Kristen Ulmer is one of the best athletes in history, and also one of the bravest—a big mountain skier, ski mountaineer, ice climber, rock climber, and paraglider with a long history of the impossible.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Ulmer was voted the “best female extreme skier in the world” twelve years in a row—which is a level of dominance rarely seen in sport.
Then she left that career to pursue another, becoming one of the world’s leading experts on fear and coaching over ten thousand individuals along the way.
Ulmer believes that the first step to transforming one’s relationship to fear involves developing a regular fear practice.
“Everyone has the same problem,” she explains. “Not only does the amygdala filter all incoming information, but most of those filters are also set up in early childhood, by experiences we can barely remember.
The result: we often don’t even recognize that the emotion we’re feeling is fear. Instead, it gets misinterpreted and redirected, showing up as blame, anger, sadness, or in irrational thoughts and behavior.”
To overcome this, you have to develop an awareness of your fear.
“You have to start by noticing the fear in the body,” she says, “the actual kinesthetic sensation. Any form of emotional or even physical discomfort is where you’ll find it.
Then, spend some time not focusing on it with your mind but feeling it in your body—which is very different. Embrace it, treat it like a friend, and ask it what it’s trying to tell you.
If you do this, you’ll find fear is not nearly as unpleasant as we thought. It’s our attempt to avoid the fear that’s so uncomfortable. But once you actually put your full attention on the sensation of fear, it dissipates. It’s counterintuitive, but this kind of direct attention to bodily sensation actually dissolves the sensation.”
Simultaneously, Ulmer also recommends changing your language around fear.
Instead of saying “Do it despite the fear,” say, “Do it because of the fear.”
Look at fear as excitement, or as an emotion designed to help you focus. “Treat fear like a playmate,” suggests Ulmer. “This transforms the emotion from a problem to be solved into a resource to be savored.”
Once you’ve started to befriend fear, you need to build upon this foundation.
Laird Hamilton believes the best way forward is to practice regular risk-taking. “Once you start confronting your fears,” he explains, “you quickly realize that imagination is greater than reality.
But fear is an expensive emotion that requires a lot of energy to produce.
Once you realize that imagination is greater than reality, why waste all that energy on something that’s not that scary? Confronting your fears forces the body to recalibrate, and the next time you confront something similar it evokes a smaller response.”
But how to actually confront our fears?
Science shows there are only two options.
Either build up a tolerance slowly, what psychologists call “systematic desensitization,” or go all in at once, what’s appropriately called “flooding.”
Either way, the process is the same.
First, as Ulmer suggested, learn to identify fear in your system, either as a tightness in your body or tightness in your thought pattern.
Then, think about other situations where you’ve encountered something similar, felt something similar, and have successfully overcome it.
How’d you do that? What psychological skills did you use that first time around?
Once you’re clear on those skills, practice them again and again.
Even better, since the risk is a flow trigger—flow follows focus and consequences catch our attention—this kind of regular fear practice will automatically increase time spent in the zone.
When we take a risk, dopamine is released into our system, which is the brain’s way of rewarding exploratory behavior.
And any kind of risk will produce dopamine.
So take physical risks, for sure, but also try emotional risks, intellectual risks, or creative risks.
Social risks work especially well.
The brain processes social risk and physical risk with the exact same structures, which explains why the fear of public speaking is the number one fear in the world and not something that seems to make more evolutionary sense, like the fear of getting eaten by a grizzly bear.
Yet, everyone is different.
Laird Hamilton might need to surf fifty-foot waves to pull this trigger; for me, a five-footer is more than enough. And that’s me.
For anyone on the even shyer, meeker side, you can pull this trigger—and practice taking risks—merely by trying a new activity or speaking up at a meeting, or asking a stranger for the time. Then, a few days later, ask two strangers. And so forth.
The goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The unpleasant sensation remains, but our relationship to that sensation has been permanently recalibrated. And that’s what we’re really after.