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What are we frightened of?

by Helen Bryant (revised, first published in 2014)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the reality of fear.

Preparation and materials


  1. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ These are the words spoken by former American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his inaugural address on March 4, 1933.

  2. Today, we are going to consider what fear is and how we can handle it. In the same speech, Roosevelt went on to call fear ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses’. It seems that the president had a pretty good understanding of fear and what it does to people, even to a nation. It’s an emotion, a feeling - yet it holds enormous power.

  3. The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, ‘There is no passion so contagious as that of fear.’ 

    When we were younger and people told us ghost stories or other scary stories, we could wind ourselves up and become really frightened. If people around us are frightened, it’s easy to pick up on that fear. Fear is contagious. It’s the herd instinct in us that means that we follow others to protect ourselves and escape danger. We follow our instincts, but this means that we sense fear and tend to react to it in a fearful way.

  4. The word ‘fear’ comes from an old English word for ‘calamity’ or ‘danger’, so its very root is connected with the need to protect oneself or others from danger or harm.

    Of course, fear and what people are afraid of have probably changed over time. Our medieval ancestors were more likely to be afraid of starving due to crop failure rather than the modern concerns that frighten us today.

  5. It may seem strange, but it pays to be afraid at times because it’s a natural response that keeps us safe. Fear is a vital reaction to possible physical and emotional danger. If we didn’t feel it, we wouldn’t be nudged to protect ourselves, look after others or respond appropriately to the threats that face us.

    Equally, at times, we fear situations that are far from life-or-death scenarios and end up fearing fear itself. It’s as if it manifests itself; it becomes something that is real. That is, we perceive it as being real even if it hasn’t happened yet or is unlikely to happen.

  6. Let’s think for a moment about something that we might fear.

    Many people are frightened of the dark, snakes, heights, clowns or the unknown. Something that one person finds frightening may have no effect at all on someone else. However, that doesn’t mean that the fear is not there. Sometimes, we don’t understand another person’s fears – but they are still real to the person concerned.

  7. Let’s return to those words from Roosevelt: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ If we take the fear out of something, it becomes easier. By facing up to our fears, we can see them for what they really are and try to overcome them.

Time for reflection

One of the major fears that young people experience is a fear of failure. Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, had her own views on how to respond to this. She said, ‘You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face . .  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’

By following her advice, we will see what we fear for what it truly is: something that paralyses us, harms us and can be detrimental to us.

Encourage the students to spend a few moments thinking about something that they are scared of or nervous about.

- Is it really worth the energy?
- If it is, how can I prepare myself fully?
- Do I need to seek help with it from someone?


You may wish to play some peaceful music. An example is available at: (over 3 hours long)

Publication date: September 2021   (Vol.23 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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