Some things in the world are scary. It would be nice if you could just make those scary things and scary feelings go away, but sometimes you can’t. Some stuff is beyond your control. What you can control, however, is your response to fear and the ways you take care of yourself during these scary times.
This lesson focuses on what fear feels like, different ways people respond to it, and steps anyone can take to help manage fear and learn to live with scary things.
What is fear? Fear is a response to things that scare you. It can be helpful because it can alert you to danger. It can be harmful if you over react.
What does fear feel like? Fear feels different to each person, but there are some things that are pretty common:
- Feeling fear in your body — You may have a racing heart, dizziness, fast breathing, sweating or getting very cold (or both), tingling or weakness in arms or legs, upset stomach, pounding head or headache, blurry vision, or a rushing sound in your ears.
- Feeling fear in your mind — You may worry, have scary images or ideas, want to sleep or not be able to sleep, or lose your appetite.
What does fear make you do? Each person responds differently to different fears, but typically reactions fall into one of three categories: FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE.
- FIGHT—Sometimes fear makes you want to fight back against the thing that you’re afraid of.
- FLIGHT—Sometimes you just want to run away.
- FREEZE—Other times your body freezes up and you feel like you can’t or don’t want to move.
Fight, Flight, Freeze or Forget It
- Start with an introduction of what fear is, what it feels like, and the different ways people respond.
- Introduce the fight/flight/freeze response, talk about how sometimes you have a fear response that:
- Helps you (For example: If you’re in a scary situation and you instinctively know to run away.)
- Doesn’t actually fit with what’s happening (For example: You might feel like you need to run away when you’re at the doctor’s office to get a flu shot. A flu shot is something that is good for you, but a lot of people are afraid of shots.)
- Explain that you’re going to do an activity that helps young people learn how they respond to different situations that might be scary. You’re going to describe some different situations and for each one young people should make a face or gesture that goes with how they think they would respond—fight, flight, freeze, or forget it (meaning it isn’t something that would scare them.)
- Ask young people to practice each of these faces or gestures, one at a time in order:
- Forget it
- Start playing music while young people mill around the room. When you turn the music off, describe a potentially scary situation (nothing too scary for this activity as it is simply designed to get young people thinking, not to cause anxiety). After each song, talk a little bit with the young people about why they responded the way that they did, especially if there are differences among the group. Be very clear that there are no right or wrong responses, just differences and that this is an activity for learning about yourself, not for comparison or judging anyone else. Do the activity using the following scenarios:
- A surprise test in school
- A visit to the dentist
- Having to give a speech
- Singing a song in front of an audience
- Being chased by a tiger
- Being chased by a chipmunk
- Getting a shot at the doctor’s office
- An older student says something mean to you at school
- You’re in a store and an alarm goes off; you don’t know what it means
- You’re on a hike and you see a snake in front of you in the path
- You hear on the radio that a big storm is headed your way
- Finally, facilitate a conversation about the activity as a whole. Suggested discussion questions:
- What did you learn from this activity (about yourself, about how different people respond to fears)?
- What surprised you?
- When you feel scared and you respond—fight, flight, or freeze—what are things you do to help yourself feel better? (Talk about as many examples as young people are willing to share. Then transition to the next activity.)
Three Ways to Feel Better
Tell young people that you are going to learn about and practice three things they can do when they are feeling fear. These three actions can help them feel better even if they can’t make the scary thing go away. Describe each of them, one at a time, and practice as you go.
- Breathing exercises—Breathing comes so naturally that you can sometimes forget how important and powerful it is. Try this: Begin breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your mouth. Breathe in twice as long as you breathe out (try counting to two as you breathe in and count to four as you breathe out). Keep breathing like this for several minutes. What do you notice about how this changes the way your body feels? The next time you are feeling fearful, try to remember to breathe like this.
- Meditation—Try this meditation exercise and notice how it changes how your body feels. Meditating regularly can build “muscle memory” that will help you stay calm in the face of fear.
- Physical movement that can help you feel brave—Being brave usually doesn’t feel like it looks in movies or shows. Being brave means being willing to face things you’re afraid of. One way to learn bravery or courage—which is a similar word—is to do exercises that actually help you feel it in your body. Both cobras and elephants are great examples of brave animals and these stretches can help you channel them!