right here, right now. . . .

Write down your favorites of these and other sayings, and keep them with you in your wallet or purse. Bible passages that will help are the 23rd Psalm, Matthew 6: 25-34, Philippians 4: 6-8, and I Peter 5:7. Remember and identify with courageous people from fairy tales (I love the moxie of Hansel and Gretel) and from history. My favorites from biblical history are David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lions Den, Esther defying Haman, Jesus defying the Romans and the church, and the woman who crashed the Pharisee’s kosher luncheon in Luke 7. My favorite role models from modern history are Winston Churchill, Lech Walensa, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Pat Tillman.

School children practice their fire drills when they know the building is not on fire, so that when it is, they can get to safety with peace and calm. Remember these things will only have the power you give them by mediating on them in advance. When you give your mental channel-changing muscles a few work-outs, come the next crisis, you’ll be cool.

We all have our fears. It’s what we do with them that makes our lives work out for the better or the worse. A big key to success in life is deciding what to believe we are afraid of. But you may ask, do we really have a choice about what we fear in life? Yes we do.

In any given situation, we have a choice to decide what force or possible outcome in that situation we are going to focus our fearful attention on. The last power we should let anyone take from us is our power to focus our attention.

Is your mind your servant, or is it your boss? Can your soul tell your mind what to believe in and what to fear? Or do you let your body and emotions tell your mind what to trust and what to fear? Optimism and common sense teach us to be careful what we choose to fear, because it may become our master.

For example, in a fearful situation, I could focus on the harm someone could do to my wallet, my body, or my reputation. But wouldn’t I do better to focus my fears on what I could do in this situation to harm my self-respect, and to damage the faith that others I value the most have put in me?

Sure, some frightened people think they have no choice what to be afraid of. Whatever their mind worries about, they just accept as the focus of their fears. They trust their hearts even when their hearts are scared to death. They trust their bodies even when they’re frozen in fear.

Other people try to convince themselves and others that they have no fears. Thinking like soldiers, they were influenced by the greatest generation, who heard and believed FDR before WWII when he said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." So they’re just afraid to be afraid. They’ve never heard of a healthy fear, and maybe you haven’t either.

Healthy fears are ones that make us and those around us more at peace with the world as it is. Maybe you don’t believe a fear can bring you peace. One key is to be afraid of things you can control, instead of things you can’t. Another key is to be afraid of losing touch with what’s good, instead of getting in touch with what’s bad. Think about these examples:

Healthy fears inspire action, not passivity. The fears of failure and rejection are not as healthy as the fears of never trying, or never loving at all. Better to be afraid of repeating old mistakes than to fear trying something new. Fears that we talk out with someone trustworthy are better for us than fears we act out alone. Better to work through a fear than give into one. The fear that I won’t give it my best beats the fear that in someone else’s eyes I won’t be the best.

Fears that lead us out of dependencies and addictions are better for us than those that lead us into them. Fears that make us stand up for ourselves are better than those that make us fall down for others. If I am working for things that leave the world a better place, and the other guys involved aren’t, worrying that I’ll let them walk all over me is healthier than worrying I’ll hurt their feelings.

Fears that make us love are better than those that make us hate. When I fear that another man will love my wife better than I do, it makes me love her more. If I feared she’ll be seduced into loving another man more than she loves me, it would shut me down. Cancer can make us afraid of death, or what’s better, afraid of dying without really having lived and loved.

Fears that build hope bless the world more than those that build despair. Better to fear that we will let someone discourage us than to worry that someone will prove unworthy of our trust and break our heart. But how do you avoid the fear of a broken heart? Try believing it’s just the hard shell around our heart that’s getting broken, and that a broken open heart is good.

Choosing or crafting healthier fears involves putting a new framework into your perceptions. It’s framing your fears differently to change your focus. For more tips on reframing your fears, check out

I’m afraid of growing old like I think most people do, becoming more passive, withdrawn, bitter, negative, worried about things that that might go wrong, and focused in on my aches, pains and lost functions. This fear makes me do just the opposite, stay young at heart, and focus on solutions more than problems. Of all my fears, that’s one of my favorites.

Which of your fears are bringing out the best in you? What new ones might you need to bring on board to replace the ones that are getting you down?


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt