Identify and Make Friends with It.
What skier hasn’t dealt with fear? In my decades of skiing, fear has been a regular companion, sometimes riding shotgun when I’ve pushed into more adventurous terrain. But over time, I’ve learned to embrace fear, rather than fight or ignore it.
I remember two distinct moments when I was petrified on my boards. The first came, oddly enough, at the bottom of the hill. I was probably 7 or 8, and looking to graduate from the bunny slopes to intermediate terrain. That meant leaving from rope tows and T-bars behind and heading to the – gulp! – chairlift.
Standing in line at Gunstock Ski Area in New Hampshire with my Uncle Art, my legs started shaking. The chairlift, from my perspective, looked terrifying. I stiffened up, which prevented me from actually sitting down. Despite my uncle’s best efforts to grab me, I fell off shortly after “take off.” Fortunately, the only wounds I suffered were to my pride. But the experience was a real eye-opener regarding how debilitating fear can be.
The second moment came two decades later. By this time, I was in my late 20s, ostensibly in my athletic prime. I was strong, and a fairly accomplished (but not great) skier. And I was standing atop a windblown cornice near the top of Snowbird Resort in Utah. My brother and I had spied this spot during the tram ride, even watching a couple of rippers hit their lines. But once I was at the lip, my view was much, much different. I couldn’t see the landing spot, and I was paralyzed. By fear.
Did I ski the line? Nope. Fear “won.” Maybe. Of course, had I jumped and missed the landing, hurting myself, then my ego would have gotten the better of me. I acknowledged my fear, and opted to take the “discretion is the better part of valor” route.
Author and skier Kristen Ulmer knows fear. A former member of the United States Freestyle Ski Team and celebrated big-mountain skier, Ulmer has seen more extreme terrain than most of us will experience in three lifetimes. In her new book, The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead, Ulmer details how she has learned to effectively handle this powerful emotion.
“When I was a pro extreme skier, the media called me fearless. And it felt true,” said Ulmer. “I didn’t feel afraid of anything. But no one is without fear, including myself. It is with us every single moment, of every single day, in every interaction we have.
“Today, I recognize (that) I’m afraid of everything and everybody. Do I look or feel afraid? No. I look motivated, passionate, and alive, but all this comes from fear,” she said. “I am fueled by fear of being invisible, or of not being loved, which pushes me.
“Fear also pulls me,” she said. “I do fearful things to access heightened, focused states. I actually consider fear one of the best parts of life. If you avoid it, you get bored, complacent and never grow. If you embrace it, you go all the way with your life. And isn’t that what we want?”
This is an important point. There’s a real attraction to the keen, spine-tingling sensations we experience when we’re scared (which explains the popularity of horror movies).
“Fear is a natural, normal part of life. You feel it starting in childhood, and especially if you’re going to do big things, it will play a role in almost every moment of every day of your life,” said Ulmer. “The good news is, fear is meant to motivate you, help you focus, keep you safe, take you into heightened states of awareness, and make sure you bring your ‘A’ game to the things that matter most.
“But when it tips over the edge and becomes irrational fear or chronic anxiety, that’s when we know something has gone wrong,” she said.
Ulmer differentiates between fear, and fears. Fear is a simple feeling of discomfort in your body, which is supposed to compel a fight-or-flight response, like a mother bear protecting her cub (fight) or a rabbit darting away from your car (flight).
“Fears, on the other hand, form when you stop feeling fear, but instead think about it,” said Ulmer. “Thinking leads to judging that discomfort as bad, which leads to fighting or fleeing not the situation anymore, but oddly, the fear itself.
“My book seeks to bring us back to a simpler, less confusing relationship with fear, where we just feel it instead of think about it, which ends the maddening loop of fears,” she said.
According to Ulmer, we’ve become “very, very good at blocking out fear. It takes intensive effort, distracting ourselves from fear by going to the gym, massaging it away, meditation to calm it down, breathing exercises to let it go, tapping, therapy to try to understand it, reprogramming our brains and more, but it work great to quell fear.”
As a result people might feel less fear, but they deny fear its rightful place. With these aforementioned methods, fear doesn’t dissolve. Instead, it gets pressed down into what Ulmer calls the “basement” – out of sight in the body – where “ultimately it backs up, ferments, and becomes highly agitated. I mean, how would you feel if you were locked in the dark basement with no love or sunshine?”
Eventually, unresolved fear “starts to run its agenda from the basement in any way it can,” said Ulmer. It can communicate by screaming or hijacking your mind when you drop your guard, like when you’re sleeping or feeling vulnerable, to get your attention. It can show up as panic attacks, anxiety disorders, or insomnia, or in more subtle ways such as blame, excessive sadness, or rage.
“Little things may start to bug you,” she said. “Perhaps you become burnt out and chronically tired because all your energy is spent not dealing with your fear. Because you have to hold a lot of tension to not deal with fear, maybe you become a rigid person. In sports this makes you susceptible to injury.”
Over time, you feel worse and worse, and methods that provided temporary relief become more difficult. You need more meditation, more exercise, “until you’re working like a dog to quell your now-chronic fear and anxiety,” said Ulmer.
“Ultimately, you look to neuroscience and try cognitive behavior therapy, or resort finally to medication so you can firmly put fear another 10 feet below the basement, and encase it in cement,” she said. “All of this to avoid having to deal with your fear in an honest way. ”
The solution requires a 180-degree shift.
“Stop turning away from like we’ve been taught, and instead turn toward it,” she said. “Instead of fighting fear harder and harder, why not try something completely new, and simply make friends with it?”
This may not seem easy to do, especially if you’ve declared war on fear your whole life. But Ulmer said her method that “helps you make that shift quickly and easily, stopping the madness of daily battles, to instead permanently end the war. Fear will no longer be an enemy. Instead it transforms back into what it was always meant to be: your friend, ally, and asset offering you motivation, focus, safety, awareness, and so much more.”
Ulmer’s four-steps includes acknowledging that fear is natural, being curious about how you treat it, learning how to feel it instead of think about it, and listening to the messages it has for you.
One. Acknowledge that fear is a natural, normal part of the human experience.
Whether we’re willing to admit it, fear is with us constantly. Even if you feel little or no fear, if you look beneath your relative reality, you’ll find it. That’s not a sign personal weakness or character flaw. Acknowledging that life is a scary experience and that you’re supposed to feel this can be a life-changing experience.
Two. You’re going to become curious about your relationship with fear.
Ulmer likes to personify fear. See it as a co-worker, or child, or spouse. Notice if you’ve been ignoring, fighting with, or running away from this individual in any way. Get to know your relationship by asking: How do I feel about this individual? Do I enjoy hanging out with fear, even though it makes me uncomfortable, or do I hate it?
If you mistreat fear, it can quickly transform from an asset into an enemy, go underground, become exaggerated, and sabotage your success. By getting to know your relationship with fear, you become aware that it was you who declared war on fear, causing it to fight back. That means you also have the ability to end that war.
Three. Make friends with fear by listening to it honestly.
Fear is a simple sensation of discomfort, found in your body. If it’s in your head, or feels complicated or irrational, that just means you’ve been trying to control or fight it. Remember this: anything you try to control, will always wind up controlling you.
Close your eyes, do a body scan, and find that discomfort. It may show up as anxiety, stress, or worry. Those are just other names for fear. Find that discomfort, then say where you feel it. Then spend 15 seconds just feeling it. Do this without trying to get rid of it. If you do this, much like any individual who finally gets the attention they seek, your fear will calm down.
Four. Be curious about why fear showed up in your life.
Ulmer sees emotional intelligence as our ability to feel our emotions in an honest way, and have them enhance our wisdom and aliveness. There are two ways to tap into the wisdom and aliveness found in that discomfort. First, ask yourself if can you feel the percolation of energy in that discomfort? Add some breathing to the fear and notice whether it transform into awareness, focus and excitement.
Second, be curious about what your fear is saying. If it’s been excessive, fear may be trying to get your attention. Don’t ignore it. Fear might been trying to get you to go see a doctor, warn you you’re in the wrong career, or that there’s a problem in your marriage.
Ulmer calls this “extracting the wisdom of fear.” Its message is meant to compel you to act, to take care of something that needs attention. It also provides for you the energy and aliveness needed to take action.
Which is why, a half-century ago, I got back on that chairlift at Gunstock.
Image: John Brown Stubai Glacier Austria