Why Bother Overcoming Fears?

Last weekend I managed to complete my PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver Course:

PADI Temporary Card

Open Water Diver

Name: Damon K. Ashworth

Diver No.: 1902AA8575

Cert Date: 16-Feb-2019
Instructor Number: 305944

Store/Resort Name: Big Blue

Store Number: 36279

This person has satisfactorily met the standards for this certification level as set forth by PADI.

It was a pretty big challenge for me since I don’t really like being on boats and find it scary just swimming out in the middle of the ocean. But, I did it because a close friend asked me if I would be her dive buddy for the course, and I thought there would be no better opportunity than when I am already living in Vanuatu, home to some of the best dive sites in the world.

To get your Open Water Card, you need to pass many theory tests about diving, and you need to complete 24 skills in a pool and then replicate these skills out in the open water across four dives. We saw a shipwreck, some amazing coral and sea life, and even a few small reef sharks during the open water dives.

The scariest part to me was when I was up to 18 metres underwater, knowing that I’d need to stop for 3 minutes at 5 metres on the way up and ascend slowly to avoid decompression sickness. It meant that if I felt a bit anxious or panicky for whatever reason, I couldn’t just get out to the surface straight away and start gasping for air. Instead, I had to remain calm, breathe slowly and steadily using my regulator, put some confidence in my divemaster who was guiding us through the training and focus on whatever was in my control instead of worrying about things that were out of it.

It’s done now, and I completed the dives and all the skills successfully. Some moments were pretty cool, especially seeing the wreck and the sea life on the coral reef. In general, though, I didn’t love it and was utterly exhausted and a little bit relieved once I did it.

So how do I know if it was worth it? Should I have bothered challenging myself to do something where I actually worried that I could have died if something went badly wrong?

When Is It Worth Facing Your Fears?

The answer is it depends. It depends on:

  1. What are you afraid of?
  2. How afraid you are (on a scale from 0 = no anxiety at all to 10 = completely overwhelmed and having a panic attack)?
  3. How safe or dangerous the thing you are afraid of actually (or realistically) is? and
  4. How much of an impact will it have on your quality of life if you do not face up to your fear or try to overcome it?

If what you fear has a low risk of actually occurring AND the activity is quite safe even though it feels scary AND not doing it has a significant negative impact on your life, IT IS WORTH TRYING TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF AND FACE YOUR FEARS.

For me:

  1. I think the fear of SCUBA diving was dying.
  2. The thought of actually going SCUBA diving increased my anxiety to a 7/10, which is quite high but not quite at the panic stage.
  3. The 2010 Diver’s Alert Network Workshop Report found that only one-in-211,864 dives end in a fatality. This makes diving riskier than flying in an aeroplane or riding a bike but much less dangerous than driving a car, skydiving, or running a marathon. We’re even more likely to die from walking or falling on stairs than we are from SCUBA diving.

4. If I never went SCUBA diving, I doubt that it would have reduced my quality of life in any way. I did it mostly because I wanted to spend time with my friend, and I wanted to challenge myself to face my fears, as not being able to withstand my concerns would have a substantial negative impact on my quality of life.

Based on the above information, I am glad to get my PADI Open Water Certificate. I’m not too sure if I will ever go again, though. I could enjoy it more and become less anxious about diving over time, and that did happen even across my four open water dives. If I went again, my anxiety might be a 5 or a 6. In reality, though, I think I can enjoy snorkelling just as much without it lowering my quality of life in any way, and I’ll probably do that more than SCUBA diving in the future.

What Are the Most Common Fears?

The top ten most common specific phobias are:

  1. Arachnophobia — fear of spiders
  2. Ophidiophobia — fear of snakes
  3. Acrophobia — fear of heights
  4. Agoraphobia — fear of crowds or open spaces
  5. Cynophobia — fear of dogs
  6. Astraphobia — fear of thunder and lightning
  7. Claustrophobia — fear of small spaces
  8. Mysophobia — fear of germs
  9. Aerophobia — fear of flying
  10. Trypanophobia — fear of injections

By looking at the above common phobias, they all have some basis for why we may become afraid of them. Some spiders and snakes can kill, as can dogs (especially if they have rabies). Planes can crash, and falling from high up can be fatal. People can become trapped and suffocate in a small space or crowds, and lightning strikes have killed people. Germs and bacteria spread disease too. Medical mishaps are the third most significant cause of death in the US, according to the latest figures from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The issue is that our brain is not very good at distinguishing hazardous things versus things that feel dangerous but are actually pretty safe.

How Do We Overcome Fears?

We overcome any fear through the dual process of gradual exposure and cognitive reappraisal after the exposure:

1. We determine what fear it is we would like to master. Preferably, this is something that you are currently avoiding that is negatively impacting your life, such as not going to the doctor or dentist because you are afraid of needles.

2. We develop an exposure hierarchy on this fear. This should have at least five different tasks that are ranked from least scary to most scary (scale from 0–10) tasks that you would like to challenge yourself with. For example, for Arachnophobia, this may be a 2/10 for looking at pictures of spiders, to 4/10 for watching videos of spiders, to 6/10 for looking at spiders in an enclosure, to 8/10 for a spider being out in the open in front of you, to 10/10 for letting a spider crawl over your hand or up your arm.

3. We start with the least scary task first and stay in the situation for at least 10 minutes if possible. This should be long enough for the anxiety to peak and then reduce substantially during the exposure exercise. A psychologist can teach specific behavioural and thinking skills to help lower stress levels during the exposure if it is not reducing.

4. We reflect on the exposure experience afterwards and try to change our previously held beliefs about what we fear. This is called cognitive reappraisal and is done by asking ourselves, “how did it go?” “was it as bad as I thought it would be?” and “how would I approach a similar situation in the future?

5. Once we are comfortable with that level of the exposure hierarchy, we repeat steps 3 and 4 with the next task on the exposure hierarchy. Then, once we become comfortable with the next step, we repeat this process with the next task until we are successful with all tasks on the hierarchy. This would mean the fear has been overcome or mastered.

What if What I Fear Really is Dangerous?

If you have Ophidiophobia and live in Australia, you’re probably not going to want to befriend a snake that you run into out in the bush. Australia is home to 21 out of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world. If you wanted to overcome this fear, you might want to learn instead how to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and get more comfortable only with deadly ones from behind solid glass panels at your local zoo. Or you could visit someone who owned a harmless pet snake so that you could get used to being around it and touching it and realising that you are safe.

If you’re afraid of heights, I wouldn’t suggest being like Alex Honnold and trying to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite, but trying out the edge experience at the Eureka tower in Melbourne or even riding on the amusement park ride The Giant Drop on the Gold Coast might be a pretty safe way to challenge your fears.

Facts can really help some people challenge their beliefs about their fears, but nothing beats putting ourselves in a feared situation first and then challenging our beliefs afterwards.

For me, knowing that only 12 out of the 35,000 different varieties of spiders are harmful to humans makes me not worry every time I see a little one unless it is a whitetail or a redback spider.

It helps to know that flying is one of the safest forms of travel, with a one-in-12 million chance of crashing. Likewise, although I don’t try to stand in an open field with a metal pole during a storm, it does help to know that being killed by lightning is nearly as rare, with a one-in-10.5 million chance.

Even though I’m not particularly eager to watch it pierce my skin, needles don’t hurt nearly as much as I used to imagine, and the pain goes away almost immediately after the injection. Bacteria is everywhere, so I couldn’t avoid germs entirely even if I tried. Getting exposed to a bit of dirt when we are young might also be good for developing our immune system.

If I ever feel a bit trapped or panicky the next time I dive, it will help to remind myself that I have done it before. I have my open water certificate and the skills from this, and what I’m doing is actually pretty safe as long as I don’t panic and follow what I have been taught in my training.

Just because we are afraid of something, it doesn’t mean we have to avoid it for the rest of our lives. But we don’t have to face our fears every time either, especially if it is not harming our quality of life. So if you determine it would be good to challenge yourself and try to overcome a fear, I hope the steps outlined above help, and I’d love to hear about any success stories in the comments below.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

14 thoughts on “Why Bother Overcoming Fears?

  1. An interesting post to read as I head for my annual ski trip. Skiing scares the hell out of me, but if I don’t go, it would have a significant negative impact on my life. I’ll remember that as I hurl myself into the abyss.

    1. I really don’t like skiing either but it’s more I’m physically incapable as I tried twice and my body said no both times. (I broke my finger and then a muscle spasm so I couldn’t walk for a week as I had a previous car accident involving me breaking that leg. )

  2. Congratulations! I received my PADI card in 1987, there is another world under water. I have to tackle my fear, my last dive I had a panic attack and haven’t been diving in ten years.
    Have a great weekend. During my training we had to hang to come up 30 ft exchanging regulators with buddy, that was scary.

      1. I’m clautrophobic so it made diving a super challenge for me. I miss it. I love wreck diving. If get a chance dive the Wreck of the Rhone in Tortola. It’s huge and lot’s of sections in tact. 🙂

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