Acquired Fear… And Getting Rid Of It

They don’t think about falling… they don’t care about their edges… they have no interest in making turns… and they have no taste for making pizza out of their french fries.

I’m talking about the young kids I see every day at the Rocky Mountain ski resort where I work.

These kids tuck and go, ski tips pointed straight down the hill… falling doesn’t concern them. The only aspect of gravity that they care about is their acceleration down the hill. “How fast can gravity pull me down this slick slope?”

It’s incredible to watch these kids fly, to glide past other mountain guests, with no effort and no concern.

Even more incredible is seeing how kids just a few years older perform.

They too heavily on their edges and fall. They make slow, awkward turns. And their skis seems to constantly be in the pizza conformation, the v-shape used to slow and stop a skier.

Why is there such a difference?

My theory is this: the older kids have taken more falls.

They know how falling feels (generally not good). And they know that they have taken more falls when moving faster.

This is an acquired fear.

Never mind that as these kids get older, they have developed physically. This means more strength and more control. And as they have accumulated more hours of practice, they have further developed their skills. It makes sense that they could expect fewer falls, doesn’t it?

But they can’t get past that acquired fear. They have learned to associate a conditioned stimulus—going fast—with a fearsome, unconditioned stimulus—the pain (physical and mental) of falling.

It’s understandable to be fearsome of pain. But does it make sense to associate pain with speed when you are capable of avoiding falls at speed?

For the past few weeks I’ve been standing outside my lift shack and thinking, “It’s a shame these kids can’t dissociate speed from pain… that they can’t inhibit their acquired fear.”

But one day I accidentally turned the lens on myself…

It turns out I have some acquired fears of my own. In fact, it’s probably a safe assumption that we all have acquired fears… fears that aren’t logical.

So what is the best course of action when we recognize these fears? Well, there has actually been some research done on this… and the conclusion isn’t the easiest to hear.

The best way to overcome these acquired fears is to experience the conditioned stimulus (going fast in the case of the young skiers) without experiencing the fearsome, unconditioned stimulus (the pain of falling).

We must present ourselves with the conditioned stimulus without experiencing the unconditioned stimulus until we dissociate the two.

For the older kids, this means skiing fast—without falling—until they realize that going fast doesn’t necessarily mean they will fall.

Simple enough, right?

Sure… apart from that one hitch: facing the fear for the first time.

This is definitely the hardest part… I know… I’ve been working on it. But just remember that every time you encounter the conditioned stimulus, it becomes easier to confront… and science says, eventually, there won’t be a confrontation, just a new, fearless, association.

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