Fear is an everyday part of life that has evolutionary roots. Fear evolved for our survival. If our ancestral primates did not experience fear, they were subject to predation and not able to reproduce. Those who had a more developed fear response lived longer and reproduced more. And that is the brief history of why we have anxiety and fear in our modern lives. Fear can still be a signal to inform one of danger but often we experience exaggerated fear. If you feel fear or anxiety often, ask yourself, where is the threat? For most of us in modern western society we do not have obvious threats to our physical lives. Modern people, however, react to psychological distress with a fear response that is stronger than the situation warrants. Fear and anxiety can become an impairing psychological disorder If the fear response is frequent, intense, and of long duration.
Lessons on fear from a mountain bike
Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a conference at a ski resort near Lake Tahoe. It was early October and there was no snow; just sunny warm days with refreshing cool nights. One of my colleagues, Mark, brought his mountain bike up from Los Angeles. He was an accomplished mountain biker and persuaded two of us to spend an afternoon riding the mountain. Ok, it didn’t take much persuasion. It was a beautiful day and ride up the mountain on two chair lifts. Once we reached the top of the mountain, we rode around the forest to a lake and on a road that followed a stream. We stopped for a brief rest and a long cool drink of water when Mark announced it was time for us to go down the mountain. Cool, until we came to the edge viewing our trek down. There was a path slightly wider than the bike tires and the vertical drop was that of a double black diamond ski run. My heart jumped into my throat. There were gullies, boulders, logs, and fallen trees everywhere. Things you don’t see when there is snow.
“Let’s go”, Mark yelled. I summoned up the courage, and down I went. And down I went into a crash in less than a minute with the other friend. Mark then offered some mountain bike coaching. “Don’t look at what you’re trying to avoid crashing into. Keep your eyes on the trail ahead of you where you want to go.” This seemed like a better idea than what I tried on my first attempt. It was a profound lesson in trust. I suddenly gained confidence and speed. The bike began to feel like part of my body, responding to every nuance as I leaned to steer. It took an hour or so to reach the bottom of the mountain. I was so exhilarated, confident, and in the flow. It was one of those peak life experiences that happen too infrequently.
A metaphor for life
Often we fear we are going to be hurt by something. Manifestations of fear are frequently relational. We have anxiety about being hurt by a loved one, judged by peers, speaking in public, performance feedback at work, and so forth. This fear draws our attention to the objects (psychological or physical) that could hurt us. We think the fear will protect us from being hurt. While it is important to be mindful of the potential to be hurt, the over focus on what you are afraid of can result in creating what is feared, emotional pain.
If you are experiencing impairing anxiety and fear in your life, take a lesson from mountain biking. Keep your focus on where you want to go and the experience you want to have. If you don’t know where you want to go and what you want to experience, talk to someone who can help.
To a Good Life,
Mark Hansen, Ph.D.