How To Cope With Fear

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Image by Samantha Villagran

Fear is a bitch. Even the most stoic types are not immune from contracting a bad case of The Creeps. There’s nothing wrong with feeling fear—in fact, it’s kind of important for survival. But if you let it dominate, it can pull you out of the moment, steal all your joy, and leave you with nothing but soiled undergarments. Nobody like soiled undergarments, so I turned to a group of experienced fear-ninjas for tips on combating the heebie-jeebies.

Fourteen salty sailors discuss their techniques for managing fear:

If you don’t experience fear … you’re in danger.

“Fear is a great thing. It lets us know we are mortals. I’ve experienced my share of fear. I crabed a few seasons in Alaska and had more then one ‘close call.’ If you don’t experience fear, in my opinion, you’re in danger.” –coyfish9906

If you worry, you die …

“I do my best to live by my dear old departed Grannie’s moto: If you worry, you die, if you don’t worry, you still die! So why worry?” –BillAU

Why worry about stuff that might happen?

“I used to worry all the time when sailing, but after about 50,000 miles, I came to the conclusion that if shit is going to happen, it will … and you deal with it when it happens, so why worry about stuff that MIGHT happen.” –atoll

I pretended I was an actor playing a role …

“Somehow it removed the reality of the situation just enough to make it a bit of a game. No matter what the circumstances, I visualized myself acting the part, not actually going through the experience. It was like living in the 3rd person for the moment. Most times the fear subsided enough to see me through. Over time I think it became a subconscious habit because I haven’t thought about in years.” –VirtualVagabond

Simply put: Train, Prepare, Act, Believe …

Train: get training in the areas you are going to be encountering so you can acquire the skill sets of what you want to do. Prepare: have the right equipment, and the know how to use it. Act: when the time comes, don’t become frozen, do something! Believe: in your abilities, yourself and your equipment. May sound simplistic, but it works, at least it did for me in 20 years of Aviation, combat and peacetime. Modify it to make it work for you.” –Deadcat7382

Focus on the beauty …

“The ocean is so spectacular; I usually forget to be scared. Storms are the best … no movie could reproduce it. Standing on deck in a sea of boiling water, wind screaming in your ears, big dark sky that seems to bear down on you, it’s so damn surreal that I forget to be scared. My mind wanders to the freak of it all, like clear black water – how can black water be clear? But every rolling angry breaking wave pushes air bubbles ten, twenty feet below the surface and you can see it clear as day! Clear black water: fascinating. There is such beauty in those dark moments … have faith in your boat and crew, and enjoy a world few get to see.” –Ocean Girl

Work on your confidence …

“Fear is from a lack of confidence, so work on your confidence and fear will subside.” –knottygurl

I picture the worst  …

“In situations that have me worried about the outcome, I think I use a “worst case scenario” approach. I try to picture what’s the worst that can happen and do a quick mental check to see if I can handle it. I don’t force myself to figure out exactly what I’d do in that case (that would lead the mind in endless circles of anxiety for no reason), but I do trust myself to be able to deal with whatever happens.” –Reach

I conquered my fear by obtaining my SCUBA certification …

“I used to panic just looking at a chart with water over my head. I conquered my fear by obtaining my SCUBA certification. However, I still get the flutters when we are in deep water out of sight of land. I put a sticky note over the depth gauge so that I don’t see how deep it is.”–Amapola

I started reading everything and anything I could find …

“I have … a fear of depths. I started reading everything and anything I could find about the ocean floor and water columns – who lives there, what are their behavioral patterns, what’s the makeup of the bottom is like, etc. Now I’m mostly [depths] fear-free …” –Katiusha

I simply refuse to let it occupy my mind …

“I choose to be happy in life and fear, hate, anger and the like have no place in my thoughts. That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced them, but I’ve taught myself to look at the situation that causes them, think of what I can do to resolve it, then either act or forget about it and move on.” –Lucky Larry

Reduce your fear by continually pushing your comfort zone  …

“I teach adventure programming and one of the things I strongly encourage is following the principles of Simon Priest’s Adventure Paradigm. Basically, match people’s experience and confidence with the proper challenge. It’s called the adventure paradigm, because if you are constantly pushing people’s comfort zone, but not too far, the experience should be an adventure. Too far one way and there is no adventure and an activity may be boring. Too far the other way and an activity can be terrifying or even potentially dangerous. Reduce your fear by continually pushing your comfort zone in a progressive way so that you have the confidence to handle what ever you feel may come your way. Training and drills may be a part of that progression.” –nautical62

Image by Piotr Dorabiala

Fear, worry and overcoming fear are at the heart of our sport …

“Good sailors are always worrying: What if this? What if that? And doing their very best to keep all of the risks under control. Any sailor, other than a hopelessly reckless one, never really relaxes on the boat. At sea you’re constantly managing risks, and at anchor you’re constantly worried about dragging. When you … make it safely into the next port and tie up without banging into anything, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, which is one of the main joys of our sport. You’ve done something that is basically frightening, you managed all of the risks, and you safely and successfully accomplished your mission. Without fear, it would be a very dull sport indeed.”–Dockhead

Putting it into perspective …

“I have turned 50 this year, and … I realized I am not afraid to die any more. That used to be my biggest fear, along with speaking in front of a crowd. I have always thought of those who had to deal with extreme adversity: allied soldiers landing at D-day beaches, explorers like Shackleton who were up against the worst of nature’s wrath, Cambodian political refugees on a forced march, suffering unthinkable punishment during every step, or good friends of mine who braved cancer – some living, some who didn’t make it, but all were stoic and managed to stay as much themselves as possible, even when it got very, very dark; these are just a few good examples. It makes any plight I come up against seem positively light, and causes me to almost feel embarrassed for having felt fear at all.” –Seahag

How do you deal with fear? Do you have any tips?

Leave a Comment

  • kirri October 21, 2011 at 9:01 am edit

    I’m a life coach and I’d say you’ve covered the topic of dealing with fear really well! For me personally, I like to challenge fear by continuing to stretch my comfort zone a little every day or week. I also think its important to identify the true underlying fear. For example, I have been afraid of public speaking for years (common I know!) but more recently realized that it is actually the underlying fear of being rejected that is at the core of this fear.. By the way – did you take any of these photos? They’re beautiful.

    Reply
  • Sarah October 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm edit

    Like a couple of the other contributors, I think to myself, “what’s the worst that could happen?” Usually, the worst thing is not so bad, which gives me encouragement to go for it. If I let fear rule my life, I’d never get anywhere!

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    • Torre DeRoche October 25, 2011 at 3:21 am edit

      Asking myself ‘What’s the worst that could happen’ isn’t a good idea, as I’m so creative with my catastrophizing, that I can string together the most horrifying worst-case scenarios from benign situations. It’s a gift! But you’re totally right: if fear wins, inertia takes over.

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  • kelly October 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm edit

    Awesome post! I particularly love the “if you worry, you die..” this can be attributed to so much more than sailing! Great tips for life!!

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  • Marthe October 21, 2011 at 5:50 pm edit

    What a beautiful post!

    I’m not the best at dealing with fear myself, but I do have some tips after battling anxiety for a few years;

    - The only way to control the physical effects of fear is to control the breath. Take control by forcing your body to take deep belly breaths, slowly. Also position yourself so that you body can relax properly – both feet on the ground, shoulders down.

    - It helps for me to realize that fear messes with the minds ability to think clearly. I try to look at fear as a physical response, and try my best to wait until the feeling passes before I take action (to avoid impulsive and bad decisions).

    - It helps to realize that fear takes many forms. Worry, anger, resentment, insecurity, doubt and a sudden change of mind can all be fear in disguise. I find it helps to battle fear when I know what I’m up against.

    I’ve used these techniques to successfully manage my fear of flying! Finally I can get on a flight without panicking. It’s such a relief!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche October 25, 2011 at 3:24 am edit

      Marthe – this is so useful. Thanks for sharing your tips. I often bark at people I love when I get scared. I’ve been known to sling a few nasty insults, which I later regret. Fear shows itself in a truly wonderful array of colors, doesn’t it?

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  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures October 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm edit

    I’m one of those rare people I think that doesn’t really have the fear/worry gene. If something seems “scary” to me I only want to do it that much more! Maybe I’m an adrenaline junkie or I have the irrational idea that I can conquer whatever I set out to do? It’s interesting though that my Mom is the world’s biggest worrier. I think she could totally relate to you and your journey on the ocean, though I don’t think she could have actually gotten on the boat at the end of the day. Great post!!!

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  • Dan Collins October 22, 2011 at 9:15 am edit

    Awesome post! I always think of the worst thing that could possibly happen and then when something bad does happen I’m not as scared because it could have always been the worst thing happening…. if that makes sense? I’ve still been terrified a few times on the road though!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche October 25, 2011 at 3:27 am edit

      I generally cope that way too. The only problem is, 19 times out of 20, everything goes smoothly, which means I spent 100% of the time plotting out elaborate escape plans that never get used. It kind of gets in the way of fun sometimes.

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  • Moira October 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm edit

    Fear has often played the role of ‘decision maker’ in my life, a good example is before I decided to travel and live overseas, I had two choices:
    1) stay comfortable in the nice house I shared with friends I loved, great well paying job and exciting social life
    2) give everything in (1) up and get on a plane to who knows where, for how much and for how long
    Number (2) evoked such fear in to me, but I knew that despite this, it was going to lead to new and invaluable experiences in my life. I made some of the best friends in my life whilst travelling, friends I still know today and would be much poorer without their influence in my life.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche October 25, 2011 at 3:38 am edit

      I like that, Moira. You’re right. It’s always good to pursue the things that scare you the most, but does that mean I should buy a house in Caroline Springs and get a mullet cut? Because that scares the shit out of me.

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  • Sarahsomewhere October 23, 2011 at 8:31 am edit

    Glad I’m not alone! I am in so much fear at the moment over quitting my job and selling our apartment to travel indefinitely next year, but I am learning so much about myself and overcoming old ways of thinking, which I would never had the chance to do if I had chosen the safe, predictable path. Thanks Torre, your story is an inspiration!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche October 25, 2011 at 3:43 am edit

      I love your blog, Sarah. Doing what you’re doing IS SERIOUSLY SCARY, but if you’re learning about yourself in this process, then you’re definitely following the right path. I often think about what I would have if I hadn’t quit my job to write a book over two years. I would have a bunch of money, and possibly a mortgage (because what else do you do with a bunch of money?). Instead, I have a toolbox of new skills, a book that captures every ounce of my full effort, and many amazing connections with bloggers and readers. I’ll take that over a house any day, and I can guarantee you that you’ll be saying the same thing in a year.

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  • Toni October 25, 2011 at 11:41 am edit

    Life is about being scared but living anyway. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t just be coming home from Africa after six weeks of doing everything from microlighting to jumping into the Devil’s Pool. Fake it ’till you make it =)

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  • Roxanne October 25, 2011 at 9:14 pm edit

    Torre, I worry professionally. In a sense, that is what drew me to your book: we share an inclination towards anxiety, fear and worry — and we try to sidestep or face all of the above in order to move forward in the world. I love the strategies you have discussed in this post and I have one more to add: empathy and inspiration. Reading or hearing the stories of people who have faced the same and understanding how they have overcome their fears, or made peace with them, is truly empowering. That is, after all, one of the reasons I have loved your book. Thank you for both that and this post.

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  • Charley October 27, 2011 at 9:53 am edit

    I love this post. My ears can’t help pricking up when there are tales from salty seadogs to be heard. When it comes to sailing, especially offshore, I have managed my fear by teaming up with very skillfull and reliable sailors who I’d trust my life with, although that kind of falls apart if they are thinking the same thing?Also, the loss of a dear friend to the sea also made me rethink that one…you have to take responsibility for your own survival to an extent. Its the people I meet and sail with that makes sailing fun for me, I could never go around alone…that takes more guts than I’ve got. As for fear in general, my technique is to try not to plan life too much, then you can’t be scared about scary things approaching. Or is that just optimism?
    :)

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  • Davis October 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm edit

    What a fine post. I think I do all of that, to some extent. Dissociating myself from the surrounding peril is probably my default position. Thinking back, I can remember several situations where I wonder why I wasn’t frozen with fear. But watching myself as an actor I tend to see these situations simply as problems to be solved.

    And there is the odd matter that disasters seem to unfold in slow motion. Of course, my reactions also seem to be in slow motion, so there is no advantage in dealing with it, but an interesting opportunity to observe it happening.

    I don’t go looking for risk, as I do not care much for that kind of excitement, regarding it as evidence of poor preparation. But I do my homework and have some idea of what might happen and what might be done if it did. When disaster strikes is not when you should be opening the manual for the first time.

    The most interesting thing to me from this post is that I had never thought of “fear” as a category of my experience. I will now, and look at those situations where I was afraid and those when I should have been afraid and see what I can learn from them. Being of a theological disposition, I shall probably conclude both that God protects fools and that I have presumed mightily upon good nature.

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  • Tatiana October 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm edit

    I think the best way to deal with fear is to know what you value. And sheer force of will – hah. I’m terrified of spiders, I normally kill them without hesitation and avoid rooms where I saw a spider maybe once. But I went to a pet store and they had a pink-toed tarantula. They’re so tiny, so I asked the shop keep if I can hold him. They’re light as a feather and if you drop them, they kinda explode because they had no internal organs. I was still super nervous, but it was great to conquer my fear – at least temporarily. :]

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  • Farnoosh October 30, 2011 at 8:00 pm edit

    Love, love, LOVE this post, Torre…. I write about crushing our fears a lot but the reality is that they are never truly “crushed” – and they do come back and let us repeat the process over and over again. Fear can be a terrible thing and it shows up with the worst timing and it can ruin the best of intentions and plans but I no longer let it dominate me and control my decisions and I think that is the ultimate winning relationship you can have with fear: Feel it but stay the boss :) !
    What a great gem your blog (and writing) all is. So glad to be here.

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  • Nomadic Samuel November 3, 2011 at 8:09 am edit

    This is just the post I needed to read. In the past few weeks, I’ve lost my job and thousands of dollars all at once. I’m now crashing on my parents couch wondering how all this misfortune happened to me all at once; however, I realize this is nothing more than fear and I should be looking at this situation as more of an opportunity than anything else.

    Reply