Learn to conquer fear and build courage

01/06/2014 9:22 PM

01/07/2014 4:21 AM

As we commence the annual ritual of pledging to be trimmer, thriftier, tidier and overall more disciplined human beings, consider adding another goal to the year: riskier.

Whether it’s reaching for Mount Everest or reaching for a promotion, plunging from a perfectly good airplane or plunging into marriage, 2014 can be a year of living adventurously, if only we confront those primal fears that so often hold us back.

But how?

Three authors with varied perspectives weighed in on the value of taking risks and releasing the fears that can keep us from pursuing potentially enriching experiences.

Exercise that ‘muscle’

Jaimal Yogis, author of “The Fear Project”

When San Francisco-based journalist Jaimal Yogis set out to confront his fears, a journey he chronicled in the book “The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing and Love” (Rodale), he channeled Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice and did one thing every day that scared him: He talked to a stranger, pitched a story to a bigger magazine, surfed a bigger wave.

“Courage is a muscle in your brain, and every day you exercise it makes it stronger,” Yogis said.

He noticed that the confidence he gained with each new triumph had a trickle-down effect. During the course of his research, the self-described commitment-phobe felt his fears of marriage start to crack. He proposed to his now-wife and became a father as the book was being published.

“It becomes a memory support,” Yogis said. “You felt really good and courageous in this moment, so when you’re feeling nervous about something else later, you can remember, ‘I felt this same sort of nervousness,’ and you know you got through it.”

During conversations with neuroscientists, Yogis learned he could deprogram his fear memories by reassociating the memory with something he isn’t afraid of.

When he was preparing to surf the massive waves of Mavericks, a surf spot in Northern California where several accomplished surfers have died, he would conjure up his fears by watching videos of people wiping out at Mavericks and then go out and ride smaller waves on which he was confident.

“There’s a six-hour window where the fear memory is malleable,” Yogis said. “Conjure up the memory and then do something to calm your nerves.” (He ended up surfing Mavericks and decided it truly is too dangerous for him).

Taking action is the “magic sauce” to conquering fears, Yogis said. But it’s smart to go in prepared. Train hard to give yourself confidence. Take baby steps. Make it fun, perhaps by doing it with friends. Be safe, because if you hurt yourself doing something you’re afraid of, it will only reinforce that fear.

‘Risk is not a fact’

David Ropeik, risk perception consultant

Although instinctive fears worked wonders for our primitive ancestors fleeing lions and bears, the more complicated risks of the modern world require more careful thought, said David Ropeik, author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts” (McGraw-Hill). “Risk is not a fact,” he said. “It is a feeling.”

Sometimes, we fear some things too much and some things too little, and the mistakes can be dangerous. For example, many people might fear going scuba diving on vacation in the South Pacific, lest they encounter a very unlikely shark, while they wouldn’t hesitate to venture into the sun for hours without sun protection, despite plenty of evidence of the dangers.

“We should challenge ourselves to be more critical thinkers,” Ropeik said. “Get the facts, have more say in the combat with your feelings.”

Individual life experiences as well as personality traits influence what we see as risky in the world, which is why some people are terrified of earthquakes and others are far more petrified of commitment.

Several characteristics of the risks themselves also feed our gut feelings that drive our fears.

For example, if the benefit that would result from taking the risk is overwhelming, people feel less scared of it, Ropeik said. Having more control also makes something less scary. So does familiarity.

To mitigate fears so that you feel more comfortable taking a risk, address those characteristics, Ropeik said.

To use the scuba diving example, you might envision and focus on the beauty of the South Pacific and other benefits. To gain some feeling of control, you might do research on which waters have man-eating species and avoid them. You might make the unfamiliar experience more familiar simply by visiting Trip Advisor and getting acquainted with the region.

Those steps don’t necessarily make the experience any safer, but it starts to feel less scary, Ropeik said.

Keep a sense of humor

Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist meditation teacher

Though conventional wisdom suggests we are most afraid of the unknown, Sharon Salzberg believes her fears stem from a feeling that if she takes a risk, her efforts will flop. That foregone conclusion made her timid about writing her first book even as all her colleagues were doing so. She was closing doors before she opened them.

“The stories we tell ourselves are generating the fear,” said Salzberg, the best-selling author of books and audio guides on spirituality and meditation. “When I can see the stories and I tell myself actually I don’t know what will happen, that’s when I feel some space to make an informed decision of whether to move forward.”

Salzberg uses mindfulness meditation to become aware of what it feels like in her body when she’s getting afraid, so that when fear strikes, she can sit with it and identify whether the stories are true or her defeatist patterns are at work.

“Sometimes we can use our sense of humor. There can be a wry amusement” that recognizes when she’s just catastrophizing again, she said. “Or you can use loving kindness,” a meditation practice that cultivates kind and caring feelings and can help with fears such as stage fright.

Overcoming fears to reach for something difficult helps people discover capacities and develop confidence, Salzberg said. She recalls the first time a yoga teacher helped her into a headstand. She had been plotting a delicate way to slip out of the room, because it looked scary. But when her turn came, she trusted the yoga teacher and got her feet up. “I think we are empowered by stepping out of our familiar rut and trying something different,” Salzberg said.

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