Slaying the Dragon: How I Faced My Fear of Heights

IMG_2952I am afraid of heights in wide-open spaces. I can usually deal when I’m standing still, like when I’m in a tall building, but put me in a car that is traversing a mountain and you’ll find me in the back seat with my head between my knees. There’s something about motion and space that hijacks my amygdala, the ancient part of the brain associated with the stress response. My entire being freezes. I’m unable to act rationally.

In the past two years I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some awesome places —Big Sur, CA; Macchu Picchu, Peru; and Amalfi Coast, Italy. Each of these adventures involved big mountains and open spaces. My perceived fear of heights, open space, and motion became debilitating. Instead of looking out at the Mediterranean Sea on our drive from Sorrento to Positano, I looked up at the hillside. Instead of enjoying the greenery and lushness of the scenery during the bus trip up the mountain to Machu Picchu, my head was on my daughter’s shoulder with eyes closed.

C’mon, Cara … really? Is this the best you can do?

My husband and daughters are always amazed to see their normally empowered wife and mom in a state of sheer terror. They used to laugh at me and even egg me on until they realized my freak outs were based on a deeply entrenched fear — not a real fear, as I’ve learned, but a perceived fear. Let’s take a look.

Real Versus Perceived Fear

Real fear has helped our species survive. Running back into the cave helped our ancestors avoid dangerous animals. Real fear occurs in life-threatening moments, like when the car in front of you slams on its brakes or the dish towel catches on fire while you’re cooking.

Perceived fear, on the other hand, is generated from your mind such as the fear of missing out, the fear of the unknown, and the fear of death. These self-generated fears are constructed in your busy mind and are often described as False Evidence Appearing Real — FEAR. Perceived fear occurs when you have thoughts of your neighbor’s terrifying dog behind the fence, you expect to get fired when your boss asks to meet with you, or you feel you might fall over a cliff, even though you’re safely behind the guard rail.

Real fear keeps you alive. Perceived fear imprisons you in your mind. Perceived fear cuts you off from your direct experience of what is happening right now.

Your body reacts the same way to a perceived fear as it does to a real one. During this physical response, your body releases stress hormones stimulating your fight or flight response. Instinctively this response prepares you to go into battle or flee. You become tense and rigid, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

Perceived fear feels like real fear, until you’re willing to face it directly.

In Flow With My Perceived Fear

Fast forward to today. I am taking an online series called Flow Fundamentals hosted by the Flow Genome Project. I’m learning how to “hack” the flow state — a peak performance state where we feel our best and perform our best. One of the triggers for hacking flow involves challenge, a.k.a. being uncomfortable and facing your fears.

Last week in the course we were given the assignment to challenge ourselves in a way I really didn’t want to. As you know now, there’s little in this world that makes me more uncomfortable than being up high in wide-open space while moving. I knew what I had to do, and it scared the crap out of me!

There’s a bridge with a narrow bike path near my house that crosses the Schuylkill River (don’t even attempt to pronounce it if you’re not from Philly.) The bridge is about to close, as it’s really sketchy. (There’s a new bike bridge that’s about to open.) This old bridge frightens me. It feels completely unsafe. The bike path runs alongside a busy highway, a mere feet away, and the floor of the bridge is an old, creaky wooden path. So on one side is the rush of 18-wheelers barreling towards you and on the other is a sheer drop to the river. The only thing separating you from a free fall is an old metal fence.

Riding over this bridge on my bike is about as scary as it gets for me, throwing off my equilibrium and freaking me out. There’s no car to “protect” me. There’s just me on my bike alongside speeding trucks, a sheer drop to the river, an old fence and, a narrow wooden path.

For the assignment I chose to visit the bike path before it closes. I decided to go back to the bridge and face my “perceived” fear. Instead of just looking down the whole time wishing for the moment to pass and hoping to survive the ordeal, I committed to thrive, to seize the moment and look my perceived fear in the face.

I decided to slay my dragon once and for all.

And so I did. Instead of riding my bike across the bridge looking down the whole time, I focused on deepening my breath as I do during a yoga practice. I rode slowly with my head up to the middle of the bridge where I stopped. (I did! I really stopped!) I got off my bike and looked around to experience the vast view of the river and the noise of the highway buzzing behind me.

I would say I was in the flow state— big time. I was on the edge of my comfort zone. It was a high-definition, high-voltage experience I write about in my book, On The Verge. It was exhilarating. It was a massive victory for me.

What I learned from this experiment is that perceived fear dissolves in front of your eyes when you meet it while physically calm and mentally focused.

My experience on the bridge last week has given me the confidence that I can do it again, that I can slay the dragon, even at a high altitude and with bigger stakes at hand. There are higher bridges to conquer and mountains to traverse. Next time I’m traveling I plan on deepening my breath, lifting my head up, and looking out at the grandeur of this beautiful planet.

I think I should start packing my bags!


Comments 9

  1. Wonderful article! Conquering your fear of heights reminded me of a dear friend who was extremely afraid of bridges and had anxiety attacks when she absolutely had to cross one in a car. One of her biggest accomplishments, at the age of 50, was to run a marathon which crossed the Big Sur bridge. Obviously, she was on foot and had to keep her eyes open. Like you, she stopped and took in the beautiful view. She said she felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She, too, faced her fear, and conquered it. Her next challenge, a few years later, was being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which she also faced with courage until the very end. She was an inspiration to me and all those who knew her.
    Thank you, Cara, for your words of inspiration.

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      Charlene, Thanks for sharing this heartfelt story. Wow, I am so touched. We are incredible beings capable of so much. I continue to ask why I often hold back from embracing my brilliance.

  2. Cara,

    Your blog re: your fear of heights hit a real nerve for me. I have had a long time fear of heights and it seems to be getting worse the older I get. This fear has been transformed specifically to a fear of driving my car across high bridges. I have had some serious panic attacks doing this so I have allowed myself to circumvent almost every high bridge I need to cross in my car and go miles out of my way to get to my destination. For some reason I have made peace with the Ben Franklin Bridge and can drive across it fairly easily. (I guess because it is pretty enclosed). The odd thing is I can be a passenger in a car crossing a high bridge and not be too concerned. I have ridden my bike across many high bridges with no issue whatsoever. I ride across the old rickety wooden bridge you took a picture of at least a few times a week with no ill effect. I have been trying to use some of the techniques you have introduced in your book to calm myself enough to drive across these higher bridges. I will admit to this still being a work in progress for me. I will continue to press on to desensitize myself to this phobia. Thanks for sharing your openness about your challenges with heights. Congrats on attacking your fear!

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      Wow Lou, thanks for sharing! It’s interesting how fear immobilizes us in some situations and not in others. Our brains are incredible mechansisms in some respects and completely illogical in others. Let me know how you do facing your challenges. Cara

  3. Thanks I found this blog while looking for something similar to what I experienced on a vacation last month with my wife.
    One of the days we went on a bike ride to across the hills to a different town. I was riding the bike with my wife riding pillion.
    I started experiencing this debilitating fear on the stretches where I was high on the hills and I could see the wide open valley immediately on the side I was riding on.
    I did manage to ride through most of it though at an embarrassingly slow speed.
    I tried some of the slow and deep breathing techniques that I had picked up in yoga and kept trying to ensure that the amygdala was not short circuiting my logical brain.
    It worked a bit.. will need to try again sometime
    Thanks for sharing

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      Vinod, I’m with you completely! I know that feeling of debilitating fear. I am really working on facing my fear and have recently started rock climbing a few times a week. It’s helping. Keep in touch. Let’s do this together.

  4. As a traveler and an adventurous kind of person, I learn to conquer my fears in height and other fears that mostly encountered during adventure time. Because I keep in my mind if I will just stand there and do nothing, nothing will happen. That is why I have faced it and conquered it and it was all worth the experience. And now I am not afraid to try something that others are afraid of. I am having fun of my adventures together with my friends because I know that there is no reason holding me back not to try those things.

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