Be Afraid: How to Face Fear and Find Your Courage

I’m afraid of heights.

And big bridges.

And mountains.

And turbulent plane rides.

And pretty much any situation that is completely unknown to me and might result in death.

Heights is really the big fear, though, and it’s only gotten worse the older I get. I grew up in the land of rolling hills, and had never really been exposed to heights at all until I was older. Which is when my fear was exposed.

As a teenager I would work at a summer camp every year. The summer camp was into developing trust in groups (this was a big thing in the 90’s), and built a ropes course to teach trust. You know those fun exercises, where you practice trust falls into the waiting arms of your known enemies. You hope they catch you…occasionally they do.

Anyway, the ropes course had this telephone pole that you had to climb to the top of and then jump off of the top to the waiting trapeze type swing about 5 feet away.

The hardest part of it wasn’t scaling the telephone pole, it standing on top of the telephone pole. The moment where you’re perched 20 + feet in the air, and yes, you’re safely attached to harnesses….but are you? Are you really?

Apparently this is what we called fun in the middle of Wisconsin in the middle of summer. WHO DOES THIS.

It was my time on top of that pole that introduced me down the dark path of my fear of heights.

For a long time I was able to ignore my fear, because, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until I started traveling, and when I started exploring life, that my fear hit me in my face all the time. Apparently if you want to travel, there’s the occasional height you need to face, or bridge, or monster mountain from hell. Some of the world’s most beautiful places are perched on top of hills or accessible only by bridges, and I want to see them.

Now I live in the land of mountain passes, volcanoes, bridges and turbulent flights.

It came to this. If I wanted to see the world. I knew I had to face my fear, which was sometimes paralyzing. The thing is my fear isn’t just of things like heights. Daily I face my fear of failing as well. Of feeling that all the hard work I’ve put into my life will somehow be for naught. My husband hates the sight of needles or blood. For some, it’s public speaking, or spiders, or whatever your brain decides wants to kill it that day. We all are afraid something, some of us are just more vocal about it.

Fear is something we live with all the time, fear is a natural reaction to the unknown, or, our inability to control a situation. The thing is the unknown is going to be your constant friend. Whether we like our lives to be familiar and controllable is irrelevant because fear will find it’s way into your psyche no matter what.

The only option is to find courage. To make courage your constant companion no matter the situation you find yourself. Courage to say those words you have been hesitating to say, or the courage to speak up when others won’t, or courage to step onto that steep path.

As with many things, the more you exercise courage in your life the more familiar being courageous will become. It’s a learned skill. Here are my tips for activating your inner courage to face your fears:

  1. Breath: Yes of course respiration is a regular occurrence for humans, but controlled breath can really help. Whether you practice yoga or not, yoga breathing can really help to be intentional in that moment. Deeply breathing in and out, to slow the heart rate down, has really helped me. The adrenaline that comes with fear can override your senses, so you need to override that adrenaline through controlled breathing.
  2. Open up: Tell others around you when you’re in a situation that is activating your fear triggers. Build up a support mechanism of people who know you, and can logically tell you if fear is warranted in a situation or not. Having someone share that cognitive load with you can help reduce the triggers, and know that someone is there for you no matter if the worst case scenario happens or not.
  3. Set small goals: In my case, I set a goal of I’m going to take 10 steps out onto that very steep path. It’s a small goal that I am looking to achieve because I know the pay-off will be big. In this case, an incredible view of an ocean, or something I can’t see every day. Set a small goal such as practicing public speaking in front of friends, or a pet, if that’s your fear. Don’t feel like you have to go all in on your fear to find ways to work with it, you can gradually increase your comfort.
  4. Let go: Fear is about controlling a situation that feels out of control. Let go of control, and knowing that whatever happens may well be out of your hands. In my case, I can’t control the height of a given space I occupy, but I can control if I want to be that high. I can say no at any time. I can refuse to go further, but I have the choice regardless.
  5. Celebrate: When you face your fear, celebrate it. Own it. Know that you faced it in that moment and seriously be proud of yourself. That is a huge accomplishment, and it deserves the accolades you are giving to yourself.

Even with these steps to help you embrace your fear, or at the least, acknowledge it, fear doesn’t go away overnight or sometimes ever. I know my fear of heights isn’t something I’ll ever be rid of, and one day I really want to see Peru. It’ll take a lot for me to do that, and you might need to drug me up with Valium, but it’s definitely a goal.

Cliffs of Kerry in Ireland

Embracing fear means the world becomes bigger. Why? By embracing your fear, you’re embracing humility. To be afraid, but to allow yourself to be open to the idea that there’s more to life beyond your known world means you’re willing to find out what that is. There’s a lot of risk involved in that, emotionally and otherwise, but that’s where the courage comes in. Taking those deep breaths, and slowly moving forward one step at a time.

You got this underdogs. Just like you got me if I’m ever walking across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I’M NOT WALKING ACROSS THAT ALONE.

Chronic illness can cause a lot of fear, especially to those who need to hold jobs and manage their health. Tune in to our podcast this week while we interview Josh Smith on how he does just that every day.

I'm just a nerd trying to figure it out. Stay tuned for my wacky adventures in social experiments!

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