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.

Work, rest and play all affect each other. They are a spiraling interdependent cycle: doing well at one makes it easier to do the others, and doing poorly at any of them makes the others go harder. (Diet, exercise, sex and sleeping work the same way, as do praying, forgiving, and acts of kindness.)

Work includes the job you do for a living, but also child care, helping friends and family, volunteer service, and household maintenance. It usually takes up about two fifths of your time when the kids are at home and in need, and a little less after that.

Rest involves more than sleep. It includes all forms of relaxing down time, such as taking in music, pleasure reading, solitary TV or computer time, etc. We’ll include personal grooming and hygiene here. All this should take up roughly one third of your time, more if you need eight hours of sleep, or if you’re female, older, or retired.

Play is activity that leaves you recreated, refreshed. It includes things like exercise, playing sports, learning, worship, praying, lovemaking, visiting live or on the phone or the internet, and going to festivals, plays movies, concerts, ball games, etc. Shopping for clothes, tools, play equipment, or house furnishings is usually play, but solitary shopping for groceries and provisions is clearly work.

Play usually gets the leftover time, but if we give it less than one fifth of our time, we’re probably getting burned out. The quality of our work and rest is suffering, because the worker is not getting recreated by rest alone.

The quantity of time you spend in work, rest, and play is no more important than the quality of that time. Mental health requires that we change gears well, that we do only one thing at a time. Thinking about work when we should be at rest or at play, or vice-versa, is called worry—leaving the here-and-now to be there-and-then. Worry screws up whatever we should be doing at the time.

When we don’t do enough of our work, we often work on other people instead. When we have too few responsibilities, we tend to take on those of other people. This form of worry is called meddling, and it screws up the work, rest and play of both parties.

A key to being focused and efficient in our work, rest and play is how we make our transitionsfrom one into the otherWe need to mark our changing gears clearly so that we and everybody else knows which gear we are in. If you have trouble shifting into the play of your personal life, get something going like Mr. Rogers’ slippers to remind you that work is over. How?

On your way home, turn your phone off and think about family and play. When you get in the door, put your cell phone away, or change it to a different ring that reminds you it’s family first, and it’s time for everybody’s recreation. If you can help it at all, don’t take business calls during family time.

As soon as you see your spouse, make it a point and habit to kiss your spouse--not just a peck, but a good, checking-in kiss. Sit down together and ask how each other’s day has gone so far. Review plans or hopes for the evening. Once in the door, change your clothes. Take off your watch. Don’t be waiting around for a hug or try to take one, but give the kids a hug.

One last tip: don’t try to go straight from work to rest, and then think you might play. Once you numb out, your emotional heart goes to sleep, and you’re pretty much shot for the day. Work and play first, then get your rest. You’ll sleep a lot better and do better work tomorrow.

 With any activity or relationship, here are five signs you might need to take a break and give it a rest for awhile:

1.  You’re losing interest or passion.  You’re burning out, forgetting what you’re really doing here, what’s the point.

2.  You’re losing focus or concentration, so that your mind is often distracted by other things you’d rather be doing, other people you’d rather be with.

3.  You’re obsessed, preoccupied, and giving too much focus and concentration.  You’re thinking or worrying about something or someone when you can’t do anything about it.

4.  You have too much passion for it, so that your devotion and enthusiasm is giving more important activities or relationships reason to feel neglected.

5. You’re stuck in a negative, self-defeating pattern of interaction.  You know you should change, but don’t know how.  You do the same thing over and over but still stupidly expect different results.

Until now we’ve been talking about taking a break to solve problems.  The best use of breaks is to take them periodically to prevent problems, to keep the focus, passion, health and balance sharp.

Periodic preventive breaks like this are called sabbatical breaks.  They come from the Jewish tradition which sees God as taking off on the seventh day after creating the world in six.  The Old Testament God included as one of the Ten Commandments resting from all labor on the Sabbath day.  The Torah even teaches farmers to rest their fields every seven years.

Colleges have realized the wisdom of this tradition by giving tenured professors a “sabbatical” from their duties for a semester or a year every seven years.  Many churches prevent burn-out by letting their pastors take a similar sabbatical time-out for study, travel and rest every seven years.

However, most Americans do not take either periodic preventive time-outs for sabbatical rest or curative breaks for a prelude to their problem-solving.  The result is a loss of mental health, such as in the five examples above.

One interesting testimonial to value of taking long breaks is the mental health industry in Japan.  When Japanese people get anxious, depressed, explosively angry, addicted, or torn up in their relationships, the counseling wizards in Japan all prescribe morita therapy, and I’m embarrassed to say it appears to work about as well for them as psychotherapy or medication do for us Americans.  So what is it?

Morita comes from the Japanese word for sleep.  Therapy is solitary confinement from contact with the outside world.  They give a two- to four-week break from all relationships and activities except meditation and sleep.  It’s a little frustrating, frightening, and rather revealing how hard that is to do in America.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt