Proxy experiences for the unknown
Substituting simulated experiences for possible real situations is an effective way of learning to deal with those situations and for improving resilience when those situations occur in the real world. One of the aspects it teaches us is the extent of our ability to control an unknown situation, and how we need to let go of trying to control something we can’t. This ability to let go also lowers our stress and anxiety when dealing with the unknown.
The use of role-playing in substituting situations is learning to work through the anxiety, not removing it. Having the ‘faux’-experience will help build self-confidence when handling a similar situation in a real environment. But the only way that such a faux-experience can be effective through the tools of role-playing is when the facilitator or Game Master has done adequate research to discover what the participants specific fear of the unknown is.
As I’ve said, it isn’t so much a fear of everything unknown, it is the fear of the unknowable factor of a known situation. Known unknowns are the root cause of the fear and anxiety in your participants. If you are delivering an alternate reality experience where your participants learn to work through their fear of public speaking, the research would be around what unknown factors in public speaking scares them. Is it the people? Not being prepared? Failing? And so on. Then developing situations where these occur and working through them with the participant will improve their resilience towards them in the future.
In essence, what you are doing is helping to quantify the unknown for them, the fear they feel is really just their imaginations running wild with the myriad of possibilities that can occur. The role-play situation, therefore, will help them create and build upon an anchor that gives them the confidence to face the unknown in the future.
The fallacy of overcoming your fears
What I have always found strange when trying to ‘overcome’ a fear is that many ‘self-help’ books and guru’s and so on, advocate that if you face your fear head on. As if you were some imaginary metaphysical St. George slaying the Dragon of fear, vanquishing that fear, never to see it rears its horrifying head at you again. The issue and self-contradiction of such a concept is that to ‘overcome’ the fear is to accept it as being there. And accepting it is acknowledging it that it will never go away. There is no vanquishing, and often an increase in anxiety accompanies those that are unable to vanquish, simply for the fact it was never possible.
It is therefore that I’ve said that when practicing through a role-play experience, you learn to deal with it and work through it. And learning to do so with a variety of fears and anxieties teaches you to deal and work through others. Many people reading this may already have anxiety when they read the words ‘role-playing’ or ‘game’ or ‘alternate reality’. Overcoming that anxiety (and associated stigma) is already a step in the right direction, you’ve opened yourself up to a method and a state of mind that is accepting of that which you can’t control and can’t quantify.
It has been said many a time, the brain is like a muscle, and if you can train it by being bold and entering a make-believe experience where you jump into the unknown, you can slowly train your brain and mind to become accustomed to doing similar actions in the real world. Though taking that step still requires your own strength and volition to do so.
In the end, there is no magic potion that wipes the fear of the unknown away, there never was. There is only opportunity to learn and to practice the ability to deal with it and to move on regardless.