Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Facing irrational fears

This article came to me yesterday while hiking alone in the Owens Peak Wilderness.

I have always had an irrational fear of heights.  My friends know of my enthusiasm for hiking in the mountains, and they are always surprised when they discover just how nervous I sometimes get when I am out on the trails.  My fear does not come from some dangerous risk that I should not be taking.  My fear does not come from a rational fear of falling.  I am usually in no danger when the knot of fear grips my stomach.  If I am hiking along a mountain ledge or canyon rim, I make sure that I am far enough from the ledge to be out of danger.  There is no reason to be afraid when I watch my step and keep a safe distance.  But the fear sometimes becomes overwhelming, and there have been times when it became so bad that I would sit, squeeze my eyes closed and refuse to take another step.  I am perched on a ledge that is hundreds or even thousands of feet above the surrounding area.  The vista is spectacular, and the swirling clouds are so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch them.  But even though I keep a safe distance from danger, my brain dwells the fact that I have it within my own power, if I wished, to walk to the edge of the precipice, dive off, and spiral down to the rocky sawteeth below.  I am not afraid of the real danger, I am afraid of the vision of perceived helplessness that I replay in my head.  

I once heard worry defined as imagining the worst possible outcome of some scenario, then obsessing over that worst possible thing happening.  In my case, the worst possible scenario is actively walking to the ledge and jumping.  When I am the upper floor of a hotel, or even looking over a high balcony, the thought enters my head of opening the window, climbing over the railing, and taking a nosedive.  I once walked a few hundred yards over the Golden Gate Bridge but I had to turn back after looking at the water far below.  I obsessed over the thought of cutting through all the suicide barriers and hurtling into the bay.  I am not suicidal.  I have no desire to jump.  There is no rational reason that I would ever purposefully and intentionally overcome all safety barriers placed there for my protection, and jump.  Yet, my stomach knots up with fear.  I am not afraid of a real danger of falling.  I am afraid of an irrational and imagined vision that I place in my head.

I have had this fear since I was a young boy, but over the years it has gotten better.  Constant travel for work has eased my fear of flying.  Air turbulence that used to paralyze me with fear now rarely bothers me.  My refusal to quit hiking in the mountains has also helped.  The fact that I know my fears are irrational allows me to confront the fear before it overwhelms me. 

When I am up in the mountains, I can sometimes see the trail far out in front of me.  While the trail is wide enough that I should feel no danger, all I see ahead of me is a thin hairline sliver that is barley etched into the face of the sheer rock wall, and dangling far over the valley below.  My stomach seizes and my brain wants my feet to stop.  In the perspective of the whole mountain, I am such a tiny speck that I imagine a sudden whirlwind launching me over the edge.  The mountain looks like it could shrug its shoulders and throw me off like a dog shaking off a flea.  But I know such fears are irrational, and there is nothing to fear.  My enjoyment of the hike and the freedom of the wilderness must overcome all irrationality.  I put the image of falling out of my head, sometimes by scolding myself, sometimes by just humming a melody, and I am eventually able to overcome my fears.  I have learned not to let irrationality and fear destroy what I love in life.


Zoe Bloomer said...

Oh boy. Now I'm nervous. And I'm sitting on my couch.

DoOrDoNot said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm thinking of you and your wife and hoping all your family is safe in the Philippines

... Zoe ~ said...

Hi HeIsSailing,

Like DoOrDoNot I checked in today to say I'm thinking of you and Rosemary's family/friends as well as the rest of the population. I have a family member who has family in north Vietnam and I think the typhoon though much weaker is headed that way. :-(

HeIsSailing said...

Thank you for your concern, ZOE and DoOrDoNot. I really appreciate it. All of Philippines felt hurricane force winds from Yolanda, but that damned thing went dead center through Philippines like a bowling ball hitting a strike. To give you an update, Rosemary's immediate family lives in Metro Manila. Yolanda was a Cat 1 in that area, and a Typhoon of any size is pretty ugly, but Manila quickly recovers from a Cat 1. So her family had a bit of flooding, but they are OK. Further south in Visayas is very ugly, and Rosemary does had some aunts in IloIlo City. Nobody has been able to contact them since the storm, so of course we are all waiting until communications are established. Rosemary has been glued to CBN Pinoy satellite television and Facebook for updates. The concern now is to clean the place up - there are dead bodies stinking the place up, and unless it is cleaned up quick disease and infection will spread! I do not do Facebook myself, but I did sneak a look at Rosemary's Facebook page, and tons of our local friends here in El Paso are helping by "sending prayers their way". Rosemary posted links to send money and donations, but the only replies are promises to send more prayers! I want to ask these people why they did not pray to divert Yolanda back out to sea before it hit land - or even dissipate harmlessly before the storm killed anybody! I think we all know the answer to that! If they are concerned please send money and do not patronize Rosemary with promises to pray! Do not worry - I keep my trap shut and do not insult them. Thanks again for your concern and allowing me to vent a bit!

... Zoe ~ said...

Your blog. Rant away!

Glad to hear Rosemary's family is okay and I hope you hear about the aunts soon!

I too have heard the "prayer" thing. On the T.V. or radio perhaps, I heard a woman thank "God" she was safe. My heart ached. Well sure, she's okay, but . . . hello!? Is she also thanking "God" that the dead are dead?

And yes, what is "okay" suppose to mean? You are alive now but you may starve to death, be overcome by disease, watch others around you succumb . . . it's not over.

I just sit here and well, with tears and the devastation, the suffering. :-(

DoOrDoNot said...

Thanks for the update. Happy to hear that many family members are safe. Waiting in hope for Rosemary's aunts.
Vent on. Prayer talk feels icky to me at these times. Too little too late.