Chronicles of an Educator

An outdoor instructor's guide to managing people with fear

24th Feb 2020
When I lead groups in the outdoors, there is e̶v̶e̶r̶y̶ ̶n̶o̶w̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶n̶ always someone who shows up with some sort of fear. That's when I get excited! Not because I'm a psycho. But because I have been through that and I know how it feels.
Believe Me!
I am the boy who would not dare to enter the swimming pool after watching the movie jaws . The boy who would run away from a free horse-riding session because of rumours of the horse being wild. The boy who would climb up the one storey high storeroom to pluck tamarin fruit but would refuse to go down the shaky ladder. The boy who got an expensive ticket to any ride at an amusement park and decided to hop on a merry go round pony. I had many fears!

But fast forward a few years, the pictures below tell a different story.
Me hanging on to the strut of a small Cessna plane at 10000ft high
Me, dangling off an 8.9mm rope, 90m off the ground
Me, jumping off a moving plane at 12000ft
As you can see, I have learnt to cope with and control my fear. Today, as an educator, I find it very fulfilling to help others do the same. I have condensed what I have learnt in a seven step intervention method. But first, let's have an understanding of how fear is formed.
How is fear formed?
Image Credit how stuff works
Fear is activated when our amygdala picks up some stimulus from the environment which activates our fight or flight approach for survival purposes. Unfortunately, fear can also be conditioned into somebody. Everybody can be made to be afraid of something/someone with the right stimulus.

In the 1920s, there was a little child who loved to play with white rats. American psychologist John Watson and his team started to create a terrifying loud noise behind the boy whenever he saw a white rat. The initial love for the white rats quickly turned into fear.

Other ways to condition fear are through bad experiences (own or others, e.g getting bitten by a dog or witnessing somebody getting bitten by a dog), hearing stories/accounts of misfortune events or through suspense and sudden noise (think horror movies).

While we do not wish to condition new fear into anyone, we also want to help people manage their own fear. For that, it is important to identify what 'fear zone' the person is in. There are four distinct fear zones. The dormant, hesitant, childhood and panic fear zone.
The dormant fear
Dormant fear is a fear that has yet to be activated. It is the easiest to deal with. Simply do not wake it up! As simple as it sounds, it is hard in practice. Stop exaggerating the dangers within an activity! We all know of relatives who love to share 'horror stories/myths' to the younger ones. At a young age, kids cannot discern fiction from reality. This is why some movies(like Jaws) have lasting psychological impact on some people.
The hesitant fear
The hesitant fear resides in those who are not too sure whether they are afraid or not. They prefer to take a more conservative approach. Observe first. When they see that their peers go through the activity easily, it removes their initial uncertainty. This is why it is important that the first few demonstrations are positive and exhibit confidence.

If despite that, the uncertainty suddenly kicks back, distracting the mind is a possible solution. Much like how a nurse distracts a patient while doing an injection, the experienced instructor talks about unrelated topics.

I was dispatching a participant from the top of an abseil tower. Sheila was ready to descend. Suddenly, I could see her hesitating.

I immediately said:

"When you go down, can you please pass this message to your friend on my behalf?"

She got distracted by something of bigger purpose (helping me), forgot about her fear and went down smoothly.
The childhood fear
Those with childhood fear will try to avoid the activity altogether
Those having childhood fear are the ones hiding away from the activity. Sometimes, even lying about having completed the activity. They are the ones that need more deliberate care.

We deal with them much the same way as we deal with the hesitant fear. We do that until we reach a roadblock. A roadblock happens when the participant can no longer be distracted and is instead focusing on his/her fear.

When that happens, it is very important to emotionally connect with the participant and follow the seven steps intervention method (described below).
The panic fear
Panic fear is usually categorised by irrational thoughts, loss of focus and possible emotional breakdown
Panic fear is when a person loses all sense of logic. It is usually triggered when the person is placed deep into an environment that is sending too much stimulus, activating the flight response.

The most urgent step is to immediately remove the person from that environment. It could be as simple as moving the person one step back. Then, allow the person to gain back his/her composure.

If the person is feeling comfortable to try again, go to the seven step intervention method (see below). Else, close up the experience focusing on the positive behaviours displayed.
The seven step intervention method
1. Acknowledge the fear
Never say those few words " Don't be afraid, it's not scary!" How often have I heard people say those words!

Please shut up!! It is a freaking scary moment for the person. The fear might not be rational, but it sure feels real to the person. Telling the person that it is not scary just shows a lack of empathy.

Instead, start with:

"Are you feeling scared?... It's ok. It is normal to be scared. It is a feeling that we can't control. What we can control though, is how we react."

2. Create a connection

One of the ways to have a a deeper connection is by sharing some of your personal challenges, to show that you understand what the person is going through. Adding that to step 3 below anchors the idea that you are there to help.
3. Completing the activity is NOT important

This is critical. I remember that my swimming coach told me to just sit down by the deep pool and dangle my foot into the water. I feared that he would push me in. I was always scared. Re iterate and reassure the participants that completing the activity is not important to you. What is important is that they walk away having managed their fear slightly.
4. Provide the opportunity for participants to overcome their fear
People want to overcome their fear
Share that you will be there for support. That you genuinely want to help them overcome that fear. I usually share this piece with them:
"If you want to try to overcome your fear, this is the time. I have put all the safety measures in place. Nothing will happen to you and I can remove you from the activity whenever you feel uncomfortable. You will not get that kind of support the next time. Take this opportunity."
5. Help them visualise success

When they are ready, guide them in visualising how it will look like and feel like when they face their fear. They could use past instances, where they managed to control their fear, as a memory to visualise. Visualisation is everything.

"Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve." - Napoleon Hill
6. Let them embrace the fear

When they decide to get into the activity and you can see that they are in control of their fear (not panicking), you can get them to stay in the moment longer. During abseiling, I usually lock the rope and guide the participants to feel relaxed in that 'scary environment'. Let them appreciate and remember this feeling of being in control of their emotions.

7. Close up the experience

Closing up is critical. The steps involved are:

a) Acknowledge the participants' effort in overcoming their fear

b) Get them to verbalise what they went through and how to apply the learning in the future

c) Get the participants to think about a plan to overcome their fear completely.
Is that it?
Are the knowledge of the four fear zones (dormant, hesitant, childhood or panic) and the seven steps intervention method the holy grail of fear intervention? No! We are dealing with human beings here. One thing that is true about relationship among humans is that it's always dynamic. There is no one size fits all solution when interacting with someone facing his/her fear.

It only means that we have to be highly observant and flexible in our approach. Our senses need to pick up nuances in a person's body posture, gaze, breathing, tonality, words and movement to tell which zone the person is in. At the same time, we need to be flexible enough to move to, or skip any steps.

Do you have other tips that have worked for you? Please do share them in the comments below.
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