When was the last time you were really scared? You might think, that time I lost my child in a shopping centre, or the moment the doctor told me it was serious, or the night I was followed home from the bus stop, or as I was walking up to the stage to give my big speech.
All of those moments can prompt good old-fashioned fear, but what you probably won’t instantly recall is all the other times when fear has been present inside you: the many moments when fear has been controlling you, without you knowing it. It’s there when you feel unfulfilled, as if there’s something missing; when no amount of success is quite enough. And it’s also there when you feel jealous, judge people, are overcome by perfectionism, or feel the need to crush a colleague.
After working for 20 years as a performance psychologist and culture coach, helping people find better, happier ways to work and play, I have reached the conclusion that all of us are driven by fear. All of us. It’s a matter of degree. I’ve spent most of my time in locker rooms and boardrooms, trackside, poolside and pitchside, and in my daily conversations the same themes have come up time and time again: shame, inadequacy, loneliness, dissatisfaction and fear.
Now we find ourselves in a time when fear has become our new currency. Throughout the pandemic there has been a constant dripping of fear, a sense of catastrophic possibilities. There is a deep feeling of something having shifted, and we’re not quite sure what it means yet. Humans don’t like ambiguity very much, and we especially don’t like a freefall into the future. Much of the fear is logical. Is it safe to go to a restaurant or a pub again? Is it less likely we’ll catch it now that we’re more cautious about going out? Will the “new normal” always look like this?
Fear, by design, is a warning system that puts us on alert and demands attention. It is a necessary neurobiological response to a stimulus that says: “Heads up, get ready to assess and act”. When we watch the news, listening to a breaking segment about the crisis on our doorsteps, we are priming ourselves to react. We are wired for fear. But even with the very real fears of a pandemic, we don’t need nearly as much of it as we experience. So how do we manage it?
Freediving doesn’t scare me, I see the risk as calculated
The first step is to notice ourselves, pay attention to our thought processes. Many of us fall into a pattern of repetitive thinking which is largely negative. If you stop to study your thoughts over an hour, you’ll be shocked at how many of them are on a loop, draining and judgmental. The more we let go of our awareness and allow ourselves to be carried by this tide of incessant thinking, the more room we give to fear. One of the most useful things we can do is to learn to check our emotional and physical responses. If you are tense from lockdown and money arguments, exhausted and Zoomed-out, stop and reflect, listen to the loop of thoughts in your head and recognise them.
Once you’re more aware of these patterns, a helpful approach is to tackle these irrational thoughts with logic – a technique that freediver William Trubridge has perfected over the years. Freediving is an extreme and experimental sport because it’s about pushing the physical body to its limits. It’s also a good example of harnessing the mind and finding out what it is capable of. A freediver has to descend on a single breath to the deepest, darkest depths that they can tolerate physiologically and psychologically before turning to make the dangerous ascent back to the surface.
The mindset that underpins Trubridge’s beyond-human aquatic feats is the absolute opposite of fear. It’s the ability to truly experience each moment. I call it mental freedom.
In May 2016 Trubridge dived 122m in the ocean in the Bahamas, a dive of four minutes and 24 seconds.
For most of us, just the thought of being that deep in the sea would be beyond terrifying. Some high-profile divers have lost their lives. But Trubridge says that isn’t what worries him. “In freediving itself there is very little that scares me,” he says. “I see the risk as a calculated one that’s quite minimal in cases where we are training with adequate safety or in competitions.”
Like Trubridge, you can make a choice of considering whatever’s happening in terms of possibilities, not risks. We only have a finite amount of attention; use it deliberately. He’s coldly rational about the risks and the safety measures. “People often ask me, what would you do if something happened at depth? If you were down there by yourself? What if something goes wrong? When I consider that, I can’t come up with any scenarios that aren’t provided for that have any degree of probability. Although obviously freak things can happen.”
He remains resolutely logical. “In freediving, the water is the same at the surface as it is at depth. The only other variable is yourself. You are completely in control. You can provide for the risks that you know about. People think what I’m doing is on a death wish or is kamikaze, but if anything it’s the exact opposite.”
I learned to control my fears with the thought: nerves aren’t real
Trubridge relies on a rationalising technique called “nerves aren’t real”, which he developed after realising that his nemesis is not a fear of the actual dive, but a fear of failure. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the two.
He says: “When I felt the fluttering sensation that heralds this anxiety, I didn’t shy away from it, but rather looked for a concrete source in the present moment, and when I couldn’t find one it was further confirmation that nerves aren’t real. Gradually, rather than being at the mercy of these nerves, I was able to keep them in control and brush them aside with a cursory thought, ‘nerves aren’t real.’”
Trubridge also had a second rationalisation technique ready, called “the other extreme”. Instead of trying to minimise his fear of failure and embarrassment, he ramped it right up. He imagined that people would die if he didn’t succeed. “When compared to those kind of stakes, the fear of simply being embarrassed is laughable.”
He didn’t let himself get sucked into catastrophic thought. Rather, he says: “I entertain the idea for just long enough to put in perspective how frivolous this circus-style record attempt really is; how silly I was to let something so trivial affect my emotional state.”
While Trubridge’s approach is designed to tackle fear in the moment – rather than the long-term anxieties of living with the pandemic – there are still lessons to be learned. He recognises that most of what we fear is a projection of what might happen in the future, not something that is happening to us in the moment, and crucially, it may never happen at all.
Three ways to fight fear
1. Now is all Trubridge says that in his sport – as in life – it’s easy to get caught up in “what if?” thinking, where your mind can take you into unwanted drama. You are not your thoughts, and a lot of your fear-filled thoughts are simply rubbish you habitually recycle. It is impossible to do that if you are only in the present moment. Trubridge gets there by repeating a mantra. “The idea is, you have these words with powerful connotations so they can very quickly get you into the necessary state,” he says. One he often uses: “Now is all.”
2. Judge a bit less Many of us get defensive when we are stressed and fearful. Not only is there a rupture that threatens our stability, we are conditioned through life to never lose control, and invest heavily in having things our way. When they aren’t, one of the ways that people use to regain a sense of control and power is to take a position and stick with it. To maintain our position as “right” we judge and shame other people as wrong. Sometimes when we judge, it is fear taking control.
3. Conserve your energy We waste emotional energy regularly on fear, shame, negativity and doubt. This is especially likely when we are in the grip of changes that we didn’t want. Remember, the thoughts you give preference to when fear and anxiety comes up will play a big role in dictating your emotional experiences. Don’t add perfectionism to your Covid-19 to-do list.