Fear is an edifice we build within ourselves.
Unless you’re inhuman, you know fear. It’s natural. It’s healthy. It’s a survival mechanism designed to warn you against very real dangers and guide you safely through times of risk and uncertainty.
But, if you’re like most people, the mechanism has got out of hand and grown beyond its usefulness. The edifice towers above you, menacing and impenetrable.
People aren’t born confident or afraid. Whether you become one or the other is down to what you learn and adopt over the years of your life. Understanding that is the key to overcoming fear: it’s a choice, and one we make hundreds of times a day through a whole host of decisions.
We construct our fears over time, in much the same way a building will go up in stages. It begins with early foundations, laid when we are young principally by those who influence us (‘that’s dangerous’, ‘get down from there or you’ll fall’, ‘you’re just going to hurt yourself’, etc.); then scaffolding is erected – the skeleton of the building – as we allow fear to grow and to govern more and more small decisions throughout our life, and finally the bricks and mortar are put in place as we cement fear through the constant reinforcement of focussing on imaginary outcomes, terrible yet unlikely consequences and negative thinking.
This construct can become extremely intricate and elaborate, with seemingly unrelated phobias actually interlinking; reinforcing each other to create a monolithic structure that can appear to be incredibly daunting. Fear then squats in your mind like some giant spider in its web, waiting to respond aggressively to any slight step you take towards anything remotely resembling risk, experimentation, novelty or adventure. It debilitates, it freezes, it limits. It hinders your growth and directs your path, and ruins lives one day at a time.
But, as time and nature prove, nothing built by humanity is permanent. All can be undone, even the artifices of the mind. And the architecture of fear is no different. In fact, it’s surprisingly unstable when examined closely and is easily brought crashing down if we simply decide to act.
Fear typically arises from the unfamiliar. If we don’t understand something, can’t predict it, think that we can’t control it, or simply have no experience of it, we are more likely to be afraid of that thing and for obvious evolutionary reasons. So it stands to reason that to overcome a fear one has to become familiar with the cause of the fear, whatever that is. One has to go into it, to face it, to understand it. That process alone, which may take some time and progress gradually of course, will reduce the effect of the fear, little by little. And remember that fear is an integrated construction in and of itself, so weaken any one support column or foundation block and you weaken the entire structure.
Take the following example. A couple of years ago I decided it was time to learn how to jump out of planes, and so embarked on a skydiving course with my good friend and author Marcus Alexander. So it was that one bright day in Oxfordshire I found myself, after a few hours of classroom instruction and practice of the all-important arch position on a bench, crouching in a tiny, cramped aircraft that rattled its way to 11,000 feet from where we would voluntarily throw ourselves out. I’d never done this before, not even a tandem jump strapped to an instructor, and was a little surprised that after that one day’s theoretical training they were happy for us to take the plunge solo. But hey, what did I know?
However, as the plane steadily rose to jump-height I found that I felt remarkably little fear. A heightened sense of things, to be sure, and a keen focus on what I had to do to pull it off and return to the ground safely, but no real fear. Why? Familiarity. Not familiarity with jumping out of planes – as I say, this was my first time – but familiarity with the process and mental architecture of fear, and thus familiarity with the process of navigating it and transforming it into positive energy. That familiarity came principally from my years of parkour training, which asks you confront fear on an almost daily basis, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in very powerful ways. In parkour one of the key concepts is something we call breaking jumps, which is the experience and methodology of generating enough psychological impetus to overcome hesitation and fear and ‘let go’ so that the body and mind are able to commit fully to a movement challenge. It’s an absolutely critical skill in parkour and one we teach and train often, and you can read a more in-depth explanation of it here.
Now this jump was very different from every jump I’d ever done in parkour, it being out of a plane, with a parachute and with no landing spot in sight (so much for all that accuracy practice!); but the mental process of preparing for the action and focusing only on the task I found to be exactly the same, and something I was very familiar with. ‘I know this process’, I thought to myself as we rattled our way through the clouds to jump-time. And it felt great. I’d inoculated myself against the fear of physical activities through a long familiarisation process in parkour. I loved every second of that first jump, and I can tell you that there’s nothing quite like throwing yourself out of a plane with only your abilities, training and a sturdy parachute to get you back down to Earth.
Here’s the video of that first jump from the instructor’s camera. Great fun.
The Neurology of Fear
Unfortunately, the neurological pathways through which we consciously and subconsciously interpret fear are still not well understood by neuroscientists, and the fear-panic response spectrum appears to be a highly complicated dynamic process that ranges from the amygdala – typically thought of as the integrative centre for emotions, emotional behaviour and motivation – to other regions such as the insular cortex, brainstem or diencephalon.
The fact is we just don’t fully understand the neuroscience of fear, yet. But we do know that fear can cause responses of either flight, action or freezing. And we also know that fear can be overcome if the motivation is strong enough, that it can generally be overridden by other emotions such as anger or love, for example, and that through regular exposure to fear we diminish its impact. We also know that almost every fear is learned through experience. In fact, only two are hard-wired into the brain: the fear of falling (not to be confused with the fear of heights) and the fear of loud noises. All other fears we acquire and reinforce over time.
But I’m not going to attempt to unravel what elite neuroscientists are still struggling with, and the good news is we don’t have to. Our direct experience of fear is the perfect training ground and nothing beats direct experience for understanding inner processes and how to master them. You don’t need to read all the studies and get your head around the science; you simply need to do something that scares you. Often. You’ll soon find that you begin to become well acquainted with fear; with its signs, its symptoms, its effects, indeed its very composition. That familiarity reduces its power over you, and the process of experiencing and overcoming it gradually becomes easier and faster, until it ceases to be a major obstacle. This isn’t to say that fear disappears altogether – that would be unhealthy, unwise and a likely indicator of brain damage! – but it can be reduced from a raging furnace that consumes you to a small candle-flame within which actually warms and motivates you.
Fear as Opportunity
Most fears we face on a regular basis are either unfounded or blown out of all proportion in our minds. The brain responds to fear stimuli by imagining the very worst outcome and blasting your consciousness with those grisly and graphic images so as to prevent you from acting. Don’t blame your brain for doing that, it’s only trying to keep you safe. But the fact is that what was once a very sensible fear-response system, when we lived simpler lives and the dangers were real, imminent and quite likely fatal if not avoided or managed, does not apply as well to the majority of experiences in our daily modern lifestyles. Fight-or-flight physical responses such as sweating, narrowed vision and adrenaline surges aren’t much use when going for a job interview, nor do they make any sense, but they happen; because the emotions of fear cue those responses as part of our primal survival mechanism preparing us to either escape a predator or win a fight.
Yet some people handle these situations, and far worse ones, without feeling these effects at all or, at least, if they feel them they are able to manage, control and find liberation from them. How? Researchers continue to uncover evidence that being pro-active and actively seeking out and facing your fears is the best way to overcome them, and we in parkour know that to be true from experience. But what is the process that allows you to move forward in the face of fear rather than freezing or backing away from it? How can we push fear back and begin living free of its influence?
The key, I think, it to see any fear-inducing situation as an opportunity to understand one’s own process of fear and thus develop one’s psychological immune system. Strengthening the mind is surprisingly similar to the process of strengthening muscles: regular stimulus against resistance builds resilience and capability. So embrace those stimuli, in this case the causes of our fear, and realise they are your opportunity to delve deeper into your own internal processes and become a better version of yourself in doing so.
This is the first step, and probably more than half the battle. Before you can master your fear you have to be aware of what causes it, how it starts, when it kicks in and whether it’s a reasonable fear or not. It’s very easy to become strongly attached to the thoughts which support and give birth to our fears, so much so that we can think of nothing else and those thoughts become our world. But the objective reality of any situation is almost always completely unrelated to our imagined fears and the worst outcome is almost always the least likely.
So when fear arises within you, just observe it. Stay with it for a moment. Don’t judge it or run from it or try to think your way out of it; simply be aware of the process that is occurring, and what your responses are. Be as objective as possible, and this will help you understand that the fear is not you, it is something that is happening to you. That’s hugely important to understand because once you do you realise that you can prevent what is happening to you.
With awareness comes the potential to act. Only once you know what is happening can you take steps to interrupt it, prevent it or fight through it. Once you’ve made that realisation it’s time to act; and even the smallest positively chosen action will be like well-placed demolition charges within the architecture of your fear. An action can be as simple as deep, controlled breathing, which has incredible proven results in reducing the physiological effects of fear. The entire autonomic nervous system is largely driven by our breathing patterns an so by simply changing your breathing you can influence countless biochemical reactions in the body, producing more relaxing substances such as endorphins and fewer anxiety-producing ones like adrenaline or increased blood acidity. Consciously slow your breathing down naturally and you will feel less fearful of almost everything.
Any positively initiated action will help, though, whether it be breath-control, analyzing the task at hand, engaging in a physical ritual, warming-up before a jump, whatever. The point is to avoid inaction, which is where the freeze response will come into its own, causing indecisiveness, hesitation and ineffectiveness.
Action will reinforce itself, helping you see a path through the fear. That will allow you to focus on the actual reality of the situation, which is usually that there is a task to accomplish and it requires your full attention.
This, for me, is perhaps the most important skill of all when dealing with fear: the ability to focus on the task and nothing else. Let’s remind ourselves that fear is a structure we build internally over time, and the extent to which that happens depends entirely on how much you allow fear to fill your mind, allowing your attention to linger on the imagined consequences, the possible unwanted outcomes and how much easier it would be to run and hide.
So build another architecture in your mind: an architecture of confidence. Focus only on the task at hand, on a detail of the challenge or movement, on anything other than the fear or its imaginary allies. Ask yourself ‘Do I want to do this?’ If the answer is yes then put your focus on the things you need to learn, practice or initiate in order to get it done. This is known as deliberate practice, and it is proven to be hugely more efficient than distracted, unfocused and wayward thinking when attempting to perform well.
Again, don’t allow yourself to become frustrated if your mind strays back to the fear and the ‘what ifs’. That will happen. Just gently bring your thoughts back to the process, back to the task, and get back to work. The more you guide your focus back to the moment, the easier it will become to maintain attention for longer and the more effective and efficient your practise, of anything, will become.
If you could actually count the number of decisions you make in any given day or week that are governed or influenced by fear, you’d be amazed. Most of them are so subtle they are almost undetectable, but they happen all the time. These are defensive, reactionary, negative and ultimately self-defeating choices that play an enormous role in restraining us from achieving our true potential. From doing good things. From relaxing and enjoying life to the full. This isn’t just about fear in physical performance or parkour or any one activity; it’s about shattering the nebulous, insidious structure of fear that surrounds and cages our thinking and convinces us we just can’t do this.
It’s not you. You didn’t start out that way, you learned these fears. Which means you can unlearn them. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes will and it takes focus – nothing you don’t have within you already. Make the decision to engage with every fearful moment that comes your way and you’ll soon realise that fear only has the power you give to it.
And as your confidence grows so the architecture of fear begins to crumble. The result is freedom.
Come and learn more about overcoming fear in any Parkour Generations class, workshop or community event.