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Training for Fear

I am writing up the Fear section of my new book, Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. This particular section seemed like a useful snippet. About half the book is blog posts from here, so cannibalising a section of it to make a blog post seems, well, fair. Here goes.

“One of the many things that martial arts training can teach you is the ability to deal with fear: the ability to control your autonomic responses, the ability to choose all your actions from a position of confidence and strength, rather than just react out of fear and dread. [At this point I tell stories about the many times I have been variously anxious, frightened, terrified, and gibbering in panic, in hospitals, schools, fencing arenas and the mean streets of Sydney (yes, the Spider story) and Edinburgh.]

In addition to fear management strategies, it is also useful to actively practise handling fear. For this you will need one irrational fear inducing activity, ideally one that requires little cash or preparation, and a commitment to daily practice. One easy option is cold showers; not ideal, because most people are not actively afraid of cold water, they just don’t like it. But having the nerve to turn the tap all the way to cold and let it hit you, is a good start.

I personally have a wildly irrational fear of hanging off things. Especially upside down. I’m ok hanging off a pull-up bar by my hands, but jumping up to catch hold of it in the first place gives me a heart attack. In the back of my mind I am completely certain that if I miss my catch, the contact of my fingers on the bar will flip me upside-down, and I’ll fall on my head. Yes, really.

But I know that it isn’t so; the forces at work just cannot make that happen. My rational mind overrules my irrational body, in this case. So every day, I jump and catch the bar. And every day, I nearly die of fright. But it is much easier to handle now than it was a year ago. I can feel the dread building as I approach the bar, and steel myself to jump and catch. It’s horrible. But useful. And good practice.

Hanging upside down by my knees is another one. For the longest time, I could not do it. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if I let go with my hands, my legs would straighten, and I would fall. As if my legs were not under my control at all. And as if the teeny little muscles in my grip were somehow able to generate more force than the ginormous (in comparison to my forearms at least) muscles in my thighs.

My cousin is a professional aerialist (she organised the Mary Poppins’s at the London Olympics opening ceremony), and way back in 2005 she was performing in Berlin, doing scary-as-hell rope tricks. You can see her in action here:

I flew over to see her and while I was there she invited me along to their training hall, to have a go on ropes and trapezes. It was fantastic good fun. While she was teaching me to get onto a trapeze, I managed to get my legs over the bar, but I could not let go with my hands and hang down. No way. Instant fall onto head. So she shinned up the rope next to me, laid her arm on my shins and said “don’t worry, I won’t let you fall”. (The physics do not work, of course. She was about half my weight, and hanging off a rope. But irrational fears do not require rational solutions.) And so I let go, and after a moment, she could take her arm away, and there I was, hanging by my knees upside down for the first time ever.

Unfortunately, trapezes are quite tricky to find round here, so I didn’t do it again, until this summer. We have a climbing frame in our yard, and my eldest daughter and I were playing on it, and I did Katherine’s trick of holding her shins (though in this case the reassurance was backed up by physics!) and in short order, my 7-year old turned into a monkey, as regards hanging off stuff at least. So I decided to join her, and had my wife hold my shins, and I let go with my hands. After a few reps of that, I could do it without her. And now it’s easy. Scary, but easy. I still know in my bones that I’m about to fall, but I still do it. When that stops being scary enough, I’ll have to find something else to be frightened of. Because the benefits of daily overcoming terror are way too great.

photo credit: Sarah Frechette of Pikku Arkki.
photo credit: Sarah Frechette of Pikku Arkki.

So, give it a go. What are you afraid of?

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