Fear in the Headlights
I have two friends – sisters – who sadly lost their mom to cancer when they were teenagers. At some point, they decided to celebrate Mother’s Day with an annual trip to an amusement park. It turns out that this is one of the least-busy days of the year at the park; I guess most families don’t celebrate maternal love and care with adrenaline rushes.
Several years ago, the roller coaster sisters decided to invite a mutual friend of ours, also motherless, to join them. It wasn’t a successful partnership as it turns out that this friend had an aversion to heights which is certainly a liability for an amusement park.
So, the next year, they invited me. I’m not motherless, but I am devoid of local matriarchal connections. Oh, and I love adrenaline and I’m not overly afraid of heights. It’s been an awesome tradition in which to be included. We’ve gone down to Florida, up to North Carolina and sometimes stayed put at Six Flags in Atlanta.
Regardless of location, we ride coasters. And then more coasters.
And, without fail, there is anxiety built before the first ride of the day. There is uncertainty, especially if it is to be a virgin ride with unknown drops and loops. One of the sisters always comes close to backing out and regrets not throwing in the towel as the ride clacks to the top.
And then, without fail, our delighted screams fill the air. And the sister that was the most hesitant becomes the most excited to run to the next ride.
Throughout the day, the supply of adrenaline is literally exhausted; the short lines do not allow ample time for the body to replenish its stores. By mid-afternoon, we can be seen completely relaxed on even the most terrifying ride.
Fear thrives in the unknown.
The sisters proposed a new adventure this year- zip-lining. I was by far the most experienced yesterday. Although this was my first visit to this establishment, it was my 5th time zip-lining. It was a known for me.
But it was unknown to the sisters.
The first challenge was to cross a 50 foot bridge that was built from widely separated (and swinging) boards. The bridge started at an elevation of around 25 feet and climbed to 40 feet where it ended at a small platform surrounding a large pine tree. The bridge felt unstable. The planks moved and the gaps between them were easily large enough to swallow even the largest man in our group and the holes drew the eye down – way down – to the ground below. The cables that acted as handrails were anything but solid. Even the anchor point of the tree swayed.
But all that was an illusion. We were each tethered to a cable running above the bridge with heavy ropes and clips. If we should fall and lack the strength to hoist ourselves back onto the bridge, three guides stood at the ready to lift us back to the planks. They even carried pulleys, ropes and bandages in their packs.
We were completely safe.
But one of the sisters didn’t believe it.
Or, more accurately, her primal brain hijacked her rational one and the former was screaming out the dangers on the bridge.
It was wild to watch. I crossed the bridge first. After clipping myself safely to the pine tree on the far side, I turned to look at the progress behind me. The sister, calm and confident moments before, was frozen a few steps onto the bridge. She knew she was safe. But her brain convinced her she was not. And her body listened. No amount of encouragement could convince her to complete that walk. She finally unlocked enough to back off the bridge and back to the known of the solid ground below.
Fear believes illusions.
Fear was not my companion yesterday. It was a comfortable environment for me and I knew the illusion of danger was just noise. But that’s not to say I’m not more than familiar with that powerless and incapacitated feeling when fear moves in. I’ve written about learning how to ski and overcome my apprehension of downhills. I’ve had similar experiences with biking (go ahead and laugh – I can zip line without a problem but a 3% downhill grade on a bike makes me nauseous!).
But I’m mainly familiar with the mental origins of fear. The psychological equivalent of the swinging planks and depths below. Those times when we have the safety systems we need, but we worry anyways. Where the body may continue forward but the mind freezes in place, unable to trust in the journey forward. It’s a place of internal lock-down. No amount of encouragement will release the mind from its hold.
But it doesn’t have to be permanent. We don’t have to live suspended on that bridge between where we are and where we want to be.
Begin by breathing. It’s a whisper to the body that it is okay. Safe.
Be gentle with yourself. Self-flagellation may alleviate guilt, but it is a horrible tool against fear.
If the unknown has you frightened, make an effort to learn. Information is soothing.
When you’re frozen in fear, back off. It’s not a time to be a bull.
Distract the brain. Take a break in your comfort zone. It builds your confidence.
Recall times you were fearful and preserved. It builds your confidence even more.
Wait until the fear has subsided.
And then try to approach again.
That’s exactly what the one sister did yesterday. When we arrived back at the lodge, we were thrilled to hear that she had elected to take part in a later tour. And she came back smiling.
The unknown had become known.
And the illusions of fear had been revealed.
Leaving behind a sense of accomplishment and confidence.