A team of Clydesdale horses were spooked during a Fourth of July parade in Bristol, Rhode Island, and charged into the crowd. While hundreds of bystanders froze and did nothing, three men got the horses under control before anyone was killed. All three were veterans. Their military experiences taught them to react instantly and productively in the face of fear. I was one of them.
Fear can trigger either courage or panic in us. We rise to the occasion and perform well…or we freeze up or run away and fall well short of our abilities.
Fortunately, we don’t need to serve in combat to learn to face fear courageously. We just need to harness five powers that we all have within us—powers that can help us overcome fear, whether we’re escaping from a burning building…dealing with a serious illness…or struggling to achieve our dreams.
Physical fitness is highly correlated with courage and confidence. You don’t have to be physically strong to act courageously, of course—but when our bodies feel fit and powerful, we are more likely to feel confident enough to confront daunting challenges. And this includes challenges that can’t be solved through physical means.
In fact, exercising builds confidence even when we’re too old or ill to truly become physically powerful.
Example: A study published in Journal of Health Psychology found that regular exercise led to increased confidence, even if that exercise was not intensive and didn’t lead to a change in physical appearance. The key was that exercise must be done regularly.
Fitness also helps us sleep—something that we might otherwise have trouble doing when fear looms.
Most battles are won before the fight even begins. They’re won by acquiring the knowledge needed to fully understand the upcoming mission.
Trouble is, fear can close off our intellectual curiosity. It can encourage us to retreat into ourselves, preventing us from seeking the knowledge that we need to achieve victory.
Example: Fear might push us to join the crowd rushing away from a fire when we first should take a moment to acquire a crucial piece of knowledge—the location of exits or fire escapes.
Once we’ve acquired knowledge about a fearful situation, we can form a solid plan for confronting it. And once that plan is in place, action and purpose will start to replace uncertainty and panic.
Spirituality can be a very powerful weapon against fear, but it’s a weapon that works differently for different people.
For some, spiritual power means sensing God’s strength on their side as they face their fears. For others, it means harnessing the power of the glory of life. Our fears cannot crush us if we continue exalting in the wonderful parts of life.
Example: When I learned that I had Merkel cell cancer, I found it tremendously helpful to think, Maybe this cancer is going to get me, but in the meantime, I’m alive and I’m going to live well. Though the radiation treatments left me feeling weak, I didn’t change the way I lived my life. I have been cancer-free for six years.
Having a cool, calm temperament can be a tremendous help when confronting fear. I’m fortunate to be one of those people who has a sense that “whatever it is, I can deal with it.” If that’s not your natural mind-set, you can teach yourself to adopt it. When you feel fear taking hold, call to mind someone you know and respect who remains calm and cool under pressure (if you have time, you could even call this person on the phone). Spend a few minutes reflecting on how this person would react to your current situation.
Example: Throughout my life, I have found inspiration in the calm, courageous way that baseball star Lou Gehrig faced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that took his life at age 37.
THE POWER OF EXPERIENCE
The passing years don’t just make us older. They also make us experienced. Our experiences pile up as we live our lives. By the time we reach an advanced age, our accumulation of experiences forms an extensive arsenal of weapons at our disposal against whatever fearful challenges might come our way. With these weapons, we need never feel weak or helpless against fear—we can remind ourselves, There isn’t much that I haven’t seen or lived through, and I’ve learned so much from the many people I have known.
Lessons learned from responding to past fears might help us form a plan for responding to a current fear…or reflecting on our experiences simply might remind us that we have faced worse fears in the past and come through them OK. Past fears can provide helpful guidance even if we didn’t do a particularly good job facing those fears the first time around. As Ben Franklin noted, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”
Three More Fear-Fighting Tools
The five powers above are not your only weapons against fear. Three more ways to improve your odds of overcoming future fears…
Take chances. Volunteer for anything and everything. Try hobbies that take you outside your comfort zone. Repeatedly pushing yourself into new or challenging situations teaches you to be comfortable with these situations—even enjoy them—rather than fear them. Example: I still ski at age 81, though my artificial knees are not particularly happy with the hobby.
Love. The love we feel for our family and friends—and the love they feel for us—can counteract even massive fears.
Helpful: One way to bring love into your life is to get a dog. When I found out that I had cancer, I adopted a dog that was scheduled to be euthanized the next day. Throughout my treatments, I was there for the dog and the dog was there for me. Six years later, the dog still is.
Care for others. It’s common to withdraw into ourselves and our problems when we confront major fears. Instead, seek ways to help others with their problems. Caring for others gives life its deepest, most significant meaning. It takes our minds off our own fears and puts our fears into perspective. It makes us feel good about ourselves even when times are bad.