How to Deal with Fear

Life is a constant journey through variables we cannot control, however well prepared.


Tony Blair

Learning to tolerate uncertainty is the key factor in building great self confidence. Unfortunately fear of “what might happen next” – the feeling of uncertainty – can be very unpleasant.

Tony Blair, Driven by Fear

“On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as prime minister for the first time. I had never held office… my predominant feeling was fear.”

Tony Blair, Prime Minister in the U.K. for 10 years until 2007, published his memoirs (“A Journey”) earlier this year.  I haven’t read them, probably never will, but found it impossible to avoid the  discussion they provoked. What has startled many has been his candid admission that the principal driver behind many of his decisions was fear. In a excellent review psychologist Geoffrey Beattie  sums up:-

“Blair became a master at masking his true emotional state, hiding his terror with that masking smile.”

Yes, that “masking smile” – but hiding terror! What is most amazing is that Blair was always perceived as very relaxed and a great communicator. Yet, as he states, he “never relaxed for a moment.”  Even when he “kept a strong grip on himself” during the day

“I would wake in the morning with the hair on the back of my head damp with sweat. What I could control when awake was overpowering in sleep.”

Why does our body do this?

The feelings and body responses Tony Blair attaches to his fears are things we can all empathise with as have all evolved the same way. The anxiety (or fear) symptoms we all experience are part of the bodies defence system. Its what is know as “fight or flight”, getting ready to deal with threats.

Going back a few thousand years, when humans first roamed the earth, life was a bit more simple. But also more dangerous – man was as likely to be a prey as a hunter. If danger was spotted – and the brain received that message – then there were two simple options:-

run fear

flight - run from danger

1) Fight that danger

2) Run away!!! (or Flight)

If you think about it, if you do either of these actions your body is working in the same way. It will be moving fast at in heightened state of arousal. It will need to make full use of its arms and legs, whilst not want to waste energy or non important factors (such as processing the last meal in the stomach).

Lets just reiterate what happened to the body to trigger this fight or flight response.

Danger > Message to Brain > Prepares to Fight or Fight Danger

Now, in modern life we can relate to this if we think about how we would react if confronted with a real physical danger. If walking down the street and we did see a charging bull heading towards us, we wouldn’t just stand and stare! Without making a conscious decision we would run to safety. Once safe we would be aware of our pounding heart, fast breathing, sweat pouring off us, heightened sense of arousal….

Why do we start sweating, or feeling sick?

This list gives a brief explanation of why the fight or flight response leads to particular physical reactions.

Heart & Breathing

So in anticipation of increased exertion, the heart beats faster to pump blood – carrying oxygen – around the body. With this increase in blood pressure your breathing also increases in readiness for more muscular effort.


Muscles may feel “tingly” and arms and legs may shake as they prepare to fight or run. Sometime people describe “jelly legs”. Picture athletes preparing to run the 100 metres at the Olympics – their muscles are equally ready.


Sweat can serve two functions. It can help cool the body and help the hands and feet grip better (bearing in mind this defence system developed before modern materials made sweaty hands a liability!). I’ve also read that sweat can be an aroma to repel attackers.


As I touched on before, the body is usually digesting the last meal you consumed. But in times of arousal, the fight or flight response diverts blood away from the stomach to the peripheral muscles such as the arms and legs. Consequently you can suffer “butterflies” in the stomach or feel the urge to vomit.


The urge to urinate or defecate can increase as the body needs to make itself lighter, better able to fight or run. Another, less appetising reason (from the pre toilet age) is that this make the body less attractive as a prey, and will deter attackers.


The pupils dilate to let in more light and can become “mid range” focussed – you need to be able to take in as much information about your potential attackers. This can be experienced as a blurring of vision if, for example, you happened to be engaged on something near by.


You may have read about accounts from battles, where protagonists didn’t realise they had been badly hurt, or even shot, until after the event. This is again a way of the body protecting itself, but for panic attack sufferers it can be a most alarming symptom. Everything feels unreal, you feel detached from reality.

The problem is that most of the time this fight or flight response doesn’t help us with modern day fears.  Our brain doesn’t distinguish between a message saying its a real physical attack, or just an insult from another politician! So when Tony Blair literally described his weekly session of questions from fellow Members of Parliament as “bowel-moving” he wasn’t exaggerating!

photos and woodleywonderworks – latter on Flickr

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SenseiMattKlein October 15, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Can see why people shy away from things that scare them. The body sends us so many messages, as you point out. Deep breathing helps in most cases.

Sometimes the best course of action is to look straight down the dragon’s throat. I had a fear of heights at one time, but cured it by climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (they strap you in so you can’t go over even if you wanted to). Was a bit scary, but after facing it, no more fear. Just do it!

David October 16, 2010 at 10:02 am

One heck of a way of curing a fear! But ultimately it does boil down to facing the fear and doing it. Thanks for your comment.

Debbie @ Happy Maker October 16, 2010 at 12:24 am

Fear is a funny thing, and something we all have to deal with. I have a fear of getting left behind. This was because when I was very little I got left in a car at home while everyone else went in the house. It was night time. Anyway I have slowly taken some of my fear away, just by trying to slow down when in a group. Little things I do help. It is amazing how the body itself can prtect us by the different reactions it has to situations.

David October 16, 2010 at 10:06 am

As you say, the body is trying to protect us, even though it seems a very odd way of doing so. Also I know there are many like you trying to overcome fears that have their roots in childhood experience. Thanks for sharing

Benjamin October 16, 2010 at 4:59 am

A great post, David.

In addition to being faster, the breathing is primarily from the top of the lungs… which is great for an actual fight or certain high intensity athletic events. But it’s pretty problematic for general health or working a corporate job… 😉

One way to catch the fight or flight response before it gets out of hand is to maintain or return to deep, slow, rhythmic breathing.

Of course, if you are too far along in fight-or-flight mode… you won’t even think of this… so early detection is key.

keep smiling,


David October 16, 2010 at 10:10 am

Thanks for adding this as my remarks about breathing are very thin and, as Matt mentions above, breathing is at the core of dealing with anxiety and fear. But good breathing habits can go a long way to stop the body going into overdrive unnecessarily.

Andrew @ Blogging Guide October 16, 2010 at 7:04 am


When is a fearful state I often ask myself ‘What’s the worst that can happen’. The answer is normally not much and very trivial…that helps reduce the fear for me.


David October 16, 2010 at 10:13 am

Thanks for your comment. This does flag up how much our self talk is at the root of our fears. We tend to fan the flames with our thoughts rather than talking ourselves out of this aroused state. In most scenarios no one is going to get physically hurt, which is what our body is trying to protect us from.

Bruce October 16, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I find stress – or chronic fear – a big factor in my patients being overweight. I won’t go into the specific physiology here but you covered it above. I don’t think that kind of fear can be “faced” but it can be defused and deflected. I have my clients and patients learn breathing techniques and simply drink more water. We really need to send the amygdala in our brain an all is OK signal regularly. Enjoyed the post David!

David October 17, 2010 at 9:39 am

Thanks for your comment and kind words. I realise I need to do a follow up post on how to deal with these symptoms, particularly breathing breathing techniques. I also like the idea of “all is OK”!

Mitch Wilson October 16, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Fear is a crazy thing because I think what usually happens is what we are afraid of isn’t something we should be afraid of and things maybe we aren’t so afraid of are the things maybe we should worry or fear more. Who Knows?

David October 17, 2010 at 9:42 am

We worry about things that are unlikely to happen all the time – or things we can’t do anything about. It is crazy the way we allow our thinking to build up these fears. Thanks for the comment.

Corinne Edwards October 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

This is a surprise –

““Blair became a master at masking his true emotional state, hiding his terror with that masking smile.”

He was a powerful master at hiding it.

Funny, I ask myself the same question Andrew mentioned when I am afraid.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen here?”

Followed by –

“”Well, can you handle that?”

Usually, the answer is yes.

I think we all have fear – and cover it up even to ourselves by distraction.

Excellent post, David.

Andrew @ Blogging Guide October 17, 2010 at 8:58 am


That’s a great follow up question!

I shall use it.


David October 17, 2010 at 9:45 am

Thanks for your comment and compliment – and like Andrew I think that’s a useful second question to ask ourselves. I was also very surprised about Tony Blair, particularly as he could have found someone to help him deal with his fears!

Beat Schindler October 17, 2010 at 2:11 am

Fear – more often than not “False evidence appearing real.” Which is why fear based decisions are almost always “wrong” – because the fear “behind it” is false.
Fear – well described by your post – has played far too big a role for a large part of my life. Not that it has gone, but over time I’ve been able to develop a shield and armor against fear – faith in God, the Serenity Prayer and the “Constructive Worry Technique” prescribed by Dr Maltz in Psycho-Cybernetics (the book). Still, it’s a formidable foe. The more fear feels it’s losing, the stronger it fights back. But it’ll loose anyway. We both know, it’s days are numbered.
– Beat

David October 17, 2010 at 9:56 am

Thanks for your interesting comment. Learning that thoughts are not facts – that we fill ourselves with “False evidence appearing real.” – is a big step in dealing with fear.

Joel October 17, 2010 at 7:19 pm

I once heard a Royal Marine tell someone about the shaking you get in your legs after an adrenaline rush from fear. He was saying that most people think it’s because they’re scared and they’re not tough enough, but it is an automatic body response and the toughest guys in the world get it too – everytime. They embrace it as it means they were alert and responsive enough to survive and now the “danger” has passed.
Your body knows what it’s doing. Most of the time at least!

David October 18, 2010 at 7:25 am

Most of us seldom experience this true adrenaline rush from a “proper” fearful situation, perhaps if we did it would be easier to tell ourselves that there is nothing to fear when contending with our everyday “fears”. Thanks for your comment.

Amy LeForge October 18, 2010 at 5:00 am

Someone told me once that fear is stronger when the possible outcomes of a situation are unstated. If you’re in a high state of anxiety over something, stop and state out loud what could happen and (if you can) specifically what you’re afraid of. Chances are that once you’ve said what could happen out loud it doesn’t seem as frightening or as possible, and your fear can subside.

David October 18, 2010 at 7:27 am

Sound advice, anything that gets you to stop and reflect and help dampen the message the brain is getting should prove helpful. Unfortunately getting into a habit of doing this is something most people won’t do! Thanks for your comment.

Michelle Vandepas October 18, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Sometimes just knowing that we are afraid is the first step. We kid ourselves, not knowing the real issue stopping us from moving forward. Only if we turn in and be honest will be find fear.

David October 19, 2010 at 7:47 am

Good point; we are forever skirting around the edge. of our comfort zone. It usually will be uncomfortable – involving some of these fear symptoms – when we start something new. Learning to tolerate uncertainty is the best way to build self confidence. Thanks for your comment.

Krizia@Blog Income for Women October 21, 2010 at 5:39 am

Fear seems to be the topic of the week!

I know that I have to deal with it, but it’s interesting to read that someone like Tony Blair has the same cross to bare.

I wish I could master this “Blair became a master at masking his true emotional state, hiding his terror with that masking smile.”

Well researched post. Thanks,


David October 22, 2010 at 11:09 pm

I think Tony Blair could have done more to deal with his terror, rather than just masking it! But he certainly did a very good job of keeping his public image looking perfect. Thanks for the comment

Cheryl from thatgirlisfunny October 29, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Hi David,
I’m adding in deep breathing through practicing yoga to help combat this fear response. When I practice jiu jitsu, I get panicky sometimes. As soon as I start having shallow breathing, everything goes downhill from there. It’s really fascinating to realize that even such a public figure as Tony Blair experiences fear just like the rest of us.

Marilyn November 29, 2010 at 2:54 pm

It is so sad that we have been so misinformed about our capabilities and power to deal with any and every situation. The mind is a wonderful thing and it can be trained to believe anything. We are unlimited and totally responsible for every situation in our lives. We are of Source(God) therefore there is never anything to fear for how can we be anything other than Magnificent and Powerful. If we Focus on fear there will be more fear, but if we focus on love then there will be more of it too. Which would you rather Focus on.

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