By Matthew Jones - Adventure Expert at Universal Dialect
When I am not fulfilling my duties as Universal Dialect’s Adventure Expert, I am scuba diving. It’s an adventure I started while traveling last year, and this year I am slowly working my way up to the professional level. This means learning to teach people who have never taken a breath underwater how to overcome the fear of drowning.
On a near daily basis, another instructor and I wade into the refreshing waters of the Mediterranean Sea with a few eager yet anxious tourists. The playful chatter that dominated the dive shop while we prepared the equipment quiets with each step we take into the water. Once we’re up to our chests, we put regulators in our mouths and the only voice to be heard is that of the instructor.
The next few moments are sometimes fun and sometimes tense as people struggle to assimilate the very unnatural sensation of breathing underwater. Many manage to do so, and they head off for a pleasant swim to look at fish and whatever else we can find under the sea.
However, around one out of every four people who try it simply can’t accept that scuba diving is completely safe, especially when you’re in the hands of trained professionals.
When this happens, one of us must leave the water, trek back to the shop, and undo all the work we just did to get into the water. Most people are upset at this. But they’re not upset with us; we did all we could. Instead, they’re upset with themselves.
Of course, scuba diving is not for everyone. I get that. But this scene is interesting to watch because it reminds me that fear is almost entirely mental.
When someone tries scuba diving for the first time, fear appears for very understandable reasons, and overcoming it requires an active exercise of your brain. We must repeat thoughts like: “this is safe,” “it works,” and “these people aren’t trying to kill me” to be able to overcome the mental block we’ve created for ourselves and have some fun.
This scene, however, is not unique to diving. I could easily describe the same phenomenon when talking about trying new foods, changing jobs, traveling, hanging out with new people, giving up bad habits, and much more. Each experience generates a different level of fear, but it’s all more or less the same: the fear of the unknown.
The Fear of the Unknown
Almost all fear is the fear of the unknown.
This is because we humans like to feel in control. More specifically, we like to know the risks we’re assuming. Many of us do not actively fear dying by falling from a building because we know the outcome -- death -- and we therefore know to avoid situations that put us at risk of falling from a building
However, in situations where we don’t know the outcome and where our lives are not in danger, we struggle more because the mind considers a lot more than just life or death.
For example, it worries about the image we project to the world, the impact we have on others, social acceptance, and much more. And the more consequences the brain imagines, the less it feels in control, which produces more fear and less action.
To grab life and live it to the fullest, it’s essential we learn how to manage our fear of the unknown.
But this means accepting we will never be able to get rid of fear. I dive almost every day, and on the boat ride to the dive site, I can often still sense fear creeping in. I can’t stop this. But I can manage it.
This involves recognizing my fear, understanding it, and defeating it with my thoughts.
If you can learn to do this, you will be able to try more new things, have more adventures, experience more of life, grow, and, most importantly, have a ton of fun during your time on this rock.
Overcoming fear is not easy, but it is possible. Here are some exercises to help you get over that mental hurdle and start doing some new and exciting things:
Be Mindful of Your Thoughts
Meditation has many benefits, but one of the most powerful is that it helps you realize the random nature of thought.
To meditate, all you need to do is sit somewhere quietly and try to calm your mind. Focus on your breathing, or a spot on the wall, or a mental image, and just observe your thoughts.
For most of us, sitting still seems impossible, but that’s kind of the point. Meditation helps turn your attention to the fact that the brain is a thought factory that never stops. Thoughts emerge all the time, usually from nowhere, and they are impossible to stop.
Many of these thoughts are useful, but many are completely random.
Luckily, as humans, we have a good deal of free will. We’re not goldfish or dogs. Instead, we have the mental capacity to recognize a thought and decide if we want to engage with it or not.
We do this naturally all the time. But because our brain is generating thoughts constantly, we often let our guard down and engage with thoughts we would normally ignore when paying closer attention to ourselves.
This is important to overcoming fear because most of our fears are merely thoughts. They come from nowhere (or at least we can’t immediately identify their source), and we do not need to engage with them. Instead, we need to let them pass. We need to recognize them for what they are: arbitrary and meaningless.
Meditation teaches us to improve this ability to filter our thoughts and to apply it to more types of thoughts. Yes, that includes thoughts that generate fear.
You don’t need to meditate constantly for this to work, but a few sessions will help you see the random nature of thought, which will make it easier for you to understand yourself and make better choices about which thoughts to follow and which to ignore.
Rationally Consider Worst-Case Scenarios
When something new comes along and we experience fear, we tend to focus on the worst-case scenario. To return to my scuba experience, most people’s fear is drowning. Either they assume the equipment will break and they will end up breathing in water, or they will run out of air and not be able to reach the surface.
At first thought, these seem like legitimate fears. But both are irrational. First, when you dive, especially in the beginning, you are using equipment that has been tested and that is used frequently. The technology is simple, and it works.
Second, the chances you run out of air are slim to none, especially when you’re just starting out and you’re with an instructor. And in the unlikely event you do, you’ll be near a trained professional who knows what to do and how to manage the situation.
It’s far wiser to be afraid of getting stung by a jellyfish or stepping on a sea urchin than to be afraid of drowning, but most people don’t even think of these things. They go right for the worst case scenario, and this paralyzes them, even when that scenario is unlikely to happen.
This can be applied to almost anything. When we fear flying, we fear a plane crash, even though the biggest risk is a car accident on the way to the airport, or a sore back after sitting upright for hours. We fear changing jobs will ruin our careers and cost us our reputation, but moving to a new company is the new normal in today’s economy and you will most likely be respected more for taking control of your professional life.
As a result, when you’re dealing with a new situation, ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen? Then, think through the likelihood that will actually happen. If you fear death in an activity that people do all the time quite safely, this is probably a sign your fear is irrational.
Again, this is not easy to do, and it requires you to take control of your inner dialogue so that you can drown out the negative thoughts warning you of certain failure and replace them with positive thoughts of excitement and courage. But if you work on rationally considering worst case scenarios, you’ll be able to get better at working past your fears and experiencing new things.
I write all of this from experience. I tend to worry…a lot. I was the kid who didn’t want to get on the bus on the first day of school and who cried when my mom dropped me off at soccer camp. But over the years, I’ve learned these fears come from the fact that I try too hard to predict what’s going to happen even though it’s impossible for me to do so.
I’ve started joking with myself that every time I do something new, I come up with 50,000 scenarios for what could happen, but the one that will actually happen is 50,001.
This reminds me that worrying is completely pointless. It’s a futile effort to predict the future, something I can’t, and don’t really want, to do.
What fun would life be if I could predict what was going to happen?
You’ll find life is much more enjoyable, and far less scary, once you accept the basic truth that most things are out of your control. This will allow you to focus more on yourself, which means understanding your thoughts, controlling your fears, and doing things that bring you joy.
The rest will just happen, and there’s no point trying to control it.
Less Fear. More Life.
Adventures are fun because they are a chance for us to overcome our fears. They put us in new situations and often force us to do many of the things we really want to do but that make us nervous.
However, we don’t have to shell out lots of money for exciting experiences or trips to do more new things and live with more adventure. We can do it in our everyday lives because life itself is an adventure.
So, if you’ve been waiting for the right moment to pick up a new hobby, try to meet some new people, change jobs, move, or whatever else you want to do but are still nervous about, know that now is the moment to start living the life you want to live.