I am standing on the side of Mount Fairview in Lake Louise, Alberta where I am working for the summer and am approximately half an hour from the summit. I am alone. The loose scree slides from underneath my hiking boot and tumbles down the steep slope that I have just climbed. My mind starts to race in continuing tighter circles until it strangles all reasoning. My legs start to tremble and tears stream down my sweaty face. I crumble, my legs no longer able to support my weight and I make myself as small as possible sobbing uncontrollably.
I stay like this for awhile until the adrenalin burns itself out of my system. Weakened by the experience, my rational mind slowly starts to take control of the space vacated by my fear and I assess my situation. I am by myself at 8,000 feet on the side of a mountain and I have just experienced debilitating fear. The sound of my own voice in the clear mountain air helps to calm me. “Breathe. You can do this.”
I am so close to the summit but the desire to reach the top has left me and all I want to do is be in the comfort of my dorm room at the resort. I told my co-workers where I was hiking today but this won’t help me in my current predicament. I will be embarrassed to tell them that I didn’t make it to the top; that I chickened out. Anger replaces my fear when I see the coward that lives inside me. Why can’t I be more brave like other people? “Breathe,” I say out loud again to the crisp mountain air. Anger is not helping.
My legs are still shaking and the thought of standing up on the steep trail is scaring the sh*t out of me. If I thought it was steep looking up the mountain, turning around to hike down is terrorizing. I start to slide down the scree trail from my crouched position. Less distance to fall I reason but from this crouched position, I have even less control of my movement. You can’t control scree; it is like walking on tiny marbles and it is best to not resist its motion.
I slowly bring myself to stand and when my legs have stopped shaking, I take a tentative step forward. See not so bad. I continue this way slowly back down the mountain until I reach the treeline. Once back on the regular trail my step is strong and I continue hiking the two hours back to the trailhead.
Fear – fear of falling, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of being alone, fear of speaking in public, fear of rejection. The list goes on. It seems there are just as many versions of fear as there are ways of being in the world. Fear can be all consuming as mine was on the side of Mount Fairview. It can paralyze you from doing things that you want to do. But where does it come from?
My Mom told me that when I was learning to walk, I didn’t want to let go of the coffee table. Was there an inherent tendency towards fear of trying something new or did I learn this along the way? When we are little, our families teach us about the things that we must be fearful of – don’t touch the stove, the strange dog, the stranger. We quickly learn that our environment is not safe. As we grow and gain more life experiences, our list of fears grows with us.
Many people falsely assume that I am a brave person from my experience of living aboard a sailboat for 10 1/2 years, but if I could take you back in time to the many scary experiences that I have had, you would see that I am capable of tremendous fear. Sailing has taught me a lot about facing fears.
The first step is to not resist the feeling. Fear is an emotion like any other except that it is hard-wired to the reptilian part of our brain that puts us into fight or flight mode. It is meant to save our life. Powerful stuff and no wonder that fear can leave us cowering in its presence, but it is an emotion with a beginning, a middle and an end. Accepting fear is the first step. The more you resist the feeling, the more it grows. Fear feeds fear.
When we first moved aboard our sailboat, I was fearful of everything. Wallowing deep in self pity, I envied other women who handled themselves with so much confidence wishing that I could be like them. This self berating did nothing to improve my confidence and despite my best efforts, I could not bully myself into feeling less fearful. Finally, I recognized that the thing separating my fearful self from my confident self was knowledge and experience. I had to learn more about the boat – about sailing. The only way to do this was read, take courses and put some nautical miles under me.
In spite of doing all of these things, I still get scared – real scared, but the experience is different now. I can pull myself out of it quicker by knowing what to do. I no longer am ashamed of the feeling and instead tell my husband and fellow sailor when I am frightened so that he knows that my logical mind might not be functioning at full efficiency. The second step is to let it move through me. Fear is an emotion that is simply visiting. It will pass if I step out of its way and let it run its course.
That experience on the side of Mount Fairview taught me a few things about helping fear move through my mind. The following questions helped me face my fears head on.
What is happening?
I’m scared. I am on the side of a mountain by myself and I am so scared that I can’t walk .
Is it real?
Why do you feel this way?
I have never done this before. I could fall and kill myself.
What is the worst that can happen?
I am ahead of you on this one. See above.
What do you know to be true?
I am safe. I have strong legs and experience conditioned by kilometres of hiking in the Rocky Mountains.
What can you do to help yourself?
I can calm myself down and start working my way down the mountain.
Can you ask for help?
No. I am alone.
I am scared again. Okay mind ; BE QUIET! You are not helping here!
I am safe. I am strong. I can do this! I will do this.
Fear is uncomfortable but its avoidance can keep you from living a full life. Do we use fear as a crutch to not have to take responsibility for certain aspects of our lives? Or is it simply a result of wanting to control our environment and the people in it so that we are not faced with any unexpected situations?
Where does fear begin? I believe that fear begins in our mind. That day on Mount Fairview, I had hiked for hours without being frightened. What changed? My thoughts about what I was doing changed. Who controlled my thoughts? I did. There was no one shouting at me, “Hey, aren’t you scared?”
Our bodies undergo a physical response to the state of fear. Blood shunts away from our internal organs to our muscles to allow us to engage in either a fight or run away from danger. Even thinking about a fearful situation from our past can result in changes to our physiology. Living in a continuous state of fear is not good for our health. If you must revisit a scary situation, visualize it as an item stored in a suitcase, not a backpack. With the suitcase, every once in awhile you open it and observe the contents vs. a backpack which you carry on your back all day.
Well, I did revisit my fear of Mount Fairview – the very next day. And I was carrying a backpack full of a whole bunch of determination. The determination was to conquer my fear, not the mountain. When I reached the spot where I broke down in fear the day before, I said a little blessing and continued to the summit. The view was breathtaking. I was able to completely enjoy the moment and my accomplishment because I had conquered my fear.
Please join us on Twitter on Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 9:00 am EST/6:00 am PST as we explore fear. Follow the hashtag #spiritchat to join the conversation.