Real Fear Vs. Irrational Fear

When I was seventeen, I went hiking in the Adirondacks with my friend, Wynn. He and I decided to go off-trail and summit Whiteface Mountain by traversing up a granite scar that gave the mountain its name. We spent much of the time with two feet and at least one hand on the rocks, speeding right along until we hit a section of vertical rock surrounded by deep brush. We looked fifty feet up and then fifty down and noticed a quarter-size ridge running across near us. So we decided to cross that and find a safer route on the other side. I had not done much rock climbing, but it was only about fifteen feet wide. I told myself: I got this. Wynn, a seasoned climber, scampered across the ravine with no fanfare. Then I started inching my way across, breathing deeply and focusing. Suddenly, I was at a spot where the handhold was just a pinch. I felt my center of gravity shift away from the rock. The pit in my stomach preceded my awareness that I had lost the hold of my right hand and was beginning to fall.

Things immediately went into slow motion, and my heart skyrocketed into my throat. At that moment, I knew death was likely imminent. If you fall off a cliff, gravity wins. If you jump out of an airplane and the parachute doesn’t open, you’re in trouble. If you go underwater and your gear doesn’t work, you better be trained. If you drive down a highway at eighty miles an hour and start to skid, that’s what real danger is.

 In 2017 there was a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had friends at that Vegas concert where the shooting took place. They were in life-threatening peril and experienced real fear. Real fear triggers the stress response in your central nervous system: adrenaline surges and epinephrine releases, blood retracts to your core, your heart rate elevates, and your senses light up. These physiological effects help you take immediate action to protect yourself or others from danger.

Unfortunately, people have the same experience with fear that’s not real, not life-threatening. This is what is known as an irrational fear. Irrational fear is one of many forms of resistance that will cause you to want to quit or prevent you from pursuing your goals in the first place. You could be facing a big decision to launch an audacious business. Because of the story you have built around this, there are a set of expectations: You may fail. You could be ruined financially. Your reputation could tank. Maybe you worry you’re not smart enough, good enough, or as able to succeed as some other hotshot entrepreneur. This irrational fear slowly takes you over. You lose sleep night after night and end up with adrenal fatigue or an ulcer by the end of the ordeal. Irrational fear is not based on reality. Yet, it triggers the same physiological reactions as if you were sailing toward the earth with a chute that won’t open. Your parasympathetic nervous system lights up, and your fear wolf howls. Losing your reputation is not the same as receiving a death threat. Yet, both could give you an ulcer. Throwing up before a blind date, unraveling after the term paper you wrote got lost on your computer, speaking publicly for the first time, imaging you’re going to fall during your dance performance (when you’ve never fallen before), freaking out about whether your newly published book will make the bestseller’s list, obsessing over getting old—these are all irrational fears.

When I scampered across that rock face that day on Whiteface Mountain, if the fall had only been a two feet drop down instead of a life-threatening, and my parasympathetic system reacted the same way as I lost my grip, I would have been experiencing irrational fear. Or if Wynn had roped and anchored with precision, the fear would have also been irrational because I would have fallen only a few feet until the anchor held me. If I worked hard to write a term paper, forgot to save it, and my computer crashed, that would suck. But I’m in no real danger. Death is not imminent if my paper is late. If I throw up before going on a blind date, it’s because I let illogical fear-based thoughts travel from my mind to my stomach. Countless things in life can trigger these irrational fear-based reactions. They are all roadblocks to our success and presence. And let me reiterate: the body does not distinguish between real fear and the fear your monkey mind drums up. Being present and recognizing the difference between real versus irrational fear is important as we traverse our path to summit the mountains we wish to climb. 

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