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Being Fearful

How should we handle fear?

by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2012)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the positive and negative aspects of fear.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


  1. What is it that really frightens you? It might be spiders or it might be the dark. It might be a fear of failure or it might be a fear of letting someone down. Whatever it is, fear can be something that paralyses us, stopping us from doing even the smallest things.

  2. Fear is an emotion that is triggered when we perceive something to be a threat to us. It is one of our most basic emotions and part of our survival mechanism.

    In any situation, fear makes individuals protect themselves. It enables us to assess what can do us harm, and what cannot. Fear is behind our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, which is our innate, instinctive response either to fight what we fear or to run away from it. It triggers the release of adrenaline and other hormones that enable us to protect ourselves in whichever way we feel is best suited to us and the situation.

    Humanity would not have got very far without fear. This most basic of instincts taught our early ancestors to run away from animals that were a danger to them. However, even though there are no sabre-toothed tigers any more, we still find ourselves responding in the same way as our ancestors in situations where we fear something or someone.

  3. So, what have we really got to be afraid of? Some people face fear on a daily basis. They may come from an abusive background, where they have to protect themselves, their siblings or their children. They may be in conflict situations in various areas of the world. These threats are very real, but often, what we fear in today’s society are perceived threats and what-ifs.

  4. There is an old German proverb: ‘Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.’ By being afraid of something, we immediately make it much bigger and more frightening than it really is. Have you ever been in the house alone and heard an unexpected noise? In most cases, it will have turned out to be nothing – maybe the hamster suddenly decided to whizz around in its wheel – but your imagination will have turned the noise into a threat and you will have attached fear to it.

    You might have a similarly fearful reaction when encountering a spider. It’s got more reason to be afraid of you than you have of it, yet you are the one running away and screeching!

  5. Sometimes, the things that we fear can be future events. We might be fearful of what the future holds for us in general. We might be fearful of taking exams, then fearful of the results and then fearful of our next step, whether it be A Levels, higher education or getting a job. Ultimately, these things will come to pass and won’t be half as frightening as we imagined they would be.

  6. With all emotions, we must acknowledge how we feel and tackle this head-on. Fear is simply another emotion to be acknowledged and understood. Of course, if we are in a situation where we are in physical danger, it makes sense to be afraid and do something about it. Sometimes, fear can paralyse people and make them freeze, but something within them will eventually make them move and carry on.

    So, fear is something that can be conquered. It’s important to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Susan Jeffers’ well-known self-help book of the same name addresses how fears can hold us back from achieving our true potential, simply because we are afraid of what might happen. Every time we take a step into the unknown, we experience fear, so there is no point in saying, ‘I’ll do it when I’m no longer afraid.’ If we do that, we will be waiting for a long time. The fear is part of the package.

  7. Human beings will always be afraid, but we can use our fear of the unknown to drive ourselves forward rather than being held back. Imagine if no one ever took a risk: we probably wouldn’t have got in a boat and discovered America, or gone to the moon either.

    It helps to recognize that everyone is afraid when facing the unfamiliar. Yes, all those people who have succeeded in doing what they wanted to in life have felt fear – but they went ahead and did it anyway. So can we!

  8. Dealing with our fears is, in fact, less frightening than living with the bigger underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness. The power to change things and not feel helpless is often in our own hands. Standing screaming at the spider is worse if we are in the house on our own. Are we going to stand in the same place all day and hope that the spider will go away? Are we never going to sit another exam because it’s just too scary?

  9. Once we have faced our fears, we’ll probably see that being helpless is much more dangerous than confronting the fear. Returning to that basic human instinct of fight or flight, both are good because each constitutes a reaction of some sort. Regarding failure, how will we know whether we will actually fail unless we take the risk?

Time for reflection

Spend a few moments thinking about what you have to do today that makes you nervous.

Think about the things that regularly frighten you. Try to put away the groundless fears and look at the things that should frighten you. Decide to keep it all in perspective and to step out and face your fears.

Many people find it helpful to talk to someone else about their fears. Can you speak to someone today? (Give details of the services available in school that might be helpful to the students.)

Publication date: November 2020   (Vol.22 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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