05/18/2013 09:51 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2013

Cranking Up a Dose of Daily Courage


It's time to make my June dermatology appointment.

It's not really a big deal. Except for that one time when it was. A very big deal. The day the dermatologist found melanoma. That was two surgeries and scores of appointments ago. Though I've been healthy for six years now, I still feel my heart lurch whenever I make the appointment. I still feel afraid when I go for the check-up.

It takes courage to go to the dermatologist for me now. Fortunately, I've got just enough to see it through. And so do you. Seriously, you do. You act on it every day.

We rarely think of ourselves courageous. We believe that courage is a term best saved for firefighters or astronauts.

But parenting is a courageous act. So is marriage. Love requires a fair dose of courage and accepting a new job does, too. It requires courage to call the doc after finding a lump, to speak the truth when it's unpopular, to apologize for the hurt you've caused. To say "no" when everyone wants you to say yes. To admit that you've got a drinking problem. To get treatment. It takes courage to commit to a goal you might not ever achieve. To speak to your kid's class at career day. To leave the abusive marriage.

This is the kind of courage philosopher Dan Putman calls "psychological courage."

This kind of courage is essential to our health and happiness because it allows us to face up to our lives. To acknowledge and even confront the addictions and lies, fears and mistakes we make so that we can move into them and beyond them. So that we can grow and learn and find meaning and purpose and even peace.

Courage is the thing that keeps us moving instead of being stuck in our circumstance and fear. Course, if you're free from fear, you don't need any courage at all. But for most of us, fear is going to show up from time to time. You are going to wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating fast, certain that you are not brave enough to go through this, to confront that, to stand up now. You are going to shake and worry and blame and complain and obsess. You might even eat a gallon of ice cream. Then, you are going to draw from your courage and push on and in and through it.

Think you can't do it? Think you don't have enough to face up to the tough stuff in life? That's OK -- you can always get more.

Researchers like Clemson University psychologist Cynthia Pury have discovered that courage is a quality -- and a process -- that we can practice and strengthen. It requires us both to manage our fears and then to act despite them.

Four Ways to Boost Our Courage

Prepare to act. As Pury says, a firefighter never ventures into a burning building without training. When you know you have a big moment ahead -- one that scares the beejeezus out of you like, say, a wedding, divorce, school exam, doctor appointment -- study up. Visualize. Research. Write down the questions you want to ask, or develop a strategy for the encounter. Learn about the situation you are going into and you'll feel better when you actually do move into it. Of course you'll never shake all the risk, but with a little prep the risks become more calculated rather than crazy.

Know what matters. When we are acting to uphold or align with our values, it's easier to muster the courage we need to move through the fear. Remember what you're after, what the goal is -- living a healthy life, graduating from college, raising your children, learning more about yourself, helping your family -- and you'll develop the courage you need to persist and prevail through the scary stuff.

Change your physical response and relax. I know, right? You're quaking in your shoes and I'm telling you to relax? Yep. If you can settle down just a bit, lower your heart rate and regulate your breathing, you will gain clarity and be able to take an efficient, rational approach to whatever you're facing. Often, like when I was waiting for the oncologist to arrive, I take a few deep breaths from the belly, or do a five-minute mediation to calm myself.

If you can move your body, that helps, too. Go outside and look at the green lawn, or trees blowing in the wind. Both green colors and nature-scapes have been shown in research to reduce stress.

Change your posture. How we hold ourselves influences our mood. So, if you're feeling particularly freaked, well, er, pretend you're not. Stand tall, shoulders back, feet rooted to the floor and feel the strength that comes with that big position. Sitting back in your chair with your feet up on your desk, hands behind your head has also been shown to boost confidence, in studies at Columbia and Harvard business schools.

Remind yourself that you are already courageous. Reflect on the times you've faced hard things and traveled through your fears. Remember too, the risks you've taken -- started the business, moved to new place, learned a new skill (seriously, my ukulele classes had me sweating, but I did it), lived with a chronic illness, made a new friend -- and overcome.

See, you've already found your way through some scary spots. A bunch of times. You can do it again, of course. You are courageous, after all. We all are.

With that in mind, I'm standing tall, rooting my feet to the floor, squaring my shoulders and picking up the phone.

It's time to call the dermatologist.

Some portions of this post were adapted from Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People

For more by Polly Campbell, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.