W.T.F. (What To Fear)

19 10 2014

When I decided to apply for a spot on American Ninja Warrior (click if you don’t know), I had watched the participants swing through the air, tiptoe across unstable objects, and scale high obstacles and felt comfortable knowing that I could do all of those stunts. Little did I know, when I started training for the show a month ago, memories of a traumatic event I had back in 2008 would resurface creating such an intense fear that it would  prevent me from completing one of the more critical obstacles on the show: the Warped Wall.

Warped Wall

Back in 2008 while living in the Adirondacks, my buddies and I set off to climb a side of a mountain that one of them had mentioned he’d climbed before. Since we trusted his knowledge of the area we were about to scale, we had no fear of scrambling up the rock face. For anyone unfamiliar with the term “scrambling,” it’s where one climbs a mountain side without any equipment.

We made it to the point where it was time to start climbing up the face of the mountain. About one hundred feet up, our friend who had said he knew where we were going mentioned to us that this wasn’t the face of the mountain he had climbed. We couldn’t climb down the way we climbed up, so we decided that the only way out was to get to the top; only an extra fifty to sixty feet up. While climbing, I grabbed a small ledge and my feet slipped. I hung on with only one hand while my feet did everything they could to stick to the rock face. An image of me plunging to my death on the rocks below came into my head and I yelled for help. One of the guys ran to my rescue like the rock face had magically provided him foot holds. He crouched down and extended his hand. My adrenaline rushed throughout my body and I literally climbed up his body and onto a small stable ledge. However he got to me, there was no way of retracing his path. All possible routes kept going up. He and I ended up on a ledge with no possible way of climbing any further. The others were able to find a way down while the two of us stayed up on the mountain. Sitting on the small ledge, accompanied by a shrub growing on the side of the mountain and a hawk circling above us, we waited for our friends to come to the rescue with equipment. During this time, vertigo started to kick in and my fear of heights increased to new levels.

Sitting on the ledge (top right) as the others come with rope.

Sitting on the ledge (top right) as the others worked on getting rope to us.

Fear is a emotional response triggered by the amygdala in the brain (Menting, 2014). Within a tenth of a second, the amygdala can heighten the senses of the body, leading to the fight, flight, or freeze response. Even though we don’t like to have fear in our lives, and we sometimes associate fear with being weak, fear is an important part of being human. We need fear to know where our boundaries are.  The effects of fear can be very different for each person and situation. It can allow a mother to lift extraordinary weight off her trapped child or make an individual cower to the floor. Fear can stop a runner from reaching his fastest time; an Olympic lifter from obtaining her maximum weight; or an overweight individual from losing those few extra pounds. For some, fear limits a person from doing something normal like going into an elevator or being in the mix of a large crowd. It’s time to take action and refocus our efforts when fear becomes debilitating and prevents us from trying to get close to our limits. Due to my traumatic event, I was bound to the ground.

That brings me back to the Warped Wall. At first, every time I would run up the wall, a flashback of the event on the rock face would prevent me from jumping up to grab the ledge. Having my legs hang and my fingers grip only a small lip at the top of the wall was too close to home for me. That fear of falling from such a height, even if it was only fourteen feet and not a hundred, terrified me. Fear hinders all forward progress and with it, we are never able to reach our goal. Working those fears out in small increments and with a support system can make all the difference in the world. After a few weeks of having my fellow teammates encourage me and working on reassuring myself that falling from the wall would not kill me, I was able to break that fear and move forward.

Conquering fear is not an easy task, but with some work it can be done. Dependent upon the situation and magnitude of fear affecting the person, the individual may find a way to reduce the fear to a level where it is manageable. Reaching this level allows the person to participate in the activity without any negative reaction. Some psychologists help their patients create a new response to a stimuli that is safe rather than the fearful response that was associated with the stimuli  (Menting, 2014). Over time, the patient was able to engage in the activity without fear. In my case, by experiencing a safe return to the ground each time I went up the wall, the fear that caused me to freeze was reduced, and eventually I was able to conquer the wall. This accomplishment allowed me to build up my confidence and in turn set my goals to new heights.

 

Reference:

Menting, A.M. (2014) The Chill of Fear. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved on October 15, 2014 from http://hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/chill-fear