I didn’t learn how to rollerblade until I was 19. I remember it vividly. One day, I went rollerblading on the CE trail. I had no idea what I was in for! No one warned me about the hills. New to having wheels beneath my feet…I had yet to conquer the art of slowing down, let alone stopping. It wasn’t long into the trip that I took a huge digger while going down what seemed like a gigantic hill. I freaked out by how fast I was moving, tried to pick up my foot to break, and ended up sliding chest first down the hill. I didn’t break anything, but road rashes and bruises were enough to keep me off hills from then on. I was afraid.
I stopped rollerblading the summer of 2007 because of knee pain. A few years ago had enough confidence in my knee to muster up the galls to pull on the rollerblades again. My first attempt at hills: I was still afraid. You know what I did? I stood there at the top of that hill. Did I mention this was the same hill I originally fell down? Staring down. Palms sweaty. Heart racing. AFRAID. And then I heard others coming up behind me. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I slowly began rolling forward down the hill. Not once did I pick up my feet. I could feel my legs shaking…I was not going to risk anything at that point. But you know what? I made it to the bottom of that hill without falling! And you know what I did next? I turned around, went back up the hill, and did it again. And again. And again. I was determined to conquer this fear.
What do you fear?
We all fear something. Spiders. Heights. Embarrassment. Experts generally agree that humans have innate fears, based on basic survival instincts: loud noises, falling, and death (along with the closely related pain and injury). However, behaviorists will argue that fears are learned (Hansell & Damour, 2008). I tend to agree with the later, for there are very different kinds of situations that seem to cause fear, and very different response by different individuals to the same situations. And the truth is, most people fear the same one thing: Failure (Sagar & Stoeber, 2009). At work. At home. With life. One of the first signs of fear is someone making excuses. How many times have you heard, “I know I should workout more/eat better, but…”? That’s fear.
But what is FEAR? False Evidence Appearing Real. I first heard this many years ago and it immediately made sense. Fears are seldom rational. As with my fear of rollerblading down hills, fears can be shaped from one ‘traumatic’ experience or several aversive exposures. Reasons someone might fear working out? You hurt your knee playing basketball and you don’t want to aggravate the injury. You’ve been overweight your entire life, were always told you couldn’t do this or that because of your weight, and now you are afraid to try (i.e., fear of failure). You’ve tried time and time again, failing each time. While it feels real to you, the truth is that you can. Everyone can.
Failure is perceived as threatening, and feared, by individuals who associate it with aversive consequences. If you have ever tried something without success, what are the chances you will be trying it again? Unlikely. Who wants to continue to do something that he/she is not good at? I know I don’t! Fear of failure is the tendency to assess a threat to the likelihood of reaching personally meaningful goals. And aren’t goals the motivation to get out of bed each day?
Exposure therapies are often used to extinguish fears and phobias. The most widely-used is systematic desensitization, gradually increasing exposure to the feared object or situation while practicing relaxation techniques (Hansell & Damour, 2008). After developing relaxation skills, such as deep breathing and muscular release techniques, a fear hierarchy is used. This fear hierarchy begins with exposure to the least terrifying situation and works up to the most terrifying situation (Hansell & Damour, 2008). So, in my case, I would have started with small hills and gradually worked up to large ones. I didn’t do this!
My exposure was spontaneous and falls more within the realm of a form of exposure therapy known as flooding. In flooding, you are directly exposed to the feared object or situation, without working through a fear hierarchy.
There are many other methods of working through fears: Exposure and response prevention treatment, cognitive therapy, hypnosis, etc. Some methods require the assistance of a mental health professional, however many exposure therapies can be self-administered. Do you have a fear you are ready to be rid of?
Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.
I hate to admit it, but I am still somewhat afraid of rollerblading down hills. However, my fear and anxiety are far less intense. It helps to know that I’ve successfully made it to the bottom on more than one occasion. Now I just pause at the top and this decreases my speed to a more comfortable pace. I’m all set. And with time, exposure, and the confidence I gain with each success, I know that I will eventually roll right into those hills.
The truth is, I wasn’t afraid of the hill until I lost control. Fear most often begins with a perceived, or an actual, loss of control. When it comes to your health and fitness, where have you lost control? Is it your weekend eating habits? Maybe it’s with your inability to juggle all life’s responsibilities and still find time to get your workouts in each week? You can regain control. It will be scary. But you will be doing things you never thought possible, building confidence, and conquering fears.
I’ll conclude with this real-world, workout-related example: Box Jumps. It’s common to fear our beloved box jumps. Was that ever you? I probably see one person a month conquer that fear. We begin with a short box…and in a few weeks he/she is jumping onto even higher boxes (i.e., systematic desensitization). “How does THAT make you feel?” I ask. The responses: “Great,” “fantastic,” “I feel strong”…oh, the power of conquering fear!
Hansell, J., & Damour, L. (2008). Abnormal Psychology. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Sagar, S., & Stoeber, J. (2009). Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, and Affective Responses to Success and Failure: The Central Role of Fear of Experiencing Shame and Embarrassment. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31(5), 602-627.