So you want to be brave

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The firefighters battling the flames of northern California -brave. The men and women who helped evacuate strangers during Hurricane Harvey - brave. The people who created a human chain to save swimmers drowning in a whirlpool - brave.

We see these acts of heroism and we know what it means to be brave, to have courage. But are these acts of self-sacrifice the only ways to be brave? Or are there other forms of courage, ones we often ignore that happen every day?

What does it mean to be brave?

There is a line in Room by Emma Donaghue that says so much - "Scared is what you're feeling. Brave is what you're doing."

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines brave as "resolute in facing odds; able to meet danger or endure pain or hardship without giving in to fear." It comes from the Italian word bravo, or bold and originally meant "wild savage". A famous quote says that a fine line separates bravery and stupidity. That line is death.

To commit an act of bravery is to ignore fear, to act impulsively, to jump in front of traffic, and place your life on the line.

We see the firefighters and think we could never be that brave. Indeed, there are some people who appear to be braver than others are. Scientists are finding that people who commit acts of bravery are different from everyone else. Brain scans of 19 people who donated kidneys to strangers showed that these individuals had unusually large amygdalas.

The biology of fear and courage

The amygdala is a part of the brain associated with fear. It controls how we react to situations the brain finds potentially threatening or dangerous. You might think that an enlarged amygdala would result in people overcome with fear. The enlarged amygdala is associated with being unusually responsive to the fear of others. These individuals are more sensitive to the fear in others and often describe their decision to help as intuitive. They find the act of not helping more mystifying, because they act without thinking.

In the article Fascinating Psychology of Bravery: What Makes Someone Brave, Jeff Wise states that habits allow someone to function automatically, even in dangerous situations. If you train for specific situations, for instance a flight attendant training for crash landings, your brain switches on autopilot.

What about courage?

Bravery is not something that can happen every day. It occurs during extreme situations, like traffic accidents, natural disasters, and wars.

If we want to be brave, we have to wait for these situations to arise. And if we don't have an enlarged amygdala, we may not make the brave decision (although oxytocin helps suppress the activation of the amygdala, so get those hugs in).

If being brave is out of reach, what about courage? Aren't they the same thing?

Actually, no. While bravery is an act based on boldness, courage is an act of mindfulness. The word courage derives from the French world couer, which means "heart."

Scholars debate whether fear is a component of courage. But they generally agree that courage is the willingness to act in response to a threat to achieve an important outcome or goal. They also agree that there are different forms of courage. Some examples include:

  • Physical courage - acting when there is a risk of physical harm
  • Moral courage - when the threat is one of moral or ethical integrity
  • Social courage - risking social disapproval
  • Existential courage - quest for meaning
  • Psychological courage - facing one's own irrational fears and anxiety
  • Vital courage - when the threat is illness and health related

However, there can be some overlap. Running into a burning building can be both a physical and moral act of courage. The most important factors in all these different forms of courage is the presence of a threat and a worthy outcome.

So you do you increase your courage. Research on Jewish rescuers during the holocaust found that rescuers had a greater sense of

  • social responsibility
  • empathetic concern
  • risk taking
  • altruistic moral reasoning

Other researchers found that you can build your courage by encountering "mini-situations" that need small amounts of courage. This practice builds a sense of mastery and competence. This creates a "courageous mindset" that helps you with the next situation that requires courage.

It's also important to remember that not all acts of courage require physical acts that places your in harm’s way. Speaking out against a bully is a social and moral act of courage. Facing breast cancer is an act of vital courage. And venturing to the top of the Willis Tower when you are afraid of heights is a psychological act of courage.

The Take-Away

Bravery requires an intuitive and bold action in an extreme situation. Courage is a mindful approach to a threatening situation that requires a worthy outcome. There are many types of courage, from physical to existential. To build your courage, seek out daily situations that place you just outside your comfort zone. This will help you develop a courageous mindset.