A family friend just told my mom, “It’s so great that your daughter isn’t afraid of anything.” Which was really nice — and also shows how wildly misleading social media can be.
Because I’m afraid of freaking everything. I hate flying. I hate spicy rappel starts. I wear my helmet on class 2+ scrambles. Overseas, I worry about getting bitten by rabid dogs and Japanese B encephalitis. I’m convinced everything I eat is going to poison me.
You probably can’t tell from Instagram and Facebook. But it’s true.
But as you adventuring types know, life takes courage. A lot of the stuff we want — freedom, experience, excitement, love — is on the other side of fear.
Fortunately, science shows us that fear is a manageable affliction. Whether you want to trad climb The Nose of El Cap, ride the Pamir Highway on your fat bike, or simply negotiate more freedom from your day job, the cures are basically the same.
So without further ado, here are one wuss’s 8 tips for overcoming the fears that hold you back:
1. Get out of denial.
So here’s what we tell our mountaineering students. Fear of falling is a good thing.
It’s the result of a five-million-year evolutionary process that allows us to, yanno, stay alive. So there’s no shame in freezing at the edge of a rappel or asking for a belay on a snow climb. (That goes for you too, boys.)
The problem is, most people aren’t comfortable with fear. They try to hide it or deny it. Sometimes that works — at least for a while. But when you refuse to face your feelings, you run the risk of a big old meltdown later.
So step one of being fearless is to actually feel your fear. Acknowledge it. Thank it. Wonder at the miracle of your sympathetic nervous system in action. Know that there are things you can do.
2. Stop comparing yourself.
Living in Colorado, which is full of extreme sports badasses, I really struggle with this one. It was the same when I lived in Asia and was surrounded by extreme travel badasses.
I’d look at what people around me were doing and think: How are they not scared to death? Am I a giant wuss? Or am I just getting old?
The truth is that everyone, no matter how seemingly badass, is afraid of something. I’ve had students who will happily scramble Colorado’s great traverses in sneakers but hate rappelling. I have three badass friends who are totally skeezed out by water crossings. (Dang, is that a named phobia?)
When it comes to pushing your own boundaries, take a lesson from runners. They’re the masters of competing with themselves. I’m never going to win Boston — or even the Denver Taco Run. But when I get a personal best, it’s like I just won Olympic gold. Even if an 80-year-old crossed the finish line right in front of me. (Yes, that happened.)
3. Distract away anticipatory anxiety.
Nervous about an upcoming sojourn in Colombia or that high-altitude mountaineering class you just signed up for? (Yeah, me too.) The good news is that the fear leading up to a thing is almost always worse than the thing itself.
You’ve probably experienced this before, where you’re antsy the night before a big climb or meeting your dream babe’s parents. And then you get there and kill the whole route or drink three bottles of wine with adorable mom and dad. And you realize you wasted a lot of time worrying.
It was so before. It will be again.
So how do you keep from going crazy in the lead up to the big day? Personally, I’m big on distraction. Schedule yourself some fun the week before. Happy hours, dinners, disco bowling, foot massage, whatever it takes.
I also pick the people I hang out with in the lead-up period carefully. Lean toward the ones who tell you, “That is so awesome. You’re going to have so much fun!” Stay away from worry warts who point out 99 ways you might die. You can do that yourself.
4. Face down your worst nightmare.
One big key to fear is realizing that it fades with exposure. So the fastest way to get over something that scares you is to dive into it whole hog. Entire schools of therapy are built around this principle.
Think about how you feel at the start of the climbing season when you’ve been in the gym all winter. That first pitch takes a bit of faith, right? But if you keep at it, you’ll be doing the same route in your sleep by August. You might even be free soloing that bad boy.
So do the thing that scares you most. If you hate camping because you’re afraid of spiders, go to the pet store and stand by the tarantula cage. (I actually have a friend who did this.) Expect to feel totally freaked out at first. But also expect that feeling to pass.
Now get closer. Ask the staff to take the tarantula out. Before you know it, that sucker will be riding around on your shoulder.
5. Get in the zone.
So when you’re facing that tarantula, how hard should push yourself? Good question.
Remember, you need to feel fear to get past it. So if you keep standing halfway across the store, you’re probably not going to improve much.
Then again, picking that creeper up on the first day might scare the crap out of you to the point you have a hard time continuing the process. (You may even end up feeling more scared of spiders.)
When I used to help out at a high ropes course, the facilitators asked participants to rate their anxiety on a scale of one to 10. This told you what zone you were in.
- 1–4 The zone of safety. This is where you go to have fun.
- 5–7 The zone of growth. This is where you go in order to challenge yourself and overcome your fears.
- 8–10 The zone of panic. Try to stay out of here. It’s hard to gain self-insight when you’re hyperventilating. And it can actually backfire and make you more afraid.
Personally, I find this concept emboldening. I’m willing to risk more knowing that I can say no before the fear gets too big. Often, that zone of growth ends up being bigger than I think.
6. Thirst for resilience.
So while it’s catchy, the name of this blog post may be a tiny bit misleading. Because no matter what you do, you’ll always have fears. They’re like an onion. As you deal with the surface ones, deeper ones emerge.
But there is also a positive quality you possess in infinite amounts. It’s called resilience — also known as mental toughness or the survival personality.
Resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back after a difficult experience. It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel awful when you’re laid off from work or get ghosted by your boyfriend of seven years. It’s more about having the attitudes and habits of mind to move past setbacks, rebuild, and find new happiness and meaning.
The good news is that everyone is resilient. The better news is that you can build your resilience muscles. People with stressful, potentially traumatizing jobs like soldiers and emergency physicians often benefit from resilience training. The same principles can work for you.
Two great books to get you started by researchers in the field:
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Angela Duckworth)
- Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Martin E.P. Seligman)
7. Make overcoming fears a life goal.
What’s holding you back most from what you want to do? Is it fear of failure? Fear of falling? Fear of flying? Fear of intimacy?
Now that you have some tools to deal with those fears, go ahead and add overcoming them to your bucket list.
This is exactly how I set mine up, and it’s a lot of fun. Next up in the overcoming fears pipeline: scrambling. Second: hitting on hot guys. Yeah, I am more afraid of romantic rejection that Third-World dictators. But not for long.
8. Find a mantra.
There’s a reason quote posts are so popular on Pinterest and Facebook. They work.
When I was researching key words for this post, “Fearless quotes” was one people were searching madly for. So I’ve worked a few of my favs into this blog.
BTW, fearlessness is a big theme of the Miss Adventure Pants Pinterest board, so if you’re thirsty for more, follow us for a regular dose of inspiration.
Well, that’s all I can think of. If you have any good brain hacks for overcoming fear, be sure to comment below. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these parting words: