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Four Ways to Manage Fear

December 8, 2013 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Don’t let your fear hold you back.

Danny Forster, the host of Discovery Channel’s Build It Bigger, a show about constructing enormous skyscrapers and towering bridges, is terrified of heights. On his first scouting trip as host, Forster's acrophobia almost cost him his job. He had flown with the show's producers to Glendale, Arizona to assess the show's first target: the University of Phoenix Stadium, the new $455 million dollar home of the Arizona Cardinals. The plan was to have Forster start off the show by working on the stadium's 240-foot-tall fabric-lined roof, but when they asked him to climb the ladder, he at first refused. Had they hired the wrong guy?

Forster's passion to build pushed him to start climbing. He rode hundreds of feet up in man lifts and climbed onto roofs, not because he had overcome his fear of heights but because he was willing to be afraid and build anyway.

The producers then realized that Forster's fear of heights made him more human and became a selling point for the show. Danny's terror in the face of hanging off the sides of buildings emphasized the real scale of the skyscrapers, and soon every episode of Build It Bigger began with a shot of Forster's terrified face staring down a steep precipice and saying to himself: "This is not a good situation right now. Am I getting pale?"

Forster’s passion was greater than his fear. He forced himself to make up intelligent conversation and keep constructing despite his instinct to run to lower ground. And Forster was surprised when he discovered that he was even beginning to enjoy the climbing; but more importantly, he was able to stay true to what he valued in life, whether he was afraid or not.

Danny Forster's story teaches us four ways to manage fear:

  1. Go through it. Most fears are deeply embedded in our psyches and don't disappear just because we want them to. And avoiding the things that we are afraid of only intensifies our phobias. So climb up the ladder even when we are terrified. Come to the next building and keep going. Go through it and accept the fear as part of the climb.
  2. Be present. Don't think about yesterday or tomorrow or even the next minute when you are walking through a fear. Staying in the present centers us and allows us to focus on what's important right now. Forster did this by keeping up a steady patter of conversation as he went about building. If he would have stopped and studied himself hundreds of feet up in the air, he would have probably frozen from the anxiety.
  3. Train. Practice and experience are crucial for two reasons. One is that the more we practice in any area, the more confident we become. And two, the more experience we have, the better able we are to deal with unexpected obstacles when we are in scary situations.
  4. Focus on your values. What really motivates us to go through our fears is a commitment to a higher value or goal. It doesn't matter what that goal is. For Forster it was building and sharing his passion for building with the world. Some people work with fear because they are focused on their love for another person. Others go through fear because they are passionate about a higher cause. Whatever it is, focusing on that higher value or goal weakens the potency of our fear.

Confronting My Fear

I thought about these ideas when I struggled to confront one of my own fears. We were at a bar mitzvah when the topic of running came up, and a few of us who run regularly were comparing our running times. I had never run a race before, but I ran on my own, timing myself with a running app.

When one of the veteran marathoners overheard my average mile time, he laughed. "If you can really run that fast, you should be racing. Why don't you try?"

I didn't take him seriously. Why would I want to be in a race? But deep down I knew why: I was scared – scared to run in front of anyone else, scared to fail, scared to even begin.

That's when I decided I had to try. Registering for the race wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. And although I was nervous on the morning of the race, my real fear didn't surface until I saw the hundreds of other runners warming up near the starting line.

I pinned my number on my shirt and looked around me. Every single person looked like a 'real' runner. What if I couldn't even finish the race? I considered going home. And if I would have just taken off my number and left, would it really have mattered? But as the megaphone blared: "On your mark get set…go!" I knew that it did matter. Not because of the race but because of my fear of the race.

When I started off too fast and found myself out of breath by the second mile, I realized that I was reaching a wall. A wall of fear and limits that was inside of me. I didn't want to stay behind that wall anymore. If I could go through this one fear, no matter how small or insignificant it was, then maybe I could learn something about more important fears in my life: I could live with them.

I made it to the finish line (I actually won the race). And the veteran marathoner had been right. You never know how fast you really are until you try. You never know how high you can build if you are afraid to climb. And when you reach the top of a building that you have constructed or cross the finish line that you never imagined was possible, you will see that your fear is still there. But you have learned to work with it. To run with it. To live with it.

And without even realizing it, you have already won.


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