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.