I developed my fear of heights around my late teens. My Dad had mentioned that he was scared of heights around this time, which was a new thing that had developed with age for him. My fear manifested anywhere that there was a large drop, but also in places that were high up and otherwise safe. I had an embarrassing family trip on the London Eye where I became paralysed with fear for the whole duration of the experience and wasn’t able to talk or move for the whole journey. My brain always seemed to go to the worst-case scenario, to the extreme and unlikely chances of things going wrong.
So, when my old school friends suggested a zip wire experience in Wales for their 40thbirthday celebrations I agreed knowing deep down that I probably wouldn’t go through with it. My cunning plan was to go along for the ride and then duck out at the last minute. But at the same time, I knew from my work as a hypnotherapist that these fears could be overcome if I really wanted. And I did want it, I wanted to be able to enjoy exciting experiences with friends and family when the opportunity arose.
Since training as a Hypnotherapist, I had noticed my fear improving a little already, things like cliff walks had become easier as I noticed the feelings associated with the fear objectively without getting caught up in a spiral of imagined disasters. I was able to think more rationally and calmly rather than being overcome with panic and the physical responses associated – shaking, nausea, and wanting to burst into tears. Despite these improvements I wasn’t wholly convinced that this was going to be enough to allow me to zip 1000m down a mountain at 100 miles an hour with ease. This may need a little more work.
I decided to treat myself as I would a client and scheduled sessions before bed to visualise the whole experience, how it would look, feel and sound. I had seen a video of the way we would be launched over the edge and it involved getting up onto a table wearing a harness which was then strapped to the zip wire. During my self-hypnosis sessions, just before bed, I imagined myself getting into the harness and how comfortable it would feel, like being wrapped up and tucked into bed. I then imagined getting onto the table, as though hopping onto a massage table, ready for a relaxing massage. I visualised a bird flying high up in the sky and thought about how exciting and free that would make me feel. Also recalling a memory of when I most felt free, adventurous and excited about life, a memory from my twenties of flying down a hill on a moped while holidaying on an exotic island in Thailand, palm trees swaying on the warm evening breeze. I called on that version of myself to be there to support me through the experience.
During these sessions I practiced the breathing techniques that I have learned in my Yoga training – the ujjayi or ocean breath, where the back of the throat is constricted slightly to create a soft sighing sound is very comforting. I also practice extending the exhale, making it longer then the inhale. This taps into the parasympathetic nervous system and helps to bypass those fight or flight feelings. These breathing exercises were invaluable on the day and were a key part of me being able to go through with it, and actually enjoy the ride.
When it came to the day before, and the day itself I still wasn’t sure whether I would actually be able to go through with it, however, I didn’t feel as stressed as I normally would and I stayed focussed on the work I had done and decided to go with the flow and not put too much pressure on myself. I didn’t let myself think about it too much as we set off in the car on our way there but when we arrived it all became a bit more real. As I saw the actual mountain and the actual zip-wire I felt those familiar physical sensations begin of rising panic. But I knew what to do, I kept my breathing slow and regular, I took moments here and there while we were waiting to check in with myself and go back over the visualisations. I consciously kept my body loose and relaxed as we prepared for our turn. The feeling of fear grew in my chest and the urge to cry was strong but I found moving around really helpful – I guess I really was in fight or flight mode at that point and so it felt good to jump around and jog on the spot to try to release that and as I did that I found that feeling of fear turning into excitement. I probably looked pretty silly, jumping around and punching the air but I was past caring and was able to really start to focus myself on the goal. As our harnesses were put on, they were reassuringly heavy and weighty and really did feel comfortable, just like I had imagined. I was able to laugh and joke with my friends, I was verging on hysteria really and still moving around a lot as we headed to the top. It helped that the wire ran over a beautiful blue pool of water surrounded by trees and the mountain. I hopped up onto the table just as I imagined, it was as though I knew exactly what to do. I lay my head onto my hands and relaxed into the table as though I was waiting for my massage. As the staff worked around me manoeuvring the harness as required, I made my body heavy and malleable and focused on my breath and the feeling of relaxation. By focussing on my breathing, I didn’t allow any other thoughts or worries to creep in. Using my breath like an anchor along with the sensations of comfort and relaxation and bringing back to mind the image of the bird souring through the air as I waited. The table was then lowered from beneath me and we waited, hanging suspended – when asked if I was OK, I said yes and I really meant it, I felt great, and ready to go. Then we were off, and it was the most amazing feeling, of flying, totally relaxed and comfortable, smiling as I passed over the quarry below with wonder. Before I knew it, it was all over, and I was back on the ground with a huge grin on my face.
I could not quite believe that I had actually gone through with it and overcome that huge obstacle – my fear. Something I had never been able to do in the past. The elation was immense and along with that a sense that if I could do this, I could do anything. Fear is a funny thing (not funny when you are in its grip) our instinct is to protect ourselves but sometimes this instinct prevents us doing things which are actually good for us. Even putting yourself out of your comfort zone in a small way can trigger these feelings. But sometimes this can prevent us from growing and doing the things we want to do, things like going for the career you really want because of fear of failure or being too frightened to take an opportunity to speak out when you need to. I really like this quote from The Untethered Soul, by Michael A. Singer,
“If you mistreat an animal it becomes afraid, this is what happened to your psyche. You have mistreated it by giving it a responsibility that is incomprehensible. Just stop for a moment and see what you have given your mind to do. You said to your mind “I want everyone to like me, I don’t want anyone to speak badly of me, I want everything I say and do to be acceptable and pleasing to everyone. I don’t want anyone to hurt me, I don’t want anything to happen that I don’t like, and I want everything to happen that I do like.” Then you said, “Now mind figure out how to make every one of those things a reality. Even if you have to think about it all day and night.” And then of course your mind says, “I’m on the job, I will work on it constantly”.
Our mind is doing the job it thinks it should do in overdrive to the point where sometimes we can feel paralysed and unable to do anything. However, there is a way through this. By becoming aware of the feeling, of the physical sensations and the narrative of the mind we can observe and decide whether they are justified or not. We can manage the feelings with techniques like visualisation and breath work and choose to move towards our goals despite our fear. It may not disappear, it didn’t for me. I felt the fear but was able to observe it and act without getting caught into its narrative. And it the benefits of doing so were so worth it. We only have one life to live and I’m so glad that I didn’t come back down the mountain on the truck, I conquered the fear and flew instead.
If you would like to find out how hypnotherapy can help you to conquer your fears then give me a call. If I can do it anyone can.
Frances Robertson-Ritchie, Yoga teacher and hypnotherapist