Loads of amazing benefits come from pushing yourself to try something new. Pushing yourself can increase your productivity and increase your ability to handle new things. The problem, as we all know, is that leaving your comfort zone can be scary.
It’s happened to everyone at some point or another, the moment when, when outdoors, you start to panic and freeze, wanting nothing more than to be back home again. Fear is a natural instinct, but it affects some more than others. At its worse, fear can prevent you from achieving things you should be able to do. Luckily there are steps you can take to prevent and deal with fear.
The Science of Fear
Experts state that there are three distinct stages to any traumatic experience, which any adrenaline junkie has gone through. The first stage is the event, the second stage is shock and the third stage is the way the body responds, which can be fight, flight or freeze. When the body is in fight or flight mode, it is confronting the threat directly, such as seeing a bear and running away. Both the fight and flight response discharge energy that has accumulated in the body. A common response, especially in high adrenaline situations such as climbing, is to freeze. This response can be complex, since you are unable to fight or flight when you are high above ground, hanging by some ropes. Unfortunately, freezing transforms your body into a handcuff, as you are completely paralyzed.
The way your body responds to fear is due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system flooding your body with catecholamines, also known as adrenaline. These hormones enhance the body’s ability to deal with stressful or scary situations (your brain goes on overdrive, your muscle tense, etc.), it can be dangerous when performing extreme sports as they require technique and mindfulness. Your ability to make and perform calculated and calm decisions goes out the window when you get hung up by freezing.
According to Dr. Peter A. Levine, Ph.D, if you can’t discharge the built up adrenaline, you will be unable to move forward. In cases like this, your body has a natural shaking release, which allows you to purge your adrenaline and move on. This shaking response will allow you to move on.
Understand Real vs. Perceived Danger
Experts believe that a lot of outdoor enthusiast may confuse the feeling of fear with experiencing real danger. When certain factors combine, people feel fear, and they will then assume that this fear means that something is dangerous. It’s important that you untangle the various strings that lead to you feeling fear. A distinct example is watching a scary movie. You’re sitting in the safety of your living room, experiencing the emotional and physical components of fear, such as a racing heart, anxiety and sweaty palms. However, you are not in any real danger.
It’s a lot more difficult to distinguish between experiencing fear and being faced with an actual risk when you are outdoors and possibly hanging on the side of the cliff, so it’s important that you understand the real and true risk of the adventure you’re about to embark on. Then, once you’re faced with the response of fear, take a moment and evaluate what caused this feeling. Is it bad weather? A loose rock above you? A loose rope? Those things mean you could be in real danger. Are you fearful because you heard a strange sound or an upcoming hard move? That is perceived danger.
You can examine two factors to determine your level of danger and how you can respond to it. For example, if you’re climbing and get that paralyzing feeling of fear you need to first examine the possible consequences (such as falling to your death), and the likelihood of that happening (which would be slim if you’re climbing on a toprope). In the situation that you’re six feet of the ground, you have a high probability of falling, but the consequences would be minimal. On the contrary, if you’re high above ground, but you’re secure, you have a low probability of falling and the risk is acceptable. You just need to understand that the real danger is low.
Having said all that, your fears can be completely justified as you may be completely clueless of the dangers that await you. This is especially common when you are just starting out, or trying something completely new. If you are trekking through the jungle, you don’t know what animals live there, how to read the terrain or what constitutes terrible weather. Remember that fear is a natural response, and it has helped humanity survive for thousands of years.
That being said, it’s important that you keep in mind that nature isn’t something frightfully dangerous where hostile animals are lurking around each corner waiting to pounce on you, or a place where landslides and falling rocks are imminent. If you are heading out for an outdoor adventure and have no clue about what awaits you or how you must act in certain circumstances, your fears are justified. You may end up doing something out of ignorance or carelessness, such as not making a ring for your campfire which ends up turning into a forest fire.
Going into outdoor adventures requires you to have knowledge about how to act and what to do, both for your own safety and for preserving nature. A few basics you should know are the following:
- How to set up camp, including avoiding falling trees, flooding, landslides and how to make a fire and a latrine.
- Wilderness safety, such as what to do if you encounter a bear or a snake, and how to hang a bear bag.
- First aid skills, including how to treat burns and hypothermia
- How to read a map, calculate your water skills and what you need to do in the event that you get lost
We could go on and on, but the list will vary depending on what type of outdoor activity you are planning on embarking on, and where you are wanting to do it. Basically, if you are not knowledgeable about necessary things then your fear is justified. You could possibly end up severely injuring yourself if you don’t have the proper knowledge.
Know That Fear Isn’t Rational
Knowledge is an important thing to face and conquer your fears, but sometimes education is not enough to quell your fears. A good example of this is the fear of spiders. Most people know that the big majority of spiders are harmless, and even spiders perceived as highly dangerous, such as the black widow, are unlikely to actually kill anyone.
David Ropeik, a consultant on risk perception mentioned that fear is a mix of feelings, facts, gut reaction and intuition. Fear isn’t rational, and you shouldn’t feel bad when faced with people that tell you your fears of adrenaline activities are misplaced. The human brain is a survival machine, misrepresenting and distorting in the interest of helping you survive.
Face Your Fears
The only way to overcome your fears is to face them. That sounds like a simplified solution, and a catch-22. The only way of doing something is to go out and do it, but you can’t go out and do it because you’re afraid to.
The solution to this problem is to start slowly and take baby steps. Education and knowledge will do a lot to thwart your fears, but it won’t cure them necessarily. The only way you can overcome your fears is through exposure. Eventually, you start to become more comfortable with the outdoor activity and you start to realise that you’re not frightened anymore.
You shouldn’t push your body or your mind beyond what you can handle. If you’re afraid of hiking, then take a professional guide with you until you have enough knowledge and experience to feel comfortable hiking alone. If you are afraid enclosed spaces, start off with an easy-going walking cave tour before scuba diving in a cenote. If you’re afraid of scuba diving, try snorkelling first. Interested in bungee jumping or rock climbing but are deathly afraid of heights? Try ziplining over rappelling to get that thrill and start getting used to heights.
Hire an Instructor
Don’t go blindly into a new or scary outdoor activity. You need to start off by hiring a guide or taking a course. When you have a professional whose abilities you trust with you the entire time teaching you, taking care of you and making sure you’re safe will go a long way in alleviating many of the fears that you may have.
It makes a ton of difference when you’re with someone who gives you confidence in your own capabilities. The great majority of us have been in situations where we think there is no possible way we are able to do something, whether it’s to jump into the river, make a particular move or overcome a bad step. It’s a revelation when you are actually able to do it, and this unlocks new realms of possibility.
It can take another person to instil in you the confidence you need in order to do that thing in the first place. When you gradually improve your abilities, your bad experiences will be replaced by good ones. When you have a professional watching your back, you can discover loads of courage that you had within you that you didn’t know you had.
Assess and Trust Your Ability
When you accurately assess your personal ability, you are able to manage risks more properly. This isn’t always easy, and underestimating yourself will mean you will be stuck in the non-progression zone, while overestimating could place you in a potentially dangerous or fatal situation.
When encountered with a fearful situation or scenario, be realistic and base your actions on your previous experiences. You will more than likely have been in a similar situation and overcome it, so stay with that frame of mind. One strategy you can use to effectively assess your skill level is to remember prior, similar experiences. You just need to remember the facts, and not the emotions. Don’t think about how you felt in the previous situation, but examine the events outcome, comparing factual details while leaving emotion out of the picture.
When BASE jumpers are faced with a big jump, they know it is within their ability, and they fully trust their ability. They don’t allow any mental space for fear or doubt to creep in and send them in a downwards anxiety spiral. The best extreme sportspersons perform so well because they know, without a shadow of a doubt that they are proficient and will attain an objective. A common trick they employ is to purposefully empty their mind beforehand of any negative mental dialogue.
Entirely Avoid the Fear State
When performing in high-intensity situations, professionals say that the most effective way to perform is to completely avoid the fear state. They understand that the moment a person gets scared, the damage has been done, as your body just takes over. If you get scared enough, you will lose control and there’s no way of getting back control. Your body starts to tighten, your grip gets stronger and you retreat within yourself.
The boldest and best extreme sports practitioners consciously avoid triggering their fear response, as they know how dangerous it is to fall into the natural response of fight, flight or freeze. When something scary happens, they acknowledge that it’s scary, but they clamp down and don’t let their mind wander down the path of getting more and more frightened until their body falls apart. They stop the negative self-talk before fear’s emotional response is triggered, therefore totally avoiding one of the predecessors to fear.
One of the best ways to fully avoid the fear state is to be totally prepared to handle the objective. When you are practiced and well-prepared, there’s no reason to doubt yourself. This doesn’t mean that you just have to jump in and jump into the unknown expecting the best. You need to have your eyes wide open and be aware of any dangers surrounding you while knowing that you’re as ready as you’ll ever be. When you trust your abilities, training and preparedness, you’ll have enough confidence to apply your skills to the situation you’re facing. Then, pay close attention to any potential trigger thoughts that pop up, and stop them before they manifest themselves into negative emotional responses.
Know how to Come Back From Fear
Eliminating the fear can fail, so what do you do in that case? When it comes to performing in extreme situations, it’s vital that you can transition out of the fear state. Imagine that you’re climbing and you’re a few feet above a bold. Your breathing starts to quicken and your grip gets stronger, while your body tenses and locks up. In the end, you will either need to downhill climb or keep climbing up. Transitioning out of the fear state is vital in order to make an informed decision about what your next move should be. You can’t be limited to the fight, flight or freeze scenarios, especially during extreme sports.
Luckily, you have your prefrontal cortex, which gives you the ability to inhibit the fear response triggered by the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is the conscious and rational part of our brain which gives us our ability to reason.
To bring the prefrontal cortex to the forefront of your thoughts, you can use tools like visualization, centering and self-talk to calm the instinctive and emotional parts of your brain.
- Visualization: Use this technique as much as possible before embarking on your adventure. The basic idea is to imagine yourself doing everything with ease, and it works best if you add as much detail as possible. Visualizing will give you an improved sense of confidence, and will diminish your fear response.
- Centering: After the initial fear sets in, you can use centering to get yourself out of it. You need to pay close attention to your bodily sensations and breathing. Regularly practicing centering makes it available when you need it.
- Self-talk: Use this technique to regain your calm, awaken the prefrontal cortex and quiet your amygdala. You can talk to yourself out loud, or just in your head. Recognize the words “I’m scared” as something coming out of the fear part of your brain and force your brain to change the thought pattern into something like “I got this”.
Beat Your Personal Demons
It’s important that you remember that being afraid or anxious in the presence of potentially dangerous situations is not irrational. It is part of our inbuilt survival tool. Adventuring into the outdoors will most likely challenge and stretch your instinct, as you are doing things that go against the logic of survival.
Along with this instinct you can have a negative past experience, internalised critical voices and other mental hurdles. We are all different, and everyone has their own demons to overcome. You can cope with all this with a combination of mental and physical preparedness, which you gain through practice, confidence and guidance.
Embrace a “What’s the Worst that Could Happen?” Mentality
Asking yourself what’s the worst that can happen might seem counterintuitive, but it’s important that you realise that there are dangers out there that can’t be avoided by positive thinking.
Calming your fears by thinking pessimistically will allow you to prepare and prevent for any bad thing that could happen. When you’re prepared, you’re not as frightened. For example, if you’re going out hiking in an area known for a large population of viper snakes, you can do a lot of research about them before heading to the outdoors. You then learn that death and amputation due to a viper snake bite are rare, as long as the antivenom is administered within four hours of the bite. You can then decide to not camp more than four hours away from a place where antivenom can be found.
Just Say Yes
Some adrenaline inducing activities are scarier than others. For someone with a fear of enclosed spaces, going caving sounds terrifying, while someone with fear of heights may be deathly afraid of bungee jumping.
When you try an activity that makes you face up to your biggest fear is the only way you’ll truly leave your comfort zone. Once you take that first step into the unknown, stepping off the bungee platform, holding a tarantula between your hands or diving under the sea, you’ll soon realize how much you’re capable of.
Face Your Fears Through Travel
Travelling can inspire you to conquer your fears and face new challenges. You may not dream of scuba diving through caves or jumping off a cliff but being away from home can help you overcome many of your fears and anxieties.
Being on vacation gives you the freedom to try new things. There’s no need to go paragliding if you’re deathly afraid of heights, but you can challenge yourself with a canopy tour or climbing to the top of a volcano.
It’s Worth it to Overcome Your Fears
Rich Wright, an author at Live Outdoors talks about how overcoming your fears can unlock an ancient memory of our collective consciousness. The memories unlocked are part of “rites of passage” ceremonies partaken by all indigenous tribes.
Coming-of-age tribal rituals focus on overcoming fear because they know that the access to wisdom is obstructed by fear. Overcoming your fear of an outdoor activity is important, as it lets you get closer to nature, get closer to yourself and be courageous enough to live the life you want.
So go ahead and make some plans to do something that scares you! Today is your day, and you can get it done.