Written by: Anna Wohlrab and Gioel Gioacchino; Edited By: Mattieu Ramsawak

Fear is a primal emotion. We all experience it. This exercise asks participants to identify, share and act out their fears. The activity looks at how young  people engage with their community, build empathy, and welcome fears.

Our experience using this technique:

Anna used this technique for conflict resolution facilitations with at-risk youth, while working with Global Majority at Rancho Cielo, Salinas, California. Through this exercise she realized that young people can have very particular fears because their experience is rooted in a very specific context. The exercise also pointed out the universality of fears. This helped to build empathy and spark new conversations within the group.

Research and Development:

What are we trying to understand about the community?

Understanding each other’s fears can bring researchers and research participants to empathize in a more authentic way. It helps researchers expand their perception of the community by better grasping what people might worry about, and how they might perceive danger.

Why is it important for the community’s development?

This exercise creates an opportunity for participants to act out their fears – by exaggerating their emotions through movement, they can take a step towards exorcising them. In allowing for patterns to emerge, this exercise could generate crucial knowledge and collective reflection about the systemic difficulties a community might be facing.

At what stage(s) of the research cycle is this method used?

Community building, data collection.


What do I need?

One balloon per participant (or anything you can put pieces of paper in, such as a hat), paper and pens.

How long does it take?

It really depends on the size of the group. But for a group of 15 people it takes about 40 minutes, including the debrief.

  1. Introduce the exercise by asking the group to define empathy. Ask what it means to them personally, and what it means within their community. Explain that the exercise will help the group explore how to build empathy and support each other to overcome our fears.  
  2. Ask participants to stand in a circle and think of a sound that represents fear to them. Ask one participant to start producing the sound repetitively, while all other participants join in, one by one, so that in the end the whole room is filled with a chorus of fear.
  3. Provide 3 small pieces of paper to each participant and ask them to write one fear per paper, always starting with “I am afraid of…”. Once they are done, ask them to fold them up, so they stay anonymous. Have everyone put their fears in a balloon, blow it up and tie the knot. Invite the group to throw the balloon in the middle of the circle.
  4. Ask each participant to grab a balloon (ideally not theirs). Each participant will pop their balloon, one by one, and read out loud the fear on the paper, always starting with “I am afraid of…” . Once somebody reads out the fear, ask the rest of the group to act out with a movement and/or sound what the fear might feel like in their body. Repeat until each person in the group has read a fear.
  5. When the circle has been completed, and each person has gone at least once, ask participants to close their eyes. Invite participants to observe: how do the fears they have been interpreting feel in their body. Which fears felt most powerful? Invite participants to imagine how their life could feel without this fear and move their body to represent that imagined fearless life. From this position, ask participants to open their eyes and share out loud one tip they want to share with the group on how to overcome fears.
  6. Debrief:
  • Ask the group how it felt to embody somebody else’s fear. Did they identify with the fear of others? Could you empathize with somebody else?
  • Ask the group how it felt to embody the fears?
  • Ask the group how they felt when their fears were read and embodied by the others. Did they feel supported/ridiculed/ashamed/comfortable. Did they feel like the fear grew bigger or smaller?
  • Ask the group whether they felt like others emphasized with their fears/them?
  • Discuss with them: where there any patterns in the kinds of fears that were expressed? Are there any specific experiences that are more likely to happen in their community?

Benefits and Challenges

What are the benefits of using this technique?

The technique allows the participants to reflect on their own and their peers’ fears. It also allows them to see how others interpret them. The content can be used to identify problem patterns in a community.

The exercise also builds empathy; by reading each other’s fears out loud, people are invited to empathize with the fears of others by embodying those fears.

What are the challenges of using this technique?

Sometimes people don’t want to share their fears, so some people will only write down less intimate fears such as “spiders”. However, since they get to write down three fears there is usually enough for a meaningful debrief. Sometimes these fears can stir up a lot of emotions. For example, one student wrote: ‘I am afraid of myself’. Since everything was anonymous, it led to a great conversation on what this can mean, and how an individual, as well as other community members might support or contribute to such a fear.



How to adapt the technique

Doing embodied work is hard and awkward if there isn’t the right kind of warm up. We’d recommend doing other community building exercises before arriving to this one.

Instead of using balloon, you can put the fears in a hat. You can also have participants crumple up the papers and throw them in a corner.

Tips and Traps


Make sure to have everyone read out the same number of fears. If there is a very large group just have them write two fears and have everyone only read one so as to increase the chances of at least one fear being read out loud of each participant.

Following this exercise, you might want to do the Community Mapping exercise. This will invite participants to locate their fear within a geographical space and increase the richness of your data.



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1 Comment
  1. Liv

    Hey! Thank you for this “fear in a balloon” instruction. I wonder whether this practice may be a tool to challenge a crucial machanism that underlies many conflicts. That we externalize OUR fears and other ‘negative’ emotions by projecting them on others and in consequence try to solve the tension by fighting the threat that others appear to be for us. I am currently writing an essay wherein I discuss whether the denial of “our shadows” (that are fears, anger, whatever we perceive as weaknesses etc.) makes us more receptive to propaganda which uses images of the “evil other” to foster or justify certain policies. I am just starting to explore the topic, so any reading suggestions and thoughts are very welcome! In the next theater workshop exploring negative emotions I will try out the balloon exercise. Thanks for sharing!

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