Ask any group of skiers and/or snowboarders what their dominant emotion is when they’re planning a day on the slopes, and I’ll bet my mortgage that the answers will be some variation of this: “Excitement.” Few things get me more pumped up like the prospect of ripping turns. But if I’m completely honest, there have been many times when fear nudged its way into the equation.
Fear is something that every skier and snowboarder has dealt with at one time or another. It is one of my earliest memories on boards, when Dad stuffed my wool-covered feet into a pair of leather, lace-up ski boots and clamped those boots into an old pair of bear-trap bindings. I didn’t know how to operate these long, clunky boards, and that lack of control scared the daylights out of me.
Those same sensations would creep up on me even as I became a better skier and snowboarder, because as you improve, you look for more challenging terrain. So, standing atop a monster bump run, or the tip of Tuckerman Ravine, I could feel my heart racing and my knees shaking. I felt fear.
I pushed off anyway. And despite a few world-class yard sales, and a few bumps and bruises, I managed to hit the bottom of the hill relatively intact. Fear was part of the experience, but it didn’t prevent the experience. That’s the key.
Author Kristen Ulmer, former member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team and celebrated big-mountain skier, understands fear better than most. In her book “The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead,” Ulmer details how she’s learned to effectively handle this powerful emotion.
During her career as a sponsored extreme skier, Ulmer had a reputation for being fearless. “And it felt true,” she said. “I didn’t feel afraid of anything.”
“Today, I recognize (that) I’m afraid of everything and everybody. Do I look or feel afraid? No. I look motivated, passionate and alive, but all this comes from fear,” she said. “I’m fueled by fear of being invisible, or of not being loved.
“Fear also pulls me,” she said. “I do fearful things to access heightened, focused states. I actually consider fear one of the best parts of life. If you avoid it, you get bored, complacent and never grow. If you embrace it, you go all the way with your life.”
This is important. There’s a genuine attraction to the spine-tingling sensations we experience when we’re scared (which explains our fascination with horror movies).
“Fear is a natural, normal part of life. You feel it starting in childhood, and especially if you’re going to do big things, it will play a role in almost every moment of every day of your life,” said Ulmer. “The good news is, fear is meant to motivate you, help you focus, keep you safe, take you to heightened states of awareness.
“But when it tips over the edge and becomes irrational fear or chronic anxiety, that’s when we know something has gone wrong,” she said.
According to Ulmer, we’re “very, very good at blocking out fear. It takes intensive effort, distracting ourselves from fear by going to the gym, massaging it away, meditation to calm it down, breathing exercises to let it go.”
The result is people might feel less fear, but they deny the emotion its rightful place. With these aforementioned methods, fear doesn’t dissolve. It gets pressed down into what Ulmer calls the “basement” — out of sight in the body — where “ultimately it backs up, ferments and becomes highly agitated.”
Eventually, unresolved fear “starts to run its agenda from the basement in any way it can,” said Ulmer. It can communicate insidiously when you drop your guard, like when you’re sleeping or feeling vulnerable. It can show up as panic attacks, anxiety disorders, or insomnia, or in more subtle ways such as blame, excessive sadness or rage.
Over time, you feel worse and worse, and the methods that provided relief become less effective. You need more meditation, more exercise, “until you’re working like a dog to quell your now-chronic fear and anxiety,” said Ulmer.
The solution requires a 180-degree shift. “Stop turning away from like we’ve been taught, and instead turn toward it,” she said. “Instead of fighting fear harder and harder, why not try something completely new, and simply make friends with it?”
This isn’t easy, especially if you’ve declared war on fear. But Ulmer said her method “helps you make that shift quickly and easily, stopping the madness of daily battles, to instead permanently end the war. Fear will no longer be an enemy.
Instead it transforms back into what it was always meant to be: your friend, ally, and asset offering you motivation, focus, safety, awareness, and so much more.”
Ulmer’s four steps includes acknowledging that fear is natural, being curious about how you treat it, learning how to feel it and listening to what it’s telling you.
1. Acknowledge that fear is a natural, normal part of the human experience. Whether we’re willing to admit it, fear is with us constantly. Even if you feel little or no fear, if you look beneath your relative reality, you’ll find it. That’s not a sign of personal weakness or character flaw. Acknowledging that life is a scary experience and that you’re supposed to feel this can be a life-changing experience.
2. You’re going to become curious about your relationship with fear. Ulmer likes to personify fear. See it as a co-worker, or child, or spouse. Notice if you’ve been ignoring, fighting with or running away from this individual in any way. Get to know your relationship by asking: How do I feel about this individual? Do I enjoy hanging out with fear, even though it makes me uncomfortable, or do I hate it?
If you mistreat fear, it can transform into an enemy, go underground and sabotage you. By getting to know your relationship with fear, you become aware that it was you who declared war on fear, causing it to fight back. And you have the ability to end that war.
3. Make friends with fear by listening to it honestly. Fear is a simple sensation of discomfort, found in your body. If it’s in your head, or feels complicated or irrational, that just means you’ve been trying to control or fight it. Remember this: Anything you try to control, will always wind up controlling you.
Close your eyes, do a body scan and find that discomfort. It may show up as anxiety, stress or worry. Spend 15 seconds just feeling your fear. Don’t try to get rid of it. Much like any individual who finally gets attention, your fear will calm down.
4. Be curious about why fear showed up in your life. Emotional intelligence, said Ulmer, is the ability to feel fear honestly. First, ask yourself if can you feel the percolation of energy in that discomfort. Add some breathing to the fear and notice whether it transforms into awareness, focus and excitement.
Next, be curious about what your fear is saying. If it’s excessive, it may be trying to get your attention. Don’t ignore it.
Ulmer calls this “extracting the wisdom of fear.” Its message is meant to compel you to act. It also provides for you the energy and sense of “aliveness” needed to take action.