Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

What's the Scariest Part of a Frightening Experience?

What's the Scariest Part of a Frightening Experience?

South African student parachutist Lareece Butler was on a training jump on Monday when, according to the UK Telegraph, her chute got tangled and she plummeted to earth at high speed. She wound up with a concussion, a broken leg, and a busted pelvis. Doctors called her survival "a miracle." That's bad enough, but in the aftermath the woman's aunt told the paper that Butler hadn't jumped out of the plane at all. She'd been pushed.

Her aunt explained to the paper:

"Apparently she noticed problems with the three who went before, some of their parachutes were getting tangled as they fell. She said she asked to return to the ground and the plane circled a second loop as she refused to go. In the end, she said, they pushed her out. She said, ‘Mummy, I didn't want to jump, they pushed me'."

For its part, the skydiving company completely denies the allegation, saying that when they talked to Butler after the accident she told them she couldn't remember anything about the jump. A spokesman for the Parachute Association of South Africa said: "At this stage this appears to have just been a bizarre accident. The woman was fully trained and was briefed to spot for trouble."

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Getting your chute tangled doesn't have to be a big deal. You're supposed to jettison it and pull your reserve-chute ripcord. But for an inexperienced jumper, the extreme fear of jumping out of the plane can shut down conscious decision-making, leaving them unable to help themselves.

As someone who's twice stood at the edge of an airplane door, about to jump out, I can tell you that it is about as terrifying an experience as I can imagine. Fortunately for me, both times I was doing a tandem jump, essentially strapped to the front of an experience parachutist like a baby kangaroo. I didn't have to do any thinking. Which is good. I don't think I could have. Ms Butler was evidently even more terrified than I was -- utterly terrified and unwilling to leave the safety of the doorway.

Studies have actually been done into the psychodynamics of fear in skydivers, and it turns out that this moment -- and not freefall -- is the most terrifying part of the whole experience for first-time jumpers. Psychologist Seymour Epstein at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst conducted a study in which novice jumpers were fitted with heart-rate monitors that measured their pulse as their plane climbed up towards its release point. Epstein found that their heart rates got faster and faster until just before they jump; once they were out of the plane, it declined precipitously. The most stressful part of the whole experience, then, was the immediate anticipation. Compared to that, freefalling was a relief: the jumpers finally understood what they were in for.

Intriguingly, the moment of greatest fear is quite different for experienced parachutists. As you'd expect, veterans of many jumps are less fearful overall than novices -- they've habituated to the danger. But what's also different is that their moment of greatest anxiety comes not as they stand on the edge of the plane's doorway, but earlier -- several hours before, as the jump looms in the not-too-distant future.

I experience a similar dynamic when it comes to flying. I've had my pilot's license for eight years, and I still feel a few butterflies on days when I go flying. But it's usually before I leave the house. As I drive to the airport, my nerves subside, and by the time I start preflighting the airplane I'm more or less calm. Once the engine starts, it's all good, and all I'm feeling is the pleasure at being back at the controls of a flying machine.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who start learning how to fly never get over the intense anxiety they feel when going up for the first few times. (For the record, I found my first student flights terrifying, yet when I was back on the ground I inexplicably found myself wanting to go back up again.) Having a bad experience or two can make your fear all the more daunting a hurdle. If I had to guess, I'd say that Lareece Butler is not going to make a lifelong hobby of skydiving.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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