Paralyzed by fear? How I talked myself off of a cliff and what you can learn from it to overcome your fear

paralyzed by fear TalentGrow blog Halelly Azulay

I have a fear of heights.

I don’t know when I picked it up, because I spent my childhood in treetops in my neighborhood and climbing rocks on family hiking trips.  But somewhere, with adulthood, came an irrational fear of heights that has been growing stronger with each passing year.

I walked up the rock...

I walked up the rock...

Like this weekend: I went hiking with my husband David in the beautiful Santa Monica Mountains state park that is literally in my back yard (O.M.G.) and loved every minute of it.

Well, almost every minute.

My victory pose atop the rock

My victory pose atop the rock

That moment after I decided to walk up to the top of a huge rock that was sitting at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the deep canyon below? Not so much.

David knows me well. He said, “you’re going to be afraid to go to the edge. You’re not going to make it. I dare you.” (Yes, daring Halelly to do things by telling her she’s too chicken or can’t do them is a pretty good trick to making her do them.)

I was very brave and proud of myself as I steadied myself and walked, tall and strong, to the top of the rock (see photo).

I posed for a victory photo (see photo - yes, I’m crouching because standing up was too scary).

And then, it was time to climb back down.

Heh. Well, about that….

FROZEN.

That’s what I was. Absolutely, completely, and utterly frozen in place. I could not stand. I could not move. My legs were trembling. My heart was racing. Fear, stress, and anxiety hormones were coursing through my veins.

I was stuck.

This has happened before. That’s why David wisely predicted it.

In my mind, there were two voices speaking to (more like shouting at) each other.

One was the rational, logical, smart, and courageous Halelly. She said, “this is silly. You should be able to get down if you were able to climb up.”

The other was the ‘heights-scare-the-bejeezus-outa-me’ Halelly. She was screaming, “No, it’s scary, it’s slippery, it’s tilted toward the canyon, I’m gonna slip and fall and die!”

What to do when you’re gripped by fear

So I found myself gripped by fear. And it took control of me, physically and mentally.

You should have seen it – it was pathetic. I just laid down on my stomach, trembling, sweating, and hugging that rock for dear life.

At that moment, it didn’t matter that it was not reasonable or rational (David kept trying to talk me down by pointing this out). It didn’t matter that I had what it took to complete the task.

All that mattered was that my mind told my body this is a dangerous situation, and my body complied by paralyzing me. The physical reality shifted because of my psychological, perceived reality.

Has that ever happened to you?

Maybe it’s not heights for you, but we all experience this kind of irrational, gripping, paralyzing fear in our lives. It’s often not really a life-threatening situation. And we’re often quite aware of it, but yet feel like we’re unable to act in the face of fear.

So what can we do?

Well, in this particular situation, I was “lucky” that there weren’t a lot of alternative options for getting out of the situation.

I could not really stay on that rock forever, suspended above the canyon.

David tried coaxing and motivating (and even reverse-psychology shaming) me.

He offered to let me hold his hand.

He offered to push me. (He was kidding… I think.) ;P

Or, I could get my $h!t together and do it myself.

That’s it – those were my options.

I chose the last option.

But in some situations in life when we feel paralyzed by fear, sometimes there are more alternatives available to going after the thing that scares us.

Maybe we’re not perched atop a cliff. Maybe it’s just a big decision that, if we didn’t make, we have the option of just staying in the status quo and not engaging it. Maybe someone else could just do it for us, or hold our hand (virtually or literally) and enable us. Or maybe we can just keep living with the “what if” regret of never having tried.

But I think that the thinking pattern – the self-talk – in these situations is actually more similar than different. And it’s where the magic lives.

@@ Our courage to act in the face of fear is often in how we talk to ourselves about it. @@  <--click to tweet!

And this is good news, because that self-talk is a learnable, growable skill (is that even a word?), and a renewable resource.

Moreover, it’s a self-reinforcing vicious or virtuous cycle. That means that whatever you think, you start to believe, and that belief reinforces your likelihood to think this way more in the future.

So by practicing and enhancing your positive self-talk in these types of situations, you’re feeding a virtuous cycle of positive self-talk that fortifies you in the face of future fears and enables you to exercise your courage muscles and grow stronger and more courageous to take on even harder challenges and overcome bigger barriers.

So, be careful what you say to yourself.

What is the contextual, relational, and/or environmental impact of your actions?

Who or what else is affecting your decision?

Is someone else there? Are they sympathetic or not?

Is your reputation on the line? What are the consequences to your personal brand? What about your ego?

Are others affected by your decision and/or action? Does it impact only you or also others?

These different considerations can create more or less pressure to act in a certain way, and can increase the gravity of the fear. And they can also propel you to take certain types of action.

But if your fear situation involves something like taking a bold stance in the face of unethical behaviors in your organization, or taking a new job, or starting your own business, or moving to new city, then the external consequences or pressures might be very different.

For example, in my story, David was sympathetic and helpful. Plus, I had nowhere else to go but down. Sometimes, there are people who try to keep you safe and even encourage you to avoid risk and ‘play small’. Or tell you that you can’t do it. Or, there’s a very real risk that word will get out about your action (or inaction) and it will be an embarrassment to you, your company, or your family.

Sometimes, the fear is very personal and private. You feel it alone. And if you don’t take action toward the thing that scares you, there is no external evidence that is apparent to anyone else in your circle. You can just quietly live with the consequences and the loss, but no one will know that you played it safe or small.

I think this is why so many people struggle sometimes to do things that scare them: there isn’t a sufficiently high cost to inaction.

What to do to overcome paralyzing fear

So what I have learned to do, that I want to remind you (and myself) of and encourage us all to practice more often, is this:

  1. First, acknowledge fear – don’t ignore it: Tell yourself that you know you are feeling scared and that the fear is real. Be mindful and in the moment and feel all the physical sensations.
     
  2. Pause, breathe, and try to slow down: Before you begin with messages to propel you to action, take a few moments to slow down your breathing and try to calm your nerves. Take deep breaths and tone down pressure. Give yourself a moment to regain your control.
     
  3. Talk to yourself with two voices:
    • with a stern, confident, and authoritative tone: You must become your own drill sergeant in your own head and use that voice to gives yourself that proverbial kick in the pants; and
    • with a caring, loving, and positive tone: You must also become your own cheerleader. You need to practice using that voice that gives you positive reinforcement and tells you “you can do it, you can do it, RAH RAH RAH!”. Tell yourself that you’re good enough, strong enough, smart enough, and courageous enough (yes, almost like Stuart Smalley!).

      And you have to use these voices at the same time to say to yourself: “Yes, you can. Yes, you must. Yes, you will!"

      (This sounds so ‘cheesy’ – just writing this makes me cringe. But let me tell you: it works!)
  4. Gain perspective: try to step outside of the moment and the tunnel vision that fear can cause, and take in the full situation. For example:
  • Other people have successfully done this, so why not me?
  • You have probably done something similar or used similar skills in a different situation (like me on that rock – I didn’t fall going up it, why would I fall coming down?), so why not this time?
  • What’s the worst that can happen? Sometimes we catastrophize the negative consequences and thinking about them carefully can help us see they’re not that bad
  • List the alternatives (if you have the time) to regain the big picture and think clearly about options, instead of allowing the momentary fear to color your decision-making
  • Think about impact on others (how does my decision benefit other people that I care about?)
  • “What would ____________ do?” Sometimes thinking through someone else’s lens helps us see things in a new light. Is there a courageous person (living or dead; real or fictional) that could ‘teach’ you what to do if you invoked them in this way?

Like mother, like daughter

Funny thing is, just on Friday (two days before my little episode of ‘frozen on the rock’ happened), I was talking to my mom on the phone. She said she read my recent blog about doing things in the face of fear and it resonated and reminded her of a recent hiking trip with a group of friends to Death Valley.

You see, my mom is one of the strongest, bravest women I know. And, as it turns out, she also suffers from an irrational fear of heights (what can I say, apples don’t fall far from their trees, right?).

So she told me about how on her recent trip, they were hiking up a very steep sand dune and that she became paralyzed by her fear of heights. She was completely frozen, unable to move. Fear and stress hormones coursing through her veins. Legs trembling. And a group of friends waiting, in front and behind her.

She had to do something!

She explained how she was acutely aware of how others and the environment impacted her actions: she felt a need to preserve her ego and image in the eyes of her group of peers. It propelled her to overcome her fear to know that she will be seen as “that lady that got stuck on the sand dune” for the rest of the trip. This was a consequence she was strongly motivated to avoid.

She told me that she was very consciously aware of her self-talk – that she had to literally argue with herself to get herself to keep moving. She used self-talk to get unfrozen and make a positive move.

See?! It works!

Use everyday courage and talk yourself off your cliffs

We’ve all used some or all of these techniques countless times in many other situations that required this kind of ‘everyday courage’ – the courage to move forward toward a goal or important decision IN THE FACE OF FEAR.

I hope you’ll keep stretching and strengthening those ‘courage muscles’ – put these techniques to work, more often and with growing success, to create a virtuous cycle of conquering your fears and doing amazing things. You can do it!!

YOUR TURN:

Have you ever faced this kind of paralysis in the face of fear? What did you do to move past it, or through it? Share your experiences in the comments below!


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