What’s one of your biggest fears?
For me, it’s heights. So when I stood on the Victoria Falls bridge and looked down into the Zambezi River 1100 meters below, I stood frozen for a long time.
I was on a legal internship in Zimbabwe, likely never to return, and I had a choice to make: was I going to push past my fear to leap from the highest natural bungee jump in the world?
I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, unable to decide, watching other people jump.
After about 2 hours, I finally decided: I could not walk away. I had to jump. Before I could change my mind, I went to the jump operators and paid.
I worked up the courage to get into the harness, have them tie ropes around my ankles, and shimmy up to the ledge.
At the ledge, I knew I couldn’t look down or I would freeze again. I laughed my way through the fear: was I insane? But after this photos was taken, I became very serious and quiet, looked straight ahead to the horizon, and lept.
I never felt so alive, and free.
From fear to action
When I was frozen on that bridge, I was focused on my fear, which activated my amygdala and my brain’s “no-go” or freeze response.
But I was able to shift into a “go” response instead by shifting my focus.
It turns out, our brains would much rather guide us towards something positive than away from something negative.
We do this by focusing on a positive result we will get by taking the action we’re afraid to take.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s what I did (see Why I jumped, below).
This anticipation of a positive result or reward causes a release of dopamine which activates the brain’s reward circuit. And if that reward is received, we become more motivated to take similar action again.
Why taking a leap matters
To get into action, I needed to get clear on why jumping off that bridge mattered to me.
I went into the future and decided what I wanted to feel, and who I wanted to be.
If I could do this, I knew that I would feel proud because I did something that I was really afraid to do; and for the rest of my life I would be able to say that I jumped from the Victoria Falls Bridge.
Today I know that connecting with what matters to you supports you in taking on a stressful challenge, according to research. In one study, people who reflected on authentic values prior to stressful tasks showed significantly lower cortisol levels afterwards, even up to 45 minutes after the task.
Find your why
What action have you been avoiding or too afraid to take?
The next time you are going to freeze in fear, or procrastinate on a stressful task, ask yourself: Why does this matter to me? What am I moving towards by doing this?
Ask the why question several times, because the answer tends to change and get closer to the real answer as you repeat it. And that will be much more motivating.
Don’t let fear hold you back from who you want to be, and the leaps you want to take.
When you get clear on your WHY – even if that’s just proving to yourself that you can tackle your fear – you activate the brain’s reward circuit, lower your cortisol levels, and step into a “go” response.
Share your WHY in the comments below. I would love to hear it. Or share this post with someone who might need a little push to take that leap!
Your post came at the perfect time, Jennifer. I’ve been struggling with a decision about taking a huge international trip that would take me way out of my comfort zone. I’ll take your advice to focus on the joy I expect to receive from the risk. Thank you.