the science of courage
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Confidence Mental Health

The Science of Courage & Fear

We’re all familiar with those characters in movies who are the absolutely fearless warriors who run towards certain death only to emerge from the rubble victorious, with just enough strength to utter a cheesy one liner and snog the damsel in distress…. *yawn* 🙄

Well, guess what? Hollywood has fictitious tendencies – shock horror, right!?!?

Real life heroes are the everyday people who, whether terrified or not, will go out of their way to help another person. Real life heros are the firefighters, aid workers, nurses and doctors those who, despite self doubt and worry, have a willingness to act in the face of fear. Real life heroes are the everyday people who carry on despite their fears, setbacks and failures.

Psssst: *Anyone who says that they don’t get scared from time to time is probably not telling the whole truth.*

The truth is, there is no courage without fear.

So, what actually is fear?

The Amygdala is your brain’s emergency response unit. It is also the part of our brains responsible for our emotions – we’ve all seen the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. Those creatures with all their little quirks and personality traits exist inside the main character’s Amygdala.

When a threat comes along, let’s say, a spider… our body reacts in such a way to maximise our survival chances. The Amygdala releases stress hormones which increase the heart rate sending blood coursing through our veins to reach the muscles quicker for flight. Observational senses such as hearing and eyesight are sharpened, and we quickly decide ‘fight or flight’.

Now that humans are no longer living in the wild, the fear of physical threats (like being a lion’s breakfast) are replaced by things like failure, vulnerability, rejection and uncertainty.

What is courage and where does it come from?

Courage is about managing your fear. It can be nurtured and practised until you have the ability to face your fears, whatever they may be. When we are scared we act differently to when we are calm. Studies have shown that a certain part of the brain is activated when we engage in courageous acts called the Subgenual Anterior Cingulate Cortex (sgACC) – keeping this part of your brain well exercised is key to overcoming your fears.

Most importantly, courage is NOT a lack of fear. It can be described as the readiness to act in the face of fear. We don’t eliminate fear, we manage it.

How can I manage my fear?

Expose yourself to scary things – try to put yourself into situations that may be uncomfortable and slowly take steps to overcome any anxiety that holds you back. We’re not talking about throwing yourself into the lion’s enclosure at the zoo, we mean little things like holding a snake, climbing a ladder or speaking out in assembly. The more you put yourself into scary situations, the more you’ll be able to recognise and deal with the physical effects of being scared – the wobbly knees, the sweaty palms etc…

Consider the outcomes – if you map out every outcome, often you’ll find that they’re never as bad as you first imagine.

Plan – have a clear plan of how you’re going to do something. Let’s say, your fear at this time is talking to your parents about a topic you’re certain they won’t like. You need to have a plan of action. Think about how you’re going to approach the situation and what you’re going to do after it. Plan a place to go  and a way to calm down after it’s done, this will enable you to go into the situation with a little less uncertainty because you’ll be prepared for any outcome.

Talk about it – ask for help. We’re not meant to do life on our own. We’re meant to do it together so share your fears and they will seem a lot less scary when they’re out in the open! Chances are, there are a lot of other people out there who share your fear, what ever it may be!

What’s your biggest fear?

Whether it’s the monster under the bed or the big hairy spider in your bathroom… join the community and spill the beans on what makes you want to hide under the duvet…


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