I didn’t even know I was afraid of heights until I went skydiving for the first time. Because “heights,” is not the same thing as “heights“. My (then) boyfriend, suggested we jump over the north shore of Oahu. I quickly agreed, attempting to appear brave. We arrived, filled out our paperwork and were fitted for our gear. I hardly thought about what we were actually about to do until the plane took off.
On the ride up my anxiety set in. I could hardly see straight. The air in the belly of the cabin was cool, wind whipping our straps and clothes. My boyfriend jumped first, which was when I realized that I didn’t have to do this. I could stay in the cabin and the plane would land and no one would ever have to know. “I might not do it,” I told my tandem guide when the plane was empty – just the two of us left.
He shrugged. “You don’t have to do it. But it’s awesome. And if you don’t do it now, you probably never will.”
I briefly thought about an article I’d read in The New York Times earlier that month. In it, designer Cynthia and her husband Bill Rowley are interviewed and say that their motto, adapted from Andy Warhol, is “Do Everything.” I remember thinking that I wanted that to be my new motto. But that to “Do Everything,” you actually have to do it.
So I jumped. And, I won’t lie, it was terrifying. I had my first out of body experience, where I watched myself jump from an aerial view.My face was so cold as we streaked to the ground and I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. But once my tandem jump partner pulled the shoot, I could see how beautiful the island was from up high. He pointed out sharks in the shallow water of a nearby beach. I could see green reefs, people surfing in the water, and long stretches of white sand. We drifted to the ground lazily and I found myself wishing we could stay in the air a little longer.
Each of us have fears unique to us. For example, you might be much more comfortable jumping out of a plane than attending an event alone, while others might fear traveling alone or visiting a country where they don’t speak the language.
In her book Growing Up Brave, Donna Pincus, who’s the Director of Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at Boston University writes, “Being brave doesn’t mean that a child never experiences fear. It means that she is learning to cope with a range of emotions, even the uncomfortable ones. She doesn’t let the stresses of the world stop her from taking steps and participating in life.”
So why do we do things we are afraid to do? For the same reason young children do. Because we aren’t willing to let our fears stop us from participating in the beauty life has to offer. And since the point of travel is to do and see things we never have before, courage is an important and even necessary component.
So if you’re gearing up for a new experience on your next trip (or even planning for one “some day”) and are kind of scared, here are some practical tips for overcoming that fear:
Visualize Doing What You’re Scared Of
It may sound familiar, but visualizing really does help. Sports psychologists have done it for years with athletes like Tiger Woods and Muhammed Ali. And surgeons, musicians, and business executives have also been known to use it to help them focus and improve their performance. Imagine doing that new thing you are afraid to do in detail, from beginning to end. You may be surprised at how well it works.
Preparation Is Your Best Ally
No matter what you are afraid of, preparation will arm you with more confidence than you would have had otherwise. Afraid of not being able to communicate in a foreign country? Learn some phrases and bring a translating device or book. Afraid to go on an extended hike? Take practice hikes at home before you leave, testing your gear and shoes. Afraid to fly? Consider bringing calming teas or other supplements to help as well as music or reading that comforts you. Preparing to do that new thing is the best way to successfully do it.
Learn Everything You Can About That Thing
Similar to preparation, knowledge is power. Research as much as you can about that fear before approaching it. For example, I could have benefited from learning about skydiving, its history, the various equipment used to ensure our safety, and more. I would have felt more empowered in my decision making. The word bravery, before it became a term that meant valiant or bold, was a word of adornment, the collective noun for fine clothing. It was something you put on. Knowledge in that way then, becomes something you can figuratively wear to face your finest moment.
Break It Up Into Manageable Steps
Suppose you are afraid to take a tour by yourself. Begin by making a list of the things you are afraid to do involving the tour. It could be finding your group or meeting new people. Use the techniques in this list to visualize, prepare, etc. for each step outlined. Compartmentalizing fears into manageable steps can help empower you to tackle larger fears and worries.
Tell Yourself You’re Yot Afraid
Consider Cheryl Strayed’s advice in her memoir Wild, before she began her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. “I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
Know Your Limits
Not everyone will go skydiving and that’s okay. If you are afraid of heights, perhaps climbing a crowded Eiffel Tower isn’t the appropriate time to conquer that fear. If you are afraid to eat strange foods, maybe stay away from open air markets in Bangkok. Setting reasonable challenges for yourself is an important part of self-care.
Leaving our comfort zone is a beautiful gift from traveling. We learn to let go of the familiar and try something new — even when we are afraid. And the surprising bonus of all of that exercised courage is that sometimes that new thing we’ve never done before can turn into something we love.