At age 22, I learned my first conscious and intentional life lesson in overcoming fear: you never actually stop being afraid. But that doesn’t have to paralyse you, leaving you frozen and unable to move.
Heights terrified me, anything more than five to six feet off the ground and I froze. As a kid, I still climbed trees, not entirely enjoying the experience, but too proud to admit my fear.
Don’t ask me to clean the gutters or paint the roof.
Why don’t I try parachuting?
The brilliant idea occurred to me that to overcome my fear of heights; I should do something crazy: go parachuting. And so I organised for myself a day of training and a static-line jump at a local airfield.
As much as I wanted to cancel my plans, I cornered myself by telling everyone what I was doing and why. The day-long training occurred on the ground, in the hanger, and even a few feet off the ground. Finally, I was ready. The final step was 3,000 feet in the air, jumping out of a plane.
Because of wind conditions, I was the last jump of the day. The wait was excruciating! I told the instructor, as I finally headed for the door “If I freeze in the door of the plane, you have permission to kick me out”. I was not going to get that far, have waited that long, and fail to jump.
What if I freeze?
I felt so nervous that I jumped on “TWO”, rather than waiting for him to finish the countdown. All I remember before looking up to find my parachute open above me is the security check. I can’t recall the wind on my face, any sensation of falling through the air, an abrupt jerk or anything when the parachute started to open. The slate of my mind wiped clean: perhaps the memories are hidden somewhere in the recesses, but not something that I readily have access to.
Nonetheless, I completely remember the positions and angles of my arms and legs and counting “one one-thousand, two one-thousand…” until I completed a check to ensure that my parachute had deployed correctly. After that, I loved the freedom and feeling of flying with a parachute. It was the most exhilarating experience of life!
Not content with that experience, I signed up for two more jumps in the following weeks, determined that I would remember all of the sensations and feelings of those first seconds before the parachute opened.
I didn’t and still don’t. My fear-ridden brain only remembers the security check. It was no help in overcoming my fear of heights.
What causes fear?
For anyone that has experienced fear, you may know it as a powerful and primitive primal emotion and response. It serves to alert us to the presence of dangers.
Nevertheless, fear is complex: the result of trauma, experiences and even the feeling of loss of control. It is automatic, instinctual, learned or taught. Pain, for example, results in fear as part of our survival instinct, irrespective of whether the pain is emotional or physical. We are socialised and conditioned to a negative association, through past experiences, a near-death situation.
Finally, some cultural norms and traditions teach us fear. Consider, for example, how different cultures have the bogeyman or boogeyman, the Tulivieja, El Cuco, the Grindylow, and Babau. We teach our children a particular type of fear to instil distinct behaviour.
Added to that, most of us suffer from fear of:
- poverty and lack;
- rejection and not being accepted;
- failure and making mistakes;
- among others.
Our emotional response:
Whether we feel an empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs, sweaty palms, a racing heart, or other physical reactions, most of us also have an emotional response. These are very personal and unique to each of us. With an overly active imagination, I can jump a mile after watching a horror movie if anyone so much as says “boo”. Others can walk out of a horror movie talking about how fantastic the special effects were.
While some people feel trapped and immobilised by fear, others respond with anger and adrenaline. Nonetheless, freeze, flight, fright or anger can result in bad decision-making.
Afterwards, we can feel guilty and ashamed for how we responded, whether it was freezing and not taking action or overreacting. We may pass days or weeks berating ourselves and reliving the experience over-and-over, imprinting the memory in our mind.
Over-thinking rather than overcoming fear!
Most of us respond better to real threats than we do to possible situations in everyday life.
While fear can be crippling, we have the potential to increase its effects. Potentiation is when we are primed for fear and then overthink the situation and make it worse. In these scenarios, imagined threats cause paralysis. We hear about job cutbacks, and believe that our job is next in line. Our conditioned fear and anticipatory anxiety cause us to freeze, rather than to consider and act on our options.
Typically, because of this, we sabotage ourselves and our dreams.
The hidden treasures of feeling afraid:
Bravery, the kind that overcomes fear, requires trepidation. We are hard-wired, physiologically, for self-preservation and staying alive – so that little shot of adrenaline pushes us into action.
We forget that fear is healthy: that the fight and flight response is crucial to survival when it kicks us into action.
For example, someone who suffers a slight heart attack (a real threat) makes substantial changes in their health and diet. The rest of us, meanwhile, know that being overweight and not exercising are bad for our health, and yet we fail to take any action.
This response to a real threat is a healthy brain function. It makes us heavily motivated, pushing us to survive. We avoid and reduce harm by focusing our attention and mobilising. Fear forces us to respond and react to the threat.
Awareness is an essential part of overcoming fear
The hidden treasures of feeling afraid are to leverage and use these feelings in everyday life. It begins with awareness:
- When do I feel fear?
- What triggers these emotions?
- What do I feel physically in my body? Where do I notice it first?
Part of this awareness is acknowledging when you have felt this sensation before: what memories arise for you? When you think back on that scenario and situation, consider what was at stake. What might you have lost then that you are afraid of losing now? Is this fear a present fear or a past fear?
Additionally, focus your awareness on what is going on at the moment. Sometimes, simple things exacerbate our fear:
- hangry – when was the last time you ate in a relaxed setting?
- lack of deep sleep – are you resting properly?
Consider how you would treat a child that was hungry and tired, and give yourself that same self-care before you jump into action and decision-making.
Finally, going back into the fear, allow yourself to make the fear bigger; big enough to step into and have a look around. If you imagined fear as a cloak, what hides within it? What needs to be protected? Consider whether you are scared of being hurt or afraid of losing something important. Now that you know what is being protected by this fear, how does this change the decision-making process for you?
Becoming fearless: overcoming fear with action
We all feel afraid. Of course, fear need not drive us.
I know that with heights I freeze: but I’ve also learned that there are moments when I choose to respond in another way.
Parachuting taught me:
- Preparation: I was able to do what I did because I spent a day training for it. I knew what could go wrong and how to respond. I trusted that training. With my mental blocks: all I remember is what I trained to do.
- Action: once you have spent the time preparing, you have to move into action. Trust yourself enough to jump!
- Rewards: You will love what is on the other side of the fear!
Opening up opportunities
Since then, I have visited places that I could potentially freeze, but ready mentally to face the challenge. Knowing that my natural impulse will be to freeze, but that I can overcome it, I have not held back from visiting:
- the Eiffel Tower: my friends laughed because I was ready to come down as soon as we got to the top. But I wouldn’t have missed even that experience. Feel the fear, but push yourself to go anyway!
- SkyTower in Auckland, New Zealand, with a glass floor in parts. I do not recommend this to anyone scared of heights, without knowing that this is what you will face before you get there. I wasn’t ready for it and temporarily froze. Nonetheless, the view of the horizon was worth it.
- The London Eye: for whatever reason, this one I don’t find as scary and have done it twice.
Overcoming your fear is not about leaping without planning and preparation. That would be foolhardy. Whatever that fear is that is holding you back, get prepared to face it. You may need to study and train. But at some point, the next step in the journey will be action, knowing that you are ready.
The rewards of overcoming your fear
Courage and fear go hand-in-hand. Sometimes fear points the way, informing you that you have reached the end of your comfort zone and that the next step takes you into growth.
You can choose to live in fear, with the constant threat hanging over you. It’s a death from a thousand small cuts. While you are stuck in the prison of doubt, you are busy avoiding what you are afraid of. If you allow it, it will kill you – over and over again until you face it and walk through that fear, stripping it of its power. Once you’ve unmasked it, it can no longer rule you, because you know what lies within and beyond it.
I know that I will always have that physical response created by my fear of heights. I probably will never choose to paint a roof as long as I can afford to pay someone else to do it for me! But fear does not get to dictate what adventures I will attempt.
What has your fear been holding you back from?
- Asking for a raise?
- Putting the papers in for a promotion?
- Leaving your job and starting a business?
- Taking that promotion that requires you relocate to a new city or country?
- Starting a family?
- Choosing retirement?
Overcoming fear is as simple as awareness, preparation and action!