As a soldier, boxer, and practicing mountaineer, I learned techniques for overcoming fear that pay dividends in all walks of life
There were four of us and our instructor huddled together in the back of a small Cessna Light Aircraft as it started to circle and climb above the airfield. “500ft,” the instructor called out to let us know what altitude we were at.
We were supposed to be familiarizing ourselves with how things looked on the ground but I was terrified. It was all I could do not to close my eyes and keep them tightly shut. The aircraft continued to circle and climb.
The instructor kept us informed of the height every 500ft until we reached our target altitude of 3,000ft. This is where we were all expected, one at a time and when told to do so, to jump out of the aircraft. I’ll tell you how that worked out for me later…
Fear, the very emotion which exists to keep us safe, can also be overpowering and lead to irrational thoughts and actions. Indeed at some point in everyone’s life, fear in some form or another needs to be overcome before we can reach a goal or live our finest lives.
As an ex-soldier, ex-boxer, and practicing mountaineer, fear is something I’ve come across, and overcome, many times in my life. I’ve learned several different ways to overcome it, some or all of which can be brought into any situation, and it’s enabled me to change my life for the better.
The tokens of fear conquered are everywhere for me to see. My boxing trophies, mostly from my childhood, take pride of place in my mum’s living room. On the dressing table in the hall of my flat is my General Services Medal from my time in active service and a picture of Everest taken from over 20,000ft hangs above the fireplace in my living room.
I would not go so far as to say that the techniques discussed in this post would cure actual phobias. Where they may help in such circumstances, I feel phobias are a different level of fear and one which would need to be addressed separately. In this post, I look at several times in my life when I had to face up to my fears and what I was able to bring to bear in order to conquer them.
I was in the first 500m of a 10K run and all my running nightmares were already coming true. I had started too fast and was already needing to stop running while the entire field of runners had now passed me. I had to find a way to reset my breathing and my mindset. What I did next was one of the most basic and controllable things anyone can do in a time of stress. I started to walk and made a conscious effort to breathe slowly and deeply.
Fortunately, I happened to be crossing the top of a beautiful shoreline at the time and I forced myself to look up and around me and enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of my surroundings. Very soon, I was calm, relaxed, and ready to start running again.
The science of what happened that day is widely documented and well-read by anyone who even starts to look into controlling anxiety or stress. In a nutshell, things went as follows. During my state of anxiety, my body, sensing danger, released adrenalin to prepare me to take action. This caused shallow, quick breathing, my heart rate to rise, and an increased sense of anxiety.
Breathing slowly and deeply reversed the process. My heart rate began to drop and the physiological effect of this caused a feeling of calm. That everything was going to be OK. Focusing on the relaxing surroundings reinforced that feeling of calm and helped reduce my heart rate further, and so the cycle repeated.
My anxiety and desire to stop running had been triggered by my heart rate reaching what is called max heart rate (generally given as 220-your age) and my deep breathing and positive visualization caused my heart rate to drop by about 40bpm in less than two minutes. This gave me plenty of margin to start running again.
As we all know, there are many more things in life than just running which cause anxiety. Running late for work, traffic jams, and noisy crowds to name but a few. The good news is that in every single aspect of life, this deep breathing and positive visualization routine can reduce stress and anxiety within seconds. In the context of this post, in times of fear, I would describe this technique as the ‘101’ for reducing or eradicating such fear.
There may be times when, faced with the situation in front of you, the last thing you think of doing is simply breathing deeply, but my experience is that if you just force yourself to do just that, things will quickly start to change for the better.
Perhaps one of the more common fears we have to face these days is the fear of speaking in public. No matter what job or position we hold, there always seems to be some time when we are asked to stand up in front of an audience and speak to them with confidence.
The silence from the audience can be deafening and every eye in the room seems to be scrutinizing and judging us. Just finding a way to see that audience as mere human beings the same as we are can help eradicate this fear.
This fear was very real for me as an up-and-coming manager when I got the chance to present some research I was doing on evolving customer services technology to a room full of senior executives.
I was at a multi-industry conference on field services presenting as a mid-level manager in a relatively small telecommunications company. The room was full of senior management up to and including CEO level and representing several multi-billion-dollar, household name companies.
It was easy to feel like everyone in the room was an expert on my chosen subject and there to judge me on my performance. Instead, I chose to see them as human beings, comical human beings even, as I started my presentation.
I’ve heard it said to picture your audience naked but that would have made me more nervous. Instead, I picked up on their voices, their appearances, their mannerisms. One of the CEOs became, ‘that woman with the loudest scarf in Europe’ the VP of one of the multi-billion-dollar companies had a voice like a four-year-old and someone filled every pause with an expectant, “Mhm?” I soon found myself smiling broadly and before I knew it, the tension was gone throughout the room.
By no means was I being disrespectful nor would I be in such a setting. I was simply using a mental trick to help me see the other human beings in the room as just that. Not gods, demons, or superheroes, just human beings the same as me. As fellow humans, they were infected by my smile.
It can be hard to try and find the humor in a situation that is initially scaring the hell out of you or stirring feelings of raw fear or rage. For me, it took years of practice to find humor in some situations. If you persevere, however, it can become second nature to find a smile in even the most extreme situations.
One of the most profound moments of fear I can remember goes back almost 30 years. I was standing in my corner across a boxing ring from someone who I knew to be vicious. I’d seen him in training just about reducing the punch bag to a pile of feathers and demolishing people during sparring sessions.
Now, as the referee called us together to give final instructions, my opponent was glaring at me with searing hatred like he wanted to kill me. I stared at the ref, almost pleading for mercy. He seemed to be my only hope. Either that or find a way to come out fighting when the bell went for the first round.
As it happened, the fight was all but won several seconds later during the first exchange of blows. A right hook that would have knocked down a wall seemed to arc towards me in slow motion as my opponent threw the knock-out punch. I parried it with my left hand and then, starting with my left, snapped out a lightning three-punch combination, left-right-left! Every punch landed square on his face hitting the target cleanly.
I was so relieved to see his eyes widen in surprise and I knew at that moment our confidences had swapped places. I had learned to box at school and, over four years of training and monthly fights, I had learned how to keep a clear head and look around me when blows were coming in.
I had learned the most stable way to stand, how to move, and I had practiced my punches over and over again until mechanical memory had me snapping them out almost without thinking. Now, in this fight, I had conquered my fear by relying on years of training and fighting and it had paid off. My less experienced opponent simply had no answer.
Of course, it’s not every day we walk into a boxing ring, if at all. But in daily life and work, we constantly come into areas that can be scary. Perhaps working at heights, maybe walking alone at night, or any number of different scenarios. Our fear of heights might make us select a different job or our fear of violence might curtail our social life.
Rather than be limited by these fears, however, one way towards overcoming them is to learn the skills to deal with them. In the examples I have given here, that would be skills such as using a climbing harness and rigging a safety line, or taking some self-defense classes. Whatever it is we fear, there are always skills we can learn to deal with it.
One of the challenges I have found with this approach is that the situation you get into can sometimes be so extreme that you quickly forget everything you have learned or you simply don’t believe that your skills will be of help. My experience, however, this boxing match being a great example, is that, once you get into the action, the skills you have learned come through as second nature.
We were high in the Scottish Mountains above the small village of Arrochar on the banks of Loch Long. The wind seemed to me to be gusting almost to hurricane levels as my brother and I were being regularly blown off balance.
Driving rain added to our discomfort and heavy mist reduced visibility to zero. At least we were off the summit and on the descent, I thought, trying to convince myself that it couldn’t get any worse. That’s when my brother shouted over the wind so he could be heard to tell me that we were lost.
I was already freezing and soaked to the skin. My feet were so wet I might as well have been standing in socks without any boots and my gloves hung like soaking sponges around my freezing hands. Even if we knew where we were, there were at least three miles back to Arrochar and the car but now, completely exhausted, we didn’t even know which direction to go.
I was almost sick with worry thinking that our only chance may be to descend into some woods we had briefly seen about 1,000 feet below us with only the shelter of the trees for the night.
Fortunately, my brother managed to get us back onto the main path off the mountains after about an hour of frantic, exhausting searching. As we descended, I told him I was never going back into the mountains again. I had been terrified that we would remain lost and end up in serious trouble. It had become very obvious that day that the main problem was with our equipment. It was not sufficient to repel mountain weather at its worst.
Over the next few weeks, we completely re-equipped, replacing all our mountain gear. Armed with the knowledge of how bad the weather can get, we had a good idea of how robust our equipment needed to be.
Soon I had a double-layer Gore-Tex jacket that feels like you’re in a tent no matter what the weather. Everything was fully waterproof, extra warm, or both, and we carried state-of-the-art Blizzard Bags which could be used in an emergency if you had to stop and shelter.
Some years later, I walked through a winter storm high on Kilimanjaro with complete confidence. We were walking through the night in pitch darkness, the temperature was -20°C, and a ferocious wind dropped it dramatically below that.
Though being blown off balance by the strength of the wind, I was still completely sheltered by my equipment and totally confident to go on. When you are confident that your equipment can withstand the environment, your fear of it diminishes.
I am a firm believer that an exciting and adventurous life is a better life. Perhaps that’s not for everyone but for sure it’s how I feel. But, whether it’s swimming out to sea, climbing mountains, or jumping out of a plane, there’s an inherent fear which comes before you start.
A fear which, if you allowed it, would lead to a life of procrastination and dreams as opposed to memories, pictures, and stories to tell. Once you have chosen your brand of adventure, one of the best ways to get into it and reduce any fear of the associated dangers, is to get the right equipment and learn how to use it.
Beyond simply learning how to use equipment, it can often take practice, sometimes years of practice, before you gain confidence in how the equipment will help you. It’s not just about buying the jacket, you need to get out in the snow and the rain several times before you will be convinced of the benefits of wearing it.
For sure it helps to have faith in your skills, your equipment, and yourself as a human being, but I find it also helps to have faith in something more. Something beyond human. Something religious or spiritual. This is something that definitely helps me in times of confrontation when I have a fear that I will somehow be ‘defeated’ by the person with whom I am in the confrontation.
In particular, I hate dealing with salesmen because I am a sucker for them. If I drive into the wrong garage for petrol I could well come out with a new car. Recently I’d hired a builder to replace the gutter on the roof to my flat. Once the scaffolding was up, he soon called me claiming there were holes in the roof and I needed the entire roof replaced. I’d had the house surveyed so I knew that wasn’t true but I was terrified that, when I called him back, I’d end up agreeing to have the roof replaced.
Before I called, I said three short prayers. First I asked that I would be able to have the courage to decline the offer. Next, I prayed that the builder would be non-aggressive and reasonable in the conversation. Finally, I prayed that both he and I would walk away from the call with some mutual benefit.
As it happened, that’s exactly how the call went with the builder agreeing to replace the gutter only and leave the rest of the roof. My house became waterproof and he was well paid for the work.
I am sure many could argue that the outcome of the call was nothing to do with my prayer. In my experience, every spiritual act or miracle can somehow be explained by coincidence or science.
Hence, faith is a choice. You either choose to believe the science, or you choose to believe in the intervention of a higher power. I choose the latter and I always find it helps in times of fear. If nothing else, my prayers helped me to arrange my thoughts ahead of the confrontation.
So let’s go back to that aircraft and let me tell you about my first and only ever parachute jump. I sat and watched in utter shock as two of my friends, known at that moment as ‘No. 1’ and ‘No. 2,’ shuffled forward to the open door on the side of the aircraft.
First, they pushed their feet out of the open door, and, on a firm pat on the shoulder from the instructor, they were gone. I was ‘No. 3’. The girl who was ‘No. 4’ stared across at me just as the instructor called my number and I shuffled towards the door.
With my legs dangling out of the door I could see every foot of the 3,000ft between me and the ground and I could have sworn that my buttocks were actually holding onto the plane. A trick I’ve learned over years in the army and something I was conditioned to do through training, is just to react to a particular action and close your mind to everything else.
There was nothing else in my mind other than the action which was about to happen and how I would react to it. I felt the solid slap from my instructor on my shoulder and I pushed myself out of the aircraft.
I’d love to tell you how brave I was and how impressed everyone else was with the form of my jump but that just wasn’t the case. No sooner had I left the aircraft than I started to scream and flail my arms and legs wildly.
An instructor would later comment that I looked like I was trying to climb back into the aircraft and he wasn’t far wrong. If there is a God, they were assaulted with the prayers of eternity in the mere three seconds it took my parachute to open.
The girl due to jump after me refused at first. They had to do an extra circuit before she eventually jumped. When she landed, she said it was the expression on my face before I left the aircraft which had put her off.
What I can say is that all of the elements I have discussed in this post to overcome fear came into play that day. They got me into and out of that aircraft safely and made of a day with memories to last a lifetime.
We were all in high spirits and the banter among us took the edge off the fear throughout the day. We learned about all the different things which can happen once you leave the aircraft and how to deal with them.
We were fully equipped and taught how to use the equipment and it’s fair to say I was well on top of my prayers that day. Armed with all of this, our fears were reduced significantly until it all came down to that final act. When you feel the clap on the shoulder, just go for it!
I hope you got something out of this and, whatever your chosen career or adventure, you now have some sense of what to do in times of fear and some tools to take you forward.
Remember nothing changes overnight. Behavior changes such as adopting humor in adversity can take years to master as with skills training or using equipment enough to fully trust it. For sure the fear is often there in front of us, but when we trust in the process of overcoming it and invest the time and effort to perfect the techniques, it can always be reduced or overcome.