Swallow Your Fear

Annette Van Horn had known for some time that there were problems with her marriage, but she didn't get the courage to do anything about it until she learned to fly a plane. After only a day of instruction, she sat in the pilot's seat. There she held the controls—and her fate—in her own hands. She knew if she didn't focus and listen very, very carefully to the instructor's directions, the plane could crash. The experience sent a powerful message: She could trust herself in a take-charge position. She also realized it was time she take control of her marriage.

Van Horn's experience illustrates what a growing number of experts have found: Taking physical risks is good for you. Whether you're piloting a single-engine plane, careening through rapids, or dangling from a cliff, successfully navigating risky situations teaches you about yourself, increases your self-confidence, and helps you better manage life's inevitable uncertainties.

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"It's the heightened awareness in physical risk taking that's so valuable," says Michael Gass, chair of the kinesiology department at the University of New Hampshire. He has been studying the benefits of physical risk taking for over 20 years. "The limited stimulus field helps people weed out less important information." In the face of danger, instinct takes over. Your attention becomes keenly focused on your body and your surroundings. Details like the fight you had with your spouse or tomorrow's big meeting fall by the wayside, and you're forced to exist in the present. "The sense of action and awareness merge," he says. And unlike book learning, adventure learning—also called experiential learning—provides immediate, tangible feedback about how you're doing in the world around you.

It's this conscious, focused attention that can promote real change in other areas of your life, says Preston Cline, president of Adventure Management, a risk management consulting firm. "In adventure situations, you have to be conscious about the choices you're making, or you will die."

Say you're in a canoe, paddling in some serious white water. In order not to dump the boat and possibly get yourself killed, you have to maintain your balance and keep your body loose. When you're afraid, your body wants to grab the gunnels, but that's the very thing that will capsize the canoe. "You have to force yourself by sheer willpower to overcome that fear, even though you may be screaming mentally," Cline says. "Once you accomplish this, you realize that you are not a victim of your emotions, that you can override them if you want." And if you can manage your emotions in a canoe, you can manage them at home and at work, too.

Fred Bartlit, voted one of the 100 most influential lawyers by the National Law Journal and an avid helicopter skier, compares risk taking to weight lifting. Just as shocking the muscles makes them grow stronger, confronting your fears makes you realize you can live with stress. "Any time you're afraid to do something and you do it, it makes you stronger," he says. "Even if you fail." He now welcomes the "hormone bath" that comes from stress, because he associates it with a full life. The focus he finds while hurtling down a mountain in hip-deep powder, he says, is the same focus he uses in the courtroom.

It's the lesson Van Horn learned at Leaders Take Flight, an organization based in New Jersey that teaches leadership skills through piloting. After successfully taking off and landing the single-engine plane—something she'd never imagined she could do—she stood on the airstrip bursting with pride. But even as her self-confidence soared, something was troubling her. While the instructors were explaining the flight concepts of thrust and drag, Van Horn had a flashbulb realization: Her husband was her drag. Fired up with a new sense of self-determination, she kicked him out and filed for divorce. "I was ready to be my own pilot," she says.

But then another lesson from her flight training changed her course yet again. "In the cockpit you can't interrupt, or you'll be talking over each other on the headsets," she recalls. "I really had to control myself." When Van Horn met her ex-husband to exchange mail, the two communicated effectively for the first time. "I finally heard what he had to say," she says. The two remarried in July and now have a much stronger bond.

Experiential learning experts have no doubt that the lessons we absorb through adventure activities carry over into other parts of our lives. "Physical risk taking is beneficial because it's a consequential, obvious statement of what you're able to do," says Gass. And the ability to handle adversity can generalize into the less dangerous—but no less fraught—realms of personal and professional life. It was Stanford researcher Albert Bandura who first articulated the idea that greater feelings of self-efficacy produce increased effort and persistence on a task and, ultimately, a higher level of performance. It follows that the more opportunities you have to demonstrate your ability to succeed at something challenging, the harder you'll try, the more persistent you'll be, and the more your achievement will grow.

The key is to face the right degree of challenge. You need to strike the right balance between the uncertainty inherent in physically risky situations and your ability to navigate through that uncertainty. This is what Simon Priest, dean of the Wescoe School at Muhlenberg College, calls the "peak adventure" realm.

Beyond developing self-confidence, physical risk taking can actually stretch your very identity. As Carthage College sociology professor Stephen Lyng explains it, risk taking jumpstarts people who feel pushed along through life in limited, prescribed roles. Self-determination in the face of uncertainty helps develop a strong sense of self. "It comes from having to improvise a response to the challenge at hand," says Lyng. "Once you are in the realm of uncertainty, anything is possible in terms of how you think about yourself." When we're confronted with this kind of "experiential anarchy," he explains, we're able to see how the patterns in our everyday lives may be holding us back.

The best way to reap the benefits of physical risk taking is to make it a habit. "The more practice you have in situations where you have to make rapid decisions with great consequence, the more likely you are to be able to act rather than freeze," says Cline. This is the idea behind all sorts of training, from CPR to fire drills to combat maneuvers.

Physical risk taking also trains you to cope in a crisis. "Taking risks is a reminder that nothing is certain," says Cline. "In everyday life, people often create these little illusions of safety, but when the veil is pulled back you realize how uncertain the world really is. Instead of living in fear that one day the curtain will be pulled aside, it makes sense to learn the skills you need to combat uncertainty."

Your Courage Quotient

There are three kinds of people, says kinesiologist Michael Gass: risk avoiders, risk reducers, and risk optimizers.

  • If you're an avoider, step out of your comfortable routine. You might try indoor rock climbing, canoeing in a river with a spot or two of white water, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing.
  • If you're a reducer, push yourself a little further. A strenuous high-altitude hike, scuba diving, or a night camping solo in the desert could take it up a notch.
  • And if you're an optimizer, keep at it. Make physical risk taking a lifelong pursuit, and keep challenging yourself in new ways. Try BASE jumping, hang gliding, or helicopter skiing.

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