Photo by Bert Navarrete.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Skydive the Mag, the official publication of British Skydiving. It is reprinted here with permission.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions known to humanity. It drives how we live our lives and the decisions that we make.
Whether you are just about to start your AFF course or have thousands of jumps, skydiving is a sport that deals directly with fear. It doesn’t matter whether you are in complete acceptance or abject denial of fear, you will have felt its powerful effects and either controlled it or had it control you. By understanding fear and its purpose, you’ll be better able to control it in yourself and instruct others under its effects.
One of the first concepts to realize about fear is that it is a normal feeling and everyone has it. Every human, regardless of their background, is born with six core emotions, each with a functional purpose that has evolved over tens of thousands of years. These core emotions, identified by psychologist Paul Ekman in the 1970s, are happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, surprise and fear. Fear is a survival emotion, and since we have lived in caves, we have used it to deal with threats to ourselves and others around us. In today’s world, we rarely face threats in normal, everyday life that require such powerful responses, but fear also plays an important role in achieving and maintaining peak performance.
Yerkes-Dodson’s law, as shown in the stress/anxiety curve diagram, demonstrates the need for stress in order to gain our best performance. Too little, and we become complacent and bored; too much, and we begin to lose performance and risk meltdown. Having and maintaining the correct amount of arousal gives us our best chance of displaying peak performance—think of all the sporting records broken at events such as the Olympics. Similarly, many competitive skydivers say that their best jumps are at world championships.
The Four Fs of Fear
Our body’s standard fear responses can be broken down into four Fs: fight, flight, freeze or face it.
The fight reaction is characterized by high-energy, aggressive engagement. It is the evolutionary survival function that would cause a caveman to charge at a threatening tiger with a club or spear. However, in modern society, this reaction usually isn’t so useful! Someone skydiving like a bull in a china shop may be exhibiting a fight response, but the fight reaction is not always physical. A tandem student lashing out verbally at having to wait for good weather is an example of a verbally aggressive response to fear. The positive side to the fight reaction is that the person is already engaging with fear and just needs to deescalate the energy used.
The flight reaction is characterized by high-energy disengagement and evasion. It’s the evolutionary survival function that would cause the caveman to run from the tiger. Skydiving students who flip out in the plane and scream that they won’t jump (or don’t show up to make their skydiving appointments at all) are exhibiting the flight response. One issue with the flight reaction is the person is not only disengaging but also trying to evade. Instructors will first want to try to de-escalate the student’s reaction and then discuss with the student whether they want to ride the plane down.
Nothing illustrates a freeze reaction better than the phrase “deer in the headlights.” During evolutionary development, freezing was useful for remaining undetected while a prowling predator passed. People often freeze temporarily when experiencing sensory overload, and students commonly react this way in the door. Instructors can help students manage this fear by offering encouragement and reassurance. If their training was sufficient and they start the exit process, the remainder of the jump should flow.
As skydivers, this is the reaction we are all working toward. Facing the fear isn’t ignorance or denial, it is an acceptance that fear exists and doing what causes it anyway, but in a controlled, trained and repeatable manner. This is bravery. However, when bravery is mixed up with stupidity—dealing with fear in an uncontrolled, untrained manner—it won’t be reliably repeatable. The jumper will be relying more on luck rather than skill.
Yale professor Marc Brackett created RULER—a five-step system designed to help people process emotions, including fear—nearly 20 years ago, initially to help schoolchildren develop emotional intelligence. Since then, many organizations—Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, the U.S. Department of Defense, the United Nations and many more—have used it for staff training, team building and leadership development. RULER stands for recognize, understand, label, express and regulate, each one a step that user must learn and develop. No one is born able to deal with fear; our skills are influenced by our backgrounds and our current mental environment and training.
Recognition is the first step of the RULER process. Without recognizing your fear, you won’t be able to process and deal with it in an appropriate manner. Everybody will notice different physiological clues that they’ve entered a fear state. Physical clues that a fear reaction is beginning include excessive fidgeting, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, a general feeling of tension or a fogging of thoughts. The earlier you can spot it, the more time you have to deal with it and the easier it will be.
Understanding the purpose, causes and function of fear and accepting that it is a normal reaction are the keys to progressing to the next step. Understanding the cause of the fear can also help prevent it in the future. Accepting that fear is normal and natural can prevent the situation from spiraling due to meta-emotions (emotions about an emotion), which can cause more problems than the fear itself. It is common to feel embarrassed, ashamed or self-conscious due to the fear reaction. When people try to hide this or are in denial that it is happening, it can reduce the success of the process.
By assigning a label to a feeling, we have a tool to express how we feel, which is the next step in the RULER process. Studies have shown that people with a more accurate emotional vocabulary are better able to deal with fear. Of course, a label will have some level of subjectivity, and everyone will give slightly different labels for the same feeling, but there is clear evidence for the saying, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” The more accurately you can label a feeling, the better you can express it in the next step.
Expressing fear can itself be scary. Depending on the social situation, people may think that sharing their feeling of fear is inappropriate or that others will judge them. However, sharing your fear with others helps give them cues about how best to share the ways they deal with fear. They may even dispense some stories or light entertainment to distract you from yours. And if skydivers normalize talking about fear, students will be more comfortable sharing how nervous they are with their instructors, which allows the instructors to help them. Talking about fear is a call for advice, assistance and empathy and is a good way to get a new group of jump buddies. After all, skydivers don’t bond best through ego, bravado or showing off but by working together to build safe, fun skydives.
This is the big one! Having recognized, understood, labeled and expressed your fear, now how do you regulate it? The following 10 techniques are either based on personal experience or have been proven by research. Some work better on the aircraft and some in the air. Some will work better for you than others; give them a go and see what helps most. There’s no point grumbling and being a cynical critic … at the end of the day, if you are not trying, you are only affecting your own performance!
Ten Tips to Regulate Fear
1. RULE. Just following the steps of recognizing, understanding, labeling and expressing will reduce a lot of fear. Many of the problems people have with fear come from denial or the concern that they need to hide how they feel. Admitting to yourself and others that fear exists lifts a mental workload from your mind.
2. Breathe and Focus. Take a big, deep breath and slowly exhale. If you’ve been holding your breath, this will kick-start the breathing process again. If you’ve been breathing too quickly (hyperventilation), it will regulate that. Once you’ve taken a big breath and exhaled, think clearly about what you need to focus on for the very next step. There is no point focusing on further steps until this one is done. When breathing slowly in the aircraft, try to reduce any unwanted talking or movement, especially when above 10,000 feet. There is less oxygen at higher altitudes, and wasting it on unnecessary tasks increases the chance of hypoxia, which can further fog the brain’s working capacity.
3. Look, Assess, Decide, Act. Following a prescribed decision-making cycle such as this one can help you regulate your fear. For more information on this, check out the article “Think Like a Fighter Pilot” in the December 2019 Skydive the Mag here: wbritishskydiving.org/mag/think-like-a-fighter-pilot/.
4. Basic Admin Skills. Simply having good core administration skills and preparing all your equipment (including jumpsuit and ancillaries) before a jump will prevent a last-minute mad dash to sort everything out. When you are in a hurry, you are in danger. Giving yourself plenty of time to prepare for a jump can prevent cascading anxiety or a stress reaction.
5. Smiling. A 2020 study published in Experimental Psychology shows that smiling can trick the brain into reducing fear. Lead researcher Dr. Marmolejo-Ramos said, “In our research we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state.”
Photo by Laszlo Andacs.
6. Positive Self-Talk. A favorite saying is: “The person who thinks they can and the person who thinks they can’t are usually both right.” In other words, you get to choose which is you! On the ride to altitude, there is simply no point in talking yourself into a bad jump. Use that aircraft time to positively talk to yourself and you’ll increase the likelihood of achieving your aim. A 2017 study led by Professor Jason Moser of Michigan State University shows that talking to yourself in the third person elicits “a relatively effortless form of self-control.” Since using names when speaking to others can help them regulate their emotional states, the study suggests that using your own name can create an internal empathy with yourself.
7. Visualizing. Many skydiving articles have discussed the advantages of visualizing, both on the ground and in the aircraft. Visualizing helps you learn the process and increases the likelihood of flowing smoothly through a jump without brain-locking, overloading or freezing. It can also fill the aircraft time and distract from thinking too much about what can go wrong! Several studies in the 1990s—many based on the earlier findings of Dr. Judd Biasiotto at the University of Chicago—have found that in some cases, those who didn’t practice but visualized every day had a near-similar performances to those who physically practiced.
8. Training/Exposure Therapy. The more we jump, the more we are exposed to fear, and gradually over time the fear diminishes. This is the idea behind exposure therapy, in which people are gradually exposed (in a controlled and risk-managed manner) to the things that frighten them. This explains why drop zones use steady progression systems when teaching skydiving. Experienced teams can also use training/exposure therapy (e.g., attending practice competitions to deal with performance anxiety). Although, as discussed earlier, athletes still need to experience a certain level of stress to display their best performances.
9. Anxiety vs. Action. Action is a great cure for anxiety. It’s easy to sit there and worry about things that you can’t control, but your time is better spent focusing on and practicing what you can control. So, when you start to feel those butterflies in your stomach kicking in, find out what you need to do, practice those things and focus on the variables that you can manage.
10. Other People. Once you are more used to dealing with fear in skydiving, you may recognize when others are dealing with it. Perhaps it’s worth striking up a conversation so they can express their fear, and you can let them know how you regulated yours. Since many people are under the false impression that fear isn’t normal and that few in skydiving feel it, they may really appreciate your input!
Whatever you do, wherever you are and whenever fear strikes, you can regulate it with these skills. When your brain is overloading and your thinking is beginning to fog over, take a deep breath, focus on the training and make the safest choice. And remember, most of the challenge and fun in skydiving comes from overcoming fear rather than its absence!
About the Author
Ally Milne, D-37888, is a British Skydiving Advanced Instructor and Coach who is sponsored by Airtec, Cookie Composites, Larsen & Brusgaard, Performance Designs, United Parachute Technologies and Vertex Suits. You can contact him at email@example.com.