Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Why Would You Jump Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane?

Falling 10,000 feet can change your perspective on things

One of my constant themes is that our fears, left unchallenged, hedge in our lives and prevent us from becoming the fullest expressions of ourselves. But what if we go the other way entirely, and not only embrace the things we fear, but fear itself?

I recently got a note from a reader, Jason Tyne, who wrote: "Since reading your book, I continue to be fascinated by the idea of fear but at least I have some perspective on it. Recently (and inspired by your book) I took my own jump out of an airplane and it was amazing...in fact I just blogged that it was my number one recommendation for EVERYONE to do in 2011."

I followed the link to Jason's website and found a very entertaining account of an experience very much like what I had when I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. It really is bizarre, if you've never done anything like this before, how an alternate personality or parallel mind seems to wake from its slumber and start wrestling with you for control of your body. As Jason puts it, "I was sane all the way up to the moment that I stepped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet; it was the very next moment that I lost my mind." He describes his inner dialogue like this:

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Brain One: AAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

Brain Two: Look. I understand that you're freaked out. We're hurtling through the air towards the ground which is coming at us quite fast.

Brain Two: AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggggggghghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Brain Two: Yes, you're scared...I'm not going to ask you not to be scared. It's normal to be scared. You can continue to freak out, but can you tone it down a bit because there are a couple of things I need to do?

Brain One: AAAAAAAaaaaaaaarrrrrrrraaaaaaahhhhhhh...

On the face of it, this does not sound like the kind of thing that one would wholeheartedly endorse for all of one's friends. But Jason found that his taste of freefall gave him new-found respect for his ability to handle an intense crisis. As he writes: "Experience the sensation of losing your minds to fear, so that you can learn the sensation of being able to function in the face of fear."

I would go one step further and say that deliberately putting yourself into a terrifying situation not only helps you handle fear better, it creates an afterglow that remains with you in the course of your everyday life: a heightened sensitivity, an appreciation for the impermanence and fragility of life's pleasures, a deepened awareness of the stakes involved in being a living, conscious creature. A life informed by fear can be the opposite of sleepwalking.

 

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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