Overcoming my Fear of Heights

The course I attended in the Peak District to overcome fear of heights turned out to be a lot of fun, as well as helping me to stretch my comfort zone and face down fear. I learnt a great deal in two days, much of which chimed with the messages of How to be Perfect… and with what I teach my own clients when I’m wearing my public-speaking-coach hat. In other words, the lessons apply to all sorts of fears, not just heights.

Here are the five big lessons I took away from the weekend:

1) If some form of fear is holding you back, it can be easy to push it out of your mind, find ways around it and accept the limitations it puts on your life. Because fear is, well, scary, it’s natural not to want to confront it, but unless and until you do, you’ll never be free of it. Fears that remain unexpressed and unexamined – nebulous fears – are the most debilitating, because the shroud of mystery makes them appear bigger. Once you stare your fear in the face, analyse it, think about what it means, you’ve started the process of taking control and the fear is already shrinking.

2) Don’t make the mistake of trying to overcome your fear by sheer force of will. Making yourself cross a high, exposed bridge is not going to help you over your fear of heights, any more than making yourself address a crowd of people will remove your fear of public speaking. Before you attempt these feats, take a course, get some coaching, learn how it’s done.

3) There’s a practical as well as a psychological side to your fear. Most fears have a very legitimate basis – fear of heights certainly does. Positive thinking is not enough; in fact, it can even be dangerous. Instead of exhorting yourself not to be silly, to let go of that groundless fear, as you launch yourself into the abyss, take practical steps to protect yourself. Learn how to approach heights as safely as possible, get the right gear, don’t take unnecessary risks. On the course, we wore harnesses and sometimes special rock shoes, we assessed every challenge thoroughly and we practised on smaller challenges before we tried bigger ones. This makes sense anyway and it also makes it easier to overcome your fear. “I’ll be fine,” becomes so much more reassuring once you can add, “because…” and list all the sound reasons you will actually be fine.

4) Build up gradually. On the course, we started by abseiling down what was essentially a very small hill. Then we progressed to a two-storey wall and from there to a small cliff. We did each one several times and got comfortable with it before moving on to the next level. On the second day, we played about on boulders on the ground, getting used to moving around safely on them, before we tried climbing increasingly high rock-faces. Incremental progress is the way to go.

5) A personal lesson I learnt is to make sure you’re properly fuelled up for challenging activity. My habit is not to eat breakfast but to have a substantial lunch. On the first day, I arrived having had no food, but with plenty of it in my backpack. Unfortunately, we ended up having very little time for lunch and by mid-afternoon I was wilting. For this reason, I ducked the final abseil. I couldn’t trust my body to manage it, so I didn’t do it. A great shame, but an important lesson learnt. On day 2, I made sure I had a good breakfast. This, supplemented by a bit of lunch on the hoof, sustained me and I was exhilarated by achieving the final test, a climb of about 15 meters up a rock-face.

This was my experience as a novice to climbing and it’s a solid foundation. You can read more from an expert, free solo climber Alex Honnold, in an article accompanying his interview for the Don’t Tell Me The Score podcast.

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