This article is all about turning doubt into daring: how do we manage the cognitive load of overwhelm and self-doubt so that it doesn’t paralyse us, but allows us to DARE to move forward.
Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain
The adventure that best illustrates my experience of this was the climb of El Capitan – a kilometere high over-hanging rock-face in Yosemite National Park, California.
Climbing El Cap was the most fearful experience of my life. We planned it would take us ten days to climb, sleeping on a ‘portaledge’ – a portable, fabric ledge – each night, and we would carry all the water and food we needed to last the duration.
It was fourteen years since I’d fallen from a cliff and become paralysed. Whilst I have no conscious memory of my accident itself, it quickly became apparent as I began climbing again that some things were different since I’d last climbed! There was the practical aspect of choosing a route that wouldn’t require dragging and scraping my body over sharp rocks. That meant I had to climb overhanging rock, pulling myself up a rope rather than clinging to the rock face. More challenging though was the emotional aspect. There were two big things: (a) I was now terrified of heights, and (b) I felt vulnerable and more scared than I’d ever felt in my life.
My past experiences were affecting my present, so instead of enjoying climbing the giant granite beauty of a mountain, I was locked into fear and stress. My head was full of all the things that could go wrong and I felt dread at the thought of climbing. How could I undo it, and release myself from the prison of fear?
Managing the ‘load’ in my brain was key to moving forward. I knew there was a logical, safe way to climb but I was struggling to get relaxed and to empty my head enough to find it. I felt full of fears, of anxiety-provoking thoughts, old trauma emerging from my sub-conscious to overwhelm me. There seemed so much to do, so much to concentrate on, and so much to go wrong.
We began the climb, and sure enough, a lot of things weren’t working well. I knew my head wasn’t in the right place for success. After three days on the wall, we dropped a bag and watched it fall a long, long way below, too far to see it burst open as it hit the ground. It was full of all our food. We retreated from the wall and had a big decision to make: leave for a Californian beach, or stop, re-set, and go again.
I thought about the overload I experienced whilst hanging from the rock-face, and considered what I could do to change things.
Firstly, I needed a logical process to follow, to eliminate the melee I was experiencing in my brain. I created a systematic process, a mental checklist of actions to take to simplify things. Clip into ropes 1, 2 and 3. Double check correctly tied in. Tighten the metal crabs to secure…etc.
I also needed to generate a different emotion in my body. appreciation. If my mind started to go to places that weren’t helpful I need to stop it. Instead of looking down at the fall below and allowing my mind to run riot, I would shift my focus to appreciation and gratitude. I would look out at the horizon. I would generate feelings of awe for being in such a special place, for the team around me with their skills and experience etc. This had a radical and fast impact on my emotional state.
Thirdly, I needed to get very present; to let go of past history or anxiety about the future. I would focus on my breathing to calm me down. I would really focus on the process of each tiny step. I would notice the crystals in the granite and the rough texture and feeling of the rock under my fingers. Being present with each moment freed me from anxiety.
On our final day of the climb, the wind died with the sun. The sky turned salmon and slate, then jet-black as night fell and the cold bit into the tender skin of my fingers. It was silent on our ledge except for us breathing and fidgeting for warmth, waiting to finish the last few pitches of climbing. Far, far below the traffic hummed like electric interference in the otherwise quiet night.
A shooting star fell.
“Safe!” our climbing partner’s voice echoed from above, through the blackness, a sign that they had reached the summit. It seemed a strange word to use in such an exposed place, where I had at least to start with, never felt so unsafe.
I breathed in deep and looked out from the rock to the beautiful night scene, to the shadows of the giant granite mountains licked in moonlight. For the first time in days, I felt myself relax, thankful to be there, appreciating the beauty around me. I was in the same place as I had been for days, but I had begun by making it my own version of hell. That final evening, with my fear and mental load dissolved, I could finally appreciate what a special place it was to be.
Reflecting on that climb of El Cap, transforming this experience of stress and overwhelm required reducing my cognitive load – in other words, the busy-ness in my head. When we are in a state of stress, we carry a lot of mental load and our ability to carry out tasks is impeded.
A logical process, taking my thoughts to appreciation, and doing anything I could do stay present had transformed things. Somehow amongst the doubt, I had found some dare to move forward. And it brought me one of the richest, most special experiences of my life.
A great acronym for fear is ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. I had to learn whilst hanging from El Capitan, to decipher which fear was truly valid and what fear was an unhelpful relict of past experience. Whilst it may be easy on first hearing this story to think “of course hanging from a giant rock-face by a thead of rope is scary and dangerous: that is valid real fear not false evidence appearing real!’. However, with sufficient safety measures, climbing is safer than many things we are exposed to day to day. I didn’t want my fear to limit me from an incredible experience, but at the same time I didn’t want to repeat a major trauma or die.
If we are conscious of our sources of fear, stress or overwhelm we know when it is really valid or just created based on false anxieties about the future.
What can you do to reduce your sense of fear and move forward in a desirable direction?
How might you reduce your cognitive load: creating systems and processes to help you carry out tasks?
How can you generate more awe and appreciation of what you have in your life? A daily scan of what I feel grateful for helps me train my brain away from its natural tendency to tune into fear and potential threat. Deliberately generating awe and appreciation supports positive neurochemistry in your body.
And how can you be more present? Focus on something in the moment. For example, focusing on your breath for just a minute or two, breathing deep breathing into your belly can re-set your nervous system from the fight, flight, freeze stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, to the rest & digest function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Try the navy seal stress-reducing technique: box breathing, breathing in for 4 counts, holding for 4, out for 4, and holding your lungs empty for 4. Psychological studies have revealed breathing practice to be an effective non-pharmacological intervention for emotion enhancement, reducing anxiety and stress.
Or do more of a mindful activity like I did – granite crystal gazing, or simply walking in nature to help your nervous system to downregulate.
So next time you experience overload or overwhelm, remember to try some simple techniques to reset your focus and nervous system: create a routine, focus on awe and appreciation, and get present with each moment..,and enjoy the adventure it takes you on…