We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Montaigne (16c. French philosopher)
This area will highlight the meaning and purpose of both fear and courage and will suggest some interventions that may help you be more in charge in this respect. Let’s start by considering when fear is useful and when it is not.
Fear and its purpose
Fear can play a valuable role in deterring us from engaging in potentially damaging situations and actions – without it, we would easily become reckless. Fear also increases our chances of dealing with dangerous situations, as it provides extra energy. However, in the complex world we live in, fear can be unhelpful, for example, when it is misplaced – this happens when we wrongly associate some situations with physical danger. For this reason, it is important to separate realistic and unrealistic fears. Fear can also be an impediment or even make things worse when it is exaggerated or out of control (e.g. you jump out of the bath because you’ve seen a spider, slip on the wet floor, and break your leg). So let’s look first at how we can deal with fear reactions.
Dealing with fear reactions
The feeling of fear may trigger a number of emotional reactions such as freezing, trembling, ‘jelly legs’, wanting to scream, hide, or run away, or feeling like fainting. These reactions are not pleasant, and furthermore, they may be embarrassing if they happen in social situations. For this reason, some people develop a fear of fear – or fear of their own reactions. So let’s make it clear that you are not going to die from them; you do, in fact, have much greater control over these reactions than you think (one in four people have fear of flying – how many of them have you seen losing control during a flight?). Even if you do react, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. So, the best you can do in such situations is not feed fear further by fearing your possible reactions (“I will make a fool of myself”, “Something horrible will happen!”, “I am going to have a heart attack!”). By fearing them, you are making more likely to have such reactions. Remind yourself that it is normal to feel an urge to react when you experience fear but that this urge is not necessary right now and won’t help – so you can relax. After a while, it will pass. In case this is not enough, imagine that somebody else is in your situation; what would you say or do to help them? Once you have some control over your reactions, you may dig a bit deeper and look for the cause.
The cause and trigger of fear
A trigger for your fear may be different from its cause. This is because a distressing experience may lead to developing a fear of anything that you associate with that experience (e.g. you were attacked by a dog near a rose bush when you were little, and now rose bushes may trigger fear in you). This exercise can help you determine what you are really afraid of and whether or not your fear is justified:
What am I really afraid of? Simply keep asking yourself, ‘why am I afraid of x, what makes it frightening for me?’ until you get to the bottom of what you are really afraid of. Say you are afraid of the dark. You can ask yourself, ‘why am I afraid of the dark?’ ‘Because somebody may be hiding in the dark.’ Follow with ‘why am I afraid of somebody hiding?’ ‘Because they may attack me.’ So, the real fear is the fear of being harmed rather than the dark as such. Now, how realistic is it? If it is not, you may continue exploring why you have an unrealistic fear. Have you or somebody you know had a bad experience that you associate with the dark? Have you heard some scary stories about it? Did either of your parents or siblings feel the same when you were little? If so, acknowledge that these are just associations that are not justified anymore.
Courage does not mean fearlessness but the mastery of fear. In other words, being able to control fear rather than letting fear control you. This implies that courage is not the same for everybody. For instance, if somebody takes a long flight despite her fear of flying, she acts courageously, even though flying is nothing special for many people. And all of us have already been courageous (e.g. as toddlers, when trying to take our first steps).
What can help us to develop courage
Here are a few things that can help you be courageous:
- Determination, really wanting to do something despite fear.
- Care for somebody or something or a sense of duty (e.g. soldiers who care for their country).
- Other strong emotions such as love, joy or anger (it is hard to have two different emotional reactions at the same time).
- Familiarity and knowledge – learning about what you are afraid of. For example, did you know that we could not survive without spiders (we would be swamped by insects) or that the airplane is the safest mode of transport (after the underground)?
- Not letting your fantasy run wild – what we can imagine is usually far worse than the real situation.
- Being positive and optimistic.
- Humour – trying to see the funny side of the situation.
- Relaxing, as being relaxed and being afraid don’t go together.
- Sharing the experience with or being supported by others.
Can you add anything to the above list? You may already have your own courage strategies. To find out, recall situations in which you have acted courageously (in your own eyes, even if it was nothing special for others). What prompted you to do so? Which thoughts, emotions and actions supported you? How did being courageous feel? Can you recall that feeling now? Of course, none of this would be of much use without practice, so to develop courage further, try the following exercises.
Exposure is the best method of developing courage:
- Think of, draw or find an image of an object, animal, activity or situation that elicits in you a feeling of fear (e.g. an image of a spider).
- Close your eyes, relax, and consider how you would like to feel in that situation (e.g. confident, curious, determined – whatever works for you).
- With this attitude approach the image (mentally or physically), and note what you feel. If you start feeling uncomfortable and tense don’t fight it – acknowledge your reaction, relax, and let it pass through. Feel free to look away or move away but don’t feed fear with imagination.
- When you calm down, recall the way you want to feel and face the image again. Try also to find something positive or enjoyable in the experience (e.g. the sense of achievement or something nice, funny or interesting that you haven’t noticed before).
- Play and experiment with it until you feel ok (confident that you are in charge of your reactions).
- Later, you can try the same in real life situations. If you train yourself to beat fear in imagination, you are likely to do so in reality too.
This exercise can help you solidify the change:
Making courage last
- After going through a situation that required courage, check if there is any tension left and let go of it.
- Look back at the experience and consider how realistic your fear was. Were your old fear reactions justified?
- Pay attention to how you feel now in order to remember the experience of being courageous and defeating fear, so as to be able to recall it again when necessary.