It’s Not What You Know

Several years ago, my father-in-law approached me with a proposition: he needed a companion to knock off an item from his bucket list. This particular item was his greatest fear and was something that he felt strongly about conquering in his lifetime. Knowing that it was something I had done once before, he felt I would be a good candidate to provide some support.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, her father and I decided to jump out of a plane together on a sunny morning in May 2010. This being a somewhat momentous occasion, we splurged for the additional documentation – there are pictures and video of the whole ordeal.  In the years following this experience, one of those pictures has always stood out to me.

All novice skydivers are required to begin with a tandem jump; that is, an experienced skydiver is strapped to your back.  In one particular picture, there is a stark contrast between my face and the face of the instructor.  On my face: sheer terror.  On his: indifference.  

  On my face: sheer terror.  On his: indifference.  

On my face: sheer terror.  On his: indifference.  

Let’s think about why this difference might exist; why two people jumping out of an airplane might have such differing responses.  Being afraid of falling from 14,000 feet seems like a perfectly reasonable fear, and yet, my cohort was able to do so with minimal ostensible fear.  What could I have done differently that might have yielded different, calmer results?

Our brain is programmed to activate our fight/flight response when it determines that there might be danger...In order to reprogram this response and to eliminate these false alarms, it is necessary to give our brains a corrective experience; that is, to show it (not just tell it) that we’re okay.

One of the most common interventions that I see when people try to combat fear is an effort to rationalize. Many people believe that, by using logic, reasoning, statistics, etc., they will be able to cast off some irrational fear and begin anew, with clear, fresh, anxiety-less perspective.  Countless air travelers have, no doubt, been reminded of the relative safety of air travel as compared with car travel… and yet fears of flying persist while millions of motorists drive in cars without a second thought.  In 1975, beaches across the country were full of swimmers terrified of an imminent shark attack, as portrayed in Jaws, despite the statistical rarity of such occurrences.  And of course, the knowledge that the risk of death in any given skydive is a minute 1 in 100,000 does absolutely nothing to ameliorate the fear that accompanies a skydive.  Why is that?  Well, it’s because the difference between me and the other skydiver is not what we know; it’s what we’ve done.  

Our brain is programmed to activate our fight/flight response (also known as anxiety or fear) when it determines that there might be danger.  Sometimes this response is activated too easily or in times when no real threat is present.  In order to reprogram this response and to eliminate these false alarms, it is necessary to give our brains a corrective experience; that is, to show it (not just tell it) that we’re okay. This particular part of our brain is not especially concerned with statistics or rationality; instead, it learns through experience. This is why professional skydivers, after thousands of jumps, extinguish much of the initial fear that accompanies jumping out of plane.  This is why flight attendants who ride airplanes daily, are non-plussed when the plane hits a patch of turbulence.  And this why the bulk of us get in our cars every day without fear, despite the statistical risk that accompanies it.  

It’s hard to leave this habit behind. In most instances, our ability to rationalize is adaptive.  It helps us to make sense of the world and to calculate the best paths in our day-to-day lives.  When it comes to irrational fear and anxiety, we’re better off forgetting these habits and instead, focusing on providing our brain with the experience it needs to make the appropriate tweaks.  Our brains are incredibly adaptive and they can learn a lot when we give them the opportunities that they need.  So the next time you feel that twinge of anxiety, leave the rationalization and reassurance behind; instead, take a risk and give your brain a corrective experience.