I spent 22 years in the Army and in that time I deployed on several overseas operations, all in hostile environments and all involved being placed in stressfull, high pressure environments. However in 2004 I had the crazy idea of attending a parachute course and in April of that year I made my first parachute descent. Despite my previous experiences, it was the most frightening and stressful position I have ever been put in! Now a parachute instructor, I use that experience to train students. I have an understanding of how our mind will work when placed into an environment or situation that we believe to be out of our control, how our minds will cope and ultimately affect how we will behave in a high pressure, stressful situation and how best to cope with that fear.
Although this article focuses mainly on coping with fear and stress from a skydiving perspective, they are exactly the same feelings you may have to deal with in a survival situation.
Skydiving is a so-called ‘dangerous’ sport, yet many will come to the sport precisely in order to meet that personal challenge of fear. In the early stages the competition is mainly against ourselves and our natural survival instincts. Before examining how to overcome fear we should first try to understand it better, in both the causes and the effects. If approached with the right attitude, fear can be used to produce positive results. Fear tends to be felt in three different ways:
Level 1: The butterflies – anticipation, excitement (enjoyable)
Level 2: Fight or flight – High apprehension, nervous agitation (challenging)
Level 3: Frozen – Terror, all consuming eg. panic attacks and catatonia (debilitating)
These are not sharply defined, but are more like shades of grey with level 3 being the darkest.
Level 1: The butterflies
I have met people who say that they don’t feel any fear when jumping. I disagree with this perception! What they probably mean is that they only experience level 1 fear. For non skydiving people to reach this same level, they only have to ride a big rollercoaster’s or go to watch a horror film. This lower level is achieved because of the relative safety of the environment and the certainty of a ‘happy ending’ outcome. You will sit back and enjoy the thrill of the ride. This is usually the nervous anticipation and excitement part of jumping, in the survival situation this could be the ‘what happens now, what am I going to do, what will happen in the future’ stage.
Level 2: Fight or flight
Clearly a skydive is a very different situation. The speed and noise creates a much more hostile environment and, on top of that, we now have to actively participate in our own outcome. The extreme nature of skydiving will throw the majority of people straight into level 2 fear. From the survival perspective this is the level where you will decide either to accept the situation you are in, deal with and be proactive about staying alive and getting rescued or curl up in a ball and hope for the best. Although I would like to add at this point that ‘hope’ is not a plan.
This is the level we will concentrate on as it is at this level where we can modify our behaviour to bring us down closer to level 1.
Level 3: Frozen
Level 3 belongs principally to those who are too scared even to contemplate leaping out of perfectly good aircraft. A small number of those who do come to skydive will experience this by ‘freezing’ in the door or bottling out completely. It’s at this stage that people have been seen sitting amongst the chaos and debris of an earthquake in total disbelief and unable to deal with the situation. Some may even display inappropriate behaviour, collecting flowers instead of helping those injured in the earthquake.
Fight or flight
What are the full implications of being in ‘fight or flight’ mode? Fight or flight hits us at the deepest level. It is a primal instinct for basic physical survival and as such it has a profound effect on our brain chemistry, our sensory abilities and our perception. As our heart rate increases, pumping adrenaline and noradrenalin around our systems, we feel it everywhere and nobody is immune to this effect.
How we manage it determines our reactions and developing a strong mental attitude is essential when trying to counteract the body’s powerful defence mechanisms. Instinctive actions don’t always work in our best interests.
It is ironic that the things our bodies will do to keep us safe are precisely the things that can compromise safety in a skydive. To override our instincts we need to concentrate on mental strategies and learn how to utilise this altered brain state in positive ways. The physical effect of ‘fight or flight’ makes our bodies do everything they can to distract us from the right actions. As the heart pumps harder, our breathing changes as well, we take rapid, shallow breaths, or even hold our breath completely. It has not been unheard of for a student parachutist to stop breathing when in the door seconds from exit! Tension is then created and a high level of preparedness for action when, in fact, we should be trying to be more relaxed.
The way we breathe is the key to physical and emotional relaxation. That inner conflict between the body’s natural survival instincts and right, safe action is strongly at work. Controlled, regular breathing patterns have been proven to alleviate pain, tension and stress in many situations.
In the example of watching a horror movie, we know it isn’t real and we quite rightly can expect no consequence from watching it. Real life is less predictable. The drive to the local supermarket, like many other day-to-day activities, can have tragic results. It’s a sad fact that the media, family and friends will turn their attention to one single aspect of skydiving; the boring reality is that it’s more likely to have a fatal accident on the way to a dropzone than actually on it. Fearful thinking is based on projection of the potential outcome of events. Who can blame us if, in unguarded moments, our minds automatically lock on to the least likely potential outcome . When this thinking combines with our primal need for survival, we create a vicious circle.
Thinking it out
It is a good idea to address physical symptoms first. Techniques learned and used here are involved in mental preparation. Regular practice of any of the established ‘controlled breathing’ exercises such as meditation or self-hypnosis; these exercises will make you consciously aware of your own ‘relaxed’ breathing pattern. If you feel your breathing change you can ‘remind’ yourself to breathe properly. This should enable you to become more physically relaxed and able to focus clearly. With skydiving, leaving the plane is a moment of the highest intensity; heart rates of 200 beats per minute have been recorded. If you find yourself lost in the deepest part of the forest, lost and alone, have a’ condor’ moment, (if you are old enough to remember the advert!). Chill out, relax and think about what needs to be done in order to improve your situation. There are no right or wrong answers, just consequences to your actions.
By consciously using our minds to regulate our breathing you can change how we feel. Carry that forwards and apply the same technique to the way we think. It is commonly said that 75 per cent of a skydive takes place on the ground. Mental preparation is crucial for all levels of experience, but especially important for the novice who is still dealing with ‘the fear’. Training, knowledge and practice will help with preparation. Having total belief that you can do it means you are already winning the battle. The repetition of sequences of events and/or actions when training for a jump develops muscle memory and consciously familiarises the individual with the skydive which results in the individual trusting the training, visualising the jump and believing their abilities. This, in itself helps to remove some of the tension but it is also an opportunity to practise relaxation strategies. By building an awareness of your breathing and state of relaxation at this early stage it makes thing easier in the air when making the skydive. Rather than thinking about what might happen, focus on what you need to do and what you want to happen. Remember, you are in complete control; everything you do is going to have an effect. Have a fully conscious attitude to your physical relaxation and your mental preparation. If you let your mind wander it will invariably drift towards that unsettling area of projection.
Use your fear
Not many people address the benefits of using fear but here we will, as it is another way to combat its impact. So long as you stay aware of the dangers you will not fall victim to avoidable accidents. Be scared, but let it prompt you into positive action, use fear to make you practice. The experienced skydiver will rarely pass level 1 fear, however that fear of having a malfunctioning canopy ensures that emergency drills and belief in the ability to carry them out correctly ensures that we know we will survive if it came down to it. If the canopy malfunctions that is the time when those troublesome survival instincts that were giving us problems before, turn back in our favour; as long as we know where the emergency handles are they will be used instinctively!
A skydive and a survival situation are both very similar. They are high stress environments that are dangerous. Accept that you are in a dangerous place and it will trigger fear of some description but you must acknowledge, embrace and use that fear. Train, pursue knowledge, cultivate your skills through practice and this will give you confidence in yourself. In turn you can then make sound judgements and control your emotions, including fear!
“Acknowledge and embrace fear. Let it help you to stay safe without letting it interfere with you.”
If you fancy experiencing a parachute induced, high stress based survival experience for yourself, check out this ‘High Stress Survival Course‘.