How to befriend fear and tame the tigers in your mind
Sunday, August 7th, 6:00 a.m.
By the time you’re reading this on Monday the 8th, I’ll be scrambling, squirming, and clawing my way through Heaps Canyon.
Heaps is the Grand Daddy. The Big Kahuna. The Holy Grail of canyoneering in Zion National Park. The one spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by those in the know.
Some friends and I have been dreaming and scheming about this one for ten years. Last week the park got hammered by rain. The canyon should be full of water, which, as you’ll find out, is critical. We jumped on the opportunity.
If you read this story, you know I’m no stranger to adventure. But Heaps is in a class of its own. The one you don’t want to underestimate.
In the best of conditions it’s a bare minimum of twelve hours to slog through. In the worst, it’s been known to take three days.
At least one rescue or recovery per year is generally required out of this canyon. (Need I spell out what I mean by “recovery”?)
It’s 12.9 miles of total hiking, with 3.1 of that being extremely technical canyoneering (rappelling, swimming through deep water in wetsuits, squirming through tight cracks, climbing over and crawling under logjams left by flash floods, etc.).
Heaps has long, dark, water-filled, bone-chillingly cold sections full of its unique challenge: potholes, which are deep holes carved by water into sandstone and full of water (hopefully).
When the water is high and potholes are full, you can jump in, swim across, and climb out easily. But when the water is low, they can be extremely tough to get out of. You can be treading water, looking up six feet of smooth sandstone with no hand or footholds. You have to use a variety of techniques to claw your way out. (They’re called “keeper” potholes for a reason.)
And you could be doing that for a dozen or more potholes. It can suck your energy fast and leave you either rappelling in the dark (scaaaarrry stuff on this canyon!) or spending a miserable night in the canyon.
It ends in an insane 505-foot, three-stage rappel, the last stage being a 290-foot free fall.
I’m not gonna lie — I’m scared. Really scared. I know my way around a canyon, having schlepped my way through dozens of canyons dozens of times over the last ten years, but this…this is the real deal.
I’m writing this the day before we enter the canyon. Contemplating why I’m doing this and what I get out of it.
My “lizard brain,” responsible for fight, flight, or freeze responses, is in high gear. Pushing forward on this trip literally goes against every biological impulse in me.
So why do it? And how to do it while in the grip of fear?
The work of psychologist Rick Hanson informs the why. Rick explains that our brain has developed in response to threats to create a pervasive “negativity bias” that makes us prone to feeling threatened. Our early ancestors faced serious and daily threats of being eaten, stomped, poisoned, etc.
As a result, our brains are constantly on the lookout for bad news and hyper-sensitive to apparent threats. We zero in on bad news and fixate on it with tunnel vision. Good news, on the other hand, is essentially ignored.
“In effect,” Rick says, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
He further explains,
“Basically, in evolution, there are two kinds of mistakes: (1) You think there is a tiger in the bushes but there isn’t one, and (2) You think the coast is clear, no tiger in the bushes, but there really is one about to pounce.
“These mistakes have very different consequences. The first one will make you anxious, but the second one will kill you. That’s why Mother Nature wants you to make the first mistake a thousand times over in order to avoid making the second mistake even once.
“This hard-wired tendency toward fear affects individuals, groups (from couples to multinational corporations), and nations. It makes them overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources.”
To be clear, the journey I’m about to embark on has very real threats with serious potential consequences.
However, these threats can be managed with the right tools, knowledge, skills, and judgment.
So why do it? Because I know the tiger in my mind is far bigger and more dangerous than the tiger in the canyon.
So it is with much of life — we fail to take calculated and wise risks because we fail to tame the tiger in our mind.
The crazy thing is that I have a much higher likelihood of dying in my car on the drive to the canyon than of dying in the canyon itself, yet I don’t think anything of that threat because I drive on a daily basis.
Short of locking ourselves in our houses, there’s nothing we can do to avoid all real, external threats. And by shutting ourselves off from such threats we create the biggest, most damaging risk of all: the risk of not living up to our full potential.
So how can we push through fear in order to reap the benefits and be more fully alive? Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McConigal answers this question in her fantastic TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”
For ten years Kelly taught people to avoid stress because it makes you sick and increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease.
But a landmark study made her rethink her entire approach to stress.
Tracking 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years, the study started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then they used public death records to find out who died.
They found that the people who had experienced high amounts of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.
People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.
In other words, Kelly says, “the researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.”
When stressed and fearful, our hearts start pounding, we start breathing faster, we may break out into a sweat. Typically, we interpret these physical responses as signs that we aren’t coping well with the perceived threat.
But Kelly asks, “What if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?”
Participants in a Harvard University study were told exactly this: your heart pounding is preparing you for action, faster breathing pumps more oxygen to your brain. Participants who learned to view their stress response as helpful for their performance were less anxious, more confident, and their physical response to stress dramatically changed.
The life-changing conclusion, says Kelly, is that,
“When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”
My fear, and the physical stress response it creates, is a good thing — it makes me prepare properly and perform better.
Fear itself is not our enemy — but our perception of it makes it so.
The things we fear the most are the things that will make us grow the most. And our fear of them, rather than being a hindrance, can actually be the very thing that helps us to overcome and achieve them.
And with that said, say a prayer for me and my friends and wish us luck, and I’ll let you know how it went next week…
To read how our adventure turned out, read this article.