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.

What is healthy faith, anyway, and who am I to judge it? As a psychologist, I can tell when people’s religious beliefs and lifestyles are enabling them to enjoy life, be enjoyable to others, and leave the world a better place each day. No matter what a person’s religious faith or denomination, most would agree this is healthy.

For defining sick and healthy religious or spiritual faith, an excellent book was written some years ago by a counselor Steve Arterburn and a pastor Jack Felton, called Toxic Faith. I really like their final chapter, "Seventeen Characteristics of Healthy Faith". Here they are:

1. Focused on God: trying to tune ourselves into harmony with God rather than getting God to meet our needs.

2. Growing: "healthy faith grows and matures over time." Every living thing grows, and faith that doesn’t evolve its beliefs and practices is practically dead.

3. Respectful: it’s good to believe and remember that all human beings are capable of inspiration and personal growth.

4. Free to Serve: believing that we don’t have to work for the welfare of others, but that we freely choose to do so, with our hearts in it.

5. Self-worthy: we see ourselves as having a high inherent value, bestowed upon us by God.

6. Vulnerable: "being real", and therefore open to feeling the very human heartaches of rejection, failure and loss.

7. Trusting: the authors urge us to trust ourselves with other people, trust ourselves with God, and trust God with ourselves.

8. Individualized: celebrating that God gave each of us unique talents and opportunities, so that we strive to be a unique expression of God’s ways.

9. Relationship Oriented: the focus is on relationships more than rules, on getting along with God and others vs. seeing oneself as an independent individual.

10. Personal: if we believe there’s a personal God seeking a personal relationship with each human being, then God’s word to each of us is personal.

11. Balanced: the authors mention balancing work, rest and play; witnessing and serving; obeying rules and being creative; avoiding the perspectives of either/or, black or white, all or nothing, and us or them.

12. Nondefensiveness: "healthy faith welcomes critical evaluation and tough questions as opportunities to learn and relate." I love that one.

13. Nonjudgmental: "stop judging others and listen to them", especially to what they need. This requires comparing ourselves with God, with what we are to become, not to other people.

14. Reality Based: healthy believers "see the problems before them, do what they can to resolve them, and trust God to do the rest."

15. Able to Embrace our Emotions: we need to feel our emotions and express them in constructive ways.

16. Able to Embrace our Humanity: we acknowledge our capacity to sin, and make mistakes. We forgive others to appreciate our own forgiveness, by God, by ourselves, and by trusted other people.

17. Loving: considering Jesus’ two great commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, I find few people who come to me with a healthy balance of those three loves. So many love themselves much better than they love God or others, love God but dislike most people, love their neighbor instead of themselves, or love their neighbors and then themselves.

If you are called to love God and others, you have to take care of the caretaker, the one who does the loving, and that’s you. In many ways, if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else can, and then you can’t take very good care of others either.

Next time I’m going to wander into the country of sacred cows. I’ll take a meddling look atunhealthy faith, and in particular, at certain toxic religious experiences, beliefs and lifestyles. You’ll likely agree with me and with Toxic Faith that these are sick, but I don’t think you’ll have much trouble coming up with lots of examples from the people you’ve known and seen, and probably even one or two within yourself!

Think about your exposure to the news of the day—TV, newspapers, websites, radio, gossip and hearsay. What is it doing for you, or perhaps, TO you?

Just as with the food and medicine we take in, we need to examine the nutritional value and side effects of the news we get. To live the good life, we have to set healthy boundaries for ourselves, to guide what news we put into ourselves. So what kinds of filters do you use for the news?

Nutritional value: we all need to take in enough news to understand what is happening, why, what’s good and bad for the world, and what can be done to promote the good and defeat the bad.

I like to get my news by flipping through Time and Newsweek, and scanning the headlines and articles of newspapers, in hand or online. I think about what happens until I can answer the questions in the previous paragraph. Then I’ve made my peace with it, and I move on. No worries, no rehashing of bad news, no horrifying TV images. Those are my boundaries, my news filters.

Toxic side effects. Producers of news reports know how to hook us with excitement. They design their news reports to titillate us, arousing our pleasures and desires. Some of the desire and pleasure is innocent enough, like humor and gratitude, which flavor a little bit of the news. That’s good.

But to protect ourselves from psychological infection, we all need to ask ourselves with each news story we take in: What is this arousing in me? What will this do for my confidence and contentment, for my blood pressure? The news that doesn’t arouse laughter or gratitude usually arouses an attitude of arrogance: "I’m better than these other people. We should just rid of the bad guys, the foreign element, the criminals and we’d be fine."

We like to think nothing is wrong with us. Compared to the villains on the news, we feel like innocent victims, our vain virtues forever being vexed by their villainous vices.

To avoid this self-deceit, a good boundary is to realize that under their circumstances of genetics, childhood trauma and neglect, poverty, and poor role models, education and peers, we might have done the same as the worst of the newsmakers.

In addition to arrogance, beware if your news provokes envy, resentment, greed, laziness, lust, gluttony, or fear. (If the news you’re taking in doesn’t incite enough of this for you, the advertising that pays for it surely will.) These attitudes provoke behaviors that kill our bodies, bank accounts, and our relationships. So you may want to consider limiting or filtering out news that turns on these killer attitudes.

That last mindset of FEAR is clearly a favorite product of some politicians, radio personalities and news networks. I just prefer to experience faith (confidence and peace) over fear (worry and stress).

To that end, one helpful boundary to use is "so what?" When you ask "what if" you experience a tornado, earthquake, war, disease, burglar, rapist, or something tragic happen to a loved one, you can ask yourself, "So what if . . .?", and start imagining and praying for something good that could come out of such a tragedy. For extra peace of mind, imagine how you could help to create that silver lining.

In short, take care what goes into your three news gates: your eye-gate (TV, newspapers, magazines, computer), your ear-gate (radio and hearsay), and your thought-gate. That last gate is where you decide what the news means, whether you’re going to worry about it, or whether you are going to bring something good out of it. That makes all the difference.

For most people, and especially I believe most Southerners, "Thou shalt not hurt thy neighbor’s feelings" is right up there with the Ten Commandments, except higher. They would much more freely admit to lying, coveting and idolizing than to saying or doing something they knew would hurt someone’s feelings.

The problem is that the truth hurts, especially the truth that sets us free from illusions and bad habits. So who is a good enough friend to bruise our ego, and hurt our feelings with the truth we need but do not want?

Sure a good friend is one who helps you out (a do-good friend), one who compliments you (a feel-good friend), and one who makes time for you and includes you in things (a good-times friend). These are all signs of a good friend, and we all need friends like this.

But these things are rather easy to give. You know the friend will like it, and will be more likely to make you happy by doing you the return favor down the road.

Now here are eight things a really good friend would say to you, and you, if you were a true-blue good friend, would say to them. Score yourself and your friend zero to ten to see how good a friend you both are to each other. I’d say 6 to 8 is a true blue, honest-to-goodness friend, and 0 to 2, though perhaps a do-good, feel-good, or good-times friend, is also a false-front friend.

1. If you my friend are doing something you have admitted to me isn’t good for you, something like drug/alcohol abuse or an eating or spending disorder, but you go on acting like there’s nothing wrong with it now, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

2. If you my friend are enabling one of your loved ones to destroy his or her life with a bad habit like those in the previous paragraph, and you are excusing, funding, provoking or covering up the loved one’s bad habits, but you act like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

3. If you my friend have done something to insult me to my face but haven’t apologized for it, something you would certainly expect me to apologize for doing to you, but you act like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

4. If you my friend have done something to insult one of your loved ones (child, spouse, close friend) to their face but haven’t apologized for it, something you would certainly expect someone in your position to apologize for doing to you, but you act like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

5. If you my friend have cursed or degraded someone or something you know I hold dear (like taking God’s name in vain, or saying my best friend is no good), but you act like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

6. If you my friend have left me out of a social event you know I would have loved to attend, inviting my friends while not inviting me and yet acting like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

7. If you my friend have been confirmed for saying to someone else something that is critical of me but which you have never said to my face, yet you act like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you it confuses and concerns me, and ask you what’s up.

8. If you my friend have obviously bad breath, or you have obvious food on your clothes, mouth or teeth, but you act like nothing’s wrong, I’m going to tell you about it.

So do you have a true-blue friend, and are you an honest-to-goodness friend for someone? If you don’t have a true-blue friend, and you aren’t one to anybody else, I’ll be the friend who tells you that you aren’t being a very good friend to yourself either.

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.

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