The past couple years for me have been nothing short of a bold adventure dotted with opportunities, seen and unseen, to face my fears. Head on. And I don’t regret a second of it. I previously earned the nickname “safety cat” (a light-hearted play on “scared-y-cat”), but I have learned to embrace a maxim put forth by the great playwright and poet:
Fear is such a primal force. It does funny things to the brain. Fear works its way into the psyche and hijacks all reason and logic. It can be gripping and paralyzing, or rousing and electrifying. It can prevent you from thinking clearly and cause you to react without will or succumb to danger. When I was younger, I had a terrifying recurring dream when distressed that I was drowning in deep water. Dozens of times I have watched myself in this nightmare desperately struggling at the water’s surface but slowly sinking into a murky abyss. It was absolutely horrifying, every single time. Every once in a while, when I’m swimming around in fear surrounding some new challenge or perceived barrier, it sneaks in again and haunts my slumber. Naturally I’ve developed an irrational fear of being in deep water and therefore, I have never been comfortable in the ocean. Drowning is a powerful image of fear, so imagine my reaction when my brother approached me about getting scuba dive certified on vacation in the Virgin Islands! Knowing that he also harbored some anxiety around the idea of breathing from an air tank underwater, and not wanting to discourage him from challenging his own fears, I agreed to do it. I managed to say something like, “that would be fun for us to do together,” while in the background my brain was completely freaking out!
Fear is such a primal force, but it is not absolute. Although the brain’s course of translating fear-inducing sensory information into a behavioral response is largely an unconscious process, neuroscience has shown that we can learn new ways of reacting to fear-inducing stimuli. So how did I do it? Well, it was basically a matter of diving right in! I chose to be bold.
My brother and I signed up for the PADI Open Water Diver certification course, affiliated with a reputable dive shop in St. Thomas, and completed our e-learning modules. Then there we were on day one, all geared up with BCDs, tanks and regulators, and ready to begin the confined water dive skills portion of our training, and my brain started freaking out again. “All you have to do is breathe through your mouth and everything will be fine,” I told myself. “That’s crazy, you can’t breathe underwater, don’t do it,” my brain fought back with me. With my heart pounding, I submerged and instantly hated it. “Go back to the surface and rip your mask off so you can breathe through your nose like normal,” my brain shouted at me. “Just try to take slower, deeper, more controlled inhales and exhales,” my yoga teacher self told my brain. My chest was tight and I felt like I couldn’t get enough air no matter how hard I tried. “I’m suffocating…This is horrible…I hate this,” my brain cried out in panic. I struggled through the entire morning, dreading the impending open-water dives that afternoon.
”Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller
Facing your fear is often about taking calculated risks and learning how to handle them. I chose to override my instinct to give up on diving, but my internal argument continued during the boat ride out to our first dive spot. “50 feet down is a long way…What if your regulator doesn’t work and you suffocate? What if you can’t clear your mask and you breathe in some water and choke on it? This is really scary. You don’t have to do this,” my brain tried to convince me. “Look here, amygdala, you’re not winning this time,” I answered back. Standing on the edge of the platform at the boat’s stern and heeding my brother’s advice from earlier that day, I rehearsed what was going to happen. “Walk yourself through it,” he said, so I reminded myself that I was in control and I stepped out into the ocean. We carefully made our first descent to the ocean’s floor and began our first underwater exploration!
What a mystical experience it was to be floating freely through the abyss, not struggling and fearful, but literally and figuratively buoyant. I fell in love with diving that day! More importantly, I gained an enormous sense of confidence in my ability to overcome the greatest obstacle to pursuing my dreams: fear.
“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
How many times have you allowed fear to speak louder than reason or passion and missed an opportunity to challenge yourself and take a chance on growth in your personal or professional life? No one is immune from fear and it serves its purpose in warning us of potential threat, but it need not hold you back. You can still explore, try new things, step into the unknown, and know that you are in control even if you’re anxious. You can likely recount your own vivid tale of standing at the edge of whatever it is you were afraid to do, then taking that giant leap forward and feeling the rush of pure joy and pride afterwards. Revel in those moments and soak in the strength of resilience that you build when you do choose to face your fears. The first step is choosing to do it. The next step is going out and doing it. Share your stories below.
Boldness be your friend!
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie
About the Author:
Sarah is a Professional Services Intern at The Ken Blanchard Companies. She is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Consulting Psychology and her research is based on mindfulness. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.