by Shirley Swede
We are pleased to share this article sent to us by Shirley Swede. Readers may be familiar with her most helpful book, The Panic Attack Recovery Book, which she co-wrote with Seymour Sheppard Jaffe, M.D.
When people have a great fear of something–public speaking, heights, whatever–the natural tendency is to want to avoid those situations. That’s why you often hear this well–meaning advice: “If you want to overcome a fear, if you want to grow, you have to step out of your comfort zone and take a risk.”
Sounds like reasonable advice, doesn’t it? And it IS reasonable. The only trouble is, it’s difficult to do. It’s difficult to let go of the familiar, the comfortable, and just leap into the Unknown.
That’s why I want to present to you a somewhat different approach-and that is: If you want to overcome a fear, don’t leave your comfort zone behind! Instead–take it with you!
Let me give you an example of what I mean:
At one time, I had a tremendous fear of flying. I mean, I’d see a plane in the sky and I’d quake! I wasn’t afraid it would fall on me – I just used to wonder: How can people DO THIS?? How can they even think of walking into this thing?? Oooh!
Well, the first thing you need in order to overcome fear is motivation. You need a magnet to pull you toward something. My magnet came in the form of an invitation. A Dutch family I knew invited me to come to Holland to visit them. On their houseboat. During the tulip season. Wow!
I really wanted to go, but NOT as a white-knuckle flyer. So I knew I had to prepare myself. The unknown is always more scary. So if I could make the unknown more known to me, that would be a good first step in getting more comfortable about the idea of flying.
So I went to Kennedy Airport (I lived in New York City at the time) and I began interviewing people there. I talked to passengers, porters, flight attendants–anybody I could grab hold of. I wanted to know what it feels like to fly; what this experience is like. And I found people were very eager to talk to me. And those conversations began to at least melt some of that firm resolve I had about never, ever flying.
Later, I went up to the observation tower, and I watched those “big birds” take off, one after another. Continuously. Every minute, another plane would go up, up and away . . . ! I was there for about an hour. Then I began to reason logically. (I knew I had to bring my thinking brain into the picture, too!)
So, I multiplied what I saw by all the airports all around the world, and I concluded that the chance of something bad happening to any one particular plane was actually very, very low. So that was a great comfort to me–knowing that statistics were on my side.
Another thing that disturbed me was that the plane was just up there, seemingly without support. What was holding it up??
So–again, to make the unknown more known to me, I began delving into the principles of aerodynamics. And I found out that a plane “rides on a cushion of air.” Believe it or not, that was a big comfort to me, to learn it was ON something; it wasn’t just up there, in the middle of nowhere. And I could even visualize it as a bus–only this bus just happened to ride on air instead of on asphalt.
You see, in order to let go of the fear, I knew I had to see things in a different way. I had to let go of the old mindset. I had to act differently, I had to pretend, I had to learn to relax-and I had to learn all this beforehand so I could bring these skills with me. But it wasn’t easy. It took me weeks to prepare for this trip.
A few days before the flight, I paid a visit to my dentist. Not to fix my teeth, but to get a “relaxation fix.” You see, my dentist was the one who first taught me relaxation techniques. And ever since then, I always felt very comfortable and relaxed in his office. Well, that day, as I practiced relaxation, I purposely tried to memorize everything in that office: the pictures on the wall . . . the smells of the room . . . the way my dentist looked . . . the way his nurse looked, and so on. I wanted to have a strong memory of that comfortable place so I could “bring it” with me on the plane.
When I actually boarded the plane, I saw a lot of babies and small children. So that gave me another idea. I pretended I was a little girl being taken on a trip by my mommy. This image served two purposes: It helped me become more passive (so I wouldn’t be tempted to help the pilot fly the plane . . .) and it also made me more comfortable, because I could begin to see this experience through the eyes of a child.
The plane was long and narrow (much bigger inside than I had imagined), and there were two rows of three seats together. My other seatmates were a young couple on vacation. They seemed very friendly and fun to be with-so that was another pleasant activity I could look forward to.
At the moment of takeoff, I went into my planned meditation/relaxation routine. I leaned back in my seat, let go and relaxed; I was mentally back in my dentist’s office. My state of recall was perfect: I “saw” everything so clearly and “heard” my dentist’s voice. Amazingly, even the medicinal smell of the office came back to me! I felt as if all I had to do was open my eyes and I’d be back there at the office. But I was so relaxed, I didn’t want to disturb myself.
When I did open my eyes, I looked out the window and saw only sky. We were already way up in the air at high altitude, and I didn’t even know it! It was fascinating. All through my journey, I kept my mind busy, searching for interesting and exciting things to wonder about. For example: I kept marveling about the miracle of flight; I thought of the many people ages ago-kings and princes–who had yearned to fly. And here I was, a product of the twentieth century, actually doing it! I watched the sunrise–and it was 3 a.m. by my watch! At one point, I pretended it was wartime, and I was a soldier; our aircraft was being shot at by anti–aircraft guns . . . and suddenly we got word that the war was over, that the enemy guns were silent and that it was safe again to fly. (Here, you see, instead of seeing the plane as dangerous, I was seeing it as safe.) Sometimes I pretended I was a seasoned flyer and acted the part. At other times, I chatted with the young couple; we told each other stories, jokes, etc.
Well, I tell you–it was a wonderful trip, and I had a terrific vacation! Since then, I have flown a number of times, but my favorite memories are of that first trip to Holland.
So I say this: If you want to overcome a fear, don’t just jump into a situation and take yourself out of your comfort zone. Bring your comfort zone with you! Like the commercial says, “Don’t leave home without it!”
(This posted article was originally published in our ENcourage Connection Newsletter, print version.)