Dabbling in extreme sports made me realise that fear is an essential tool for the journey of personal development. Thanks to Weekly Challenge #18, white water rafting and paragliding are two thrilling new experiences I can tick off my list, but they made me realise that most of us are hooked on a fast food version of fear rather than the real thing.

Fear factory

For my extreme sports week I tried White Water Rafting first, and as I clambered breathlessly into the raft and headed off to face the rapids, I realised I’d thrust myself into an artificial situation where fear was guaranteed, its source was obvious and success merely rode on listening to the guide and hanging on tight. I was essentially gorging myself on a fear ‘experience’ rather than genuinely stepping outside my comfort zone and trying something truly new, terrifying and ultimately nourishing. As I gripped the paddle, clung on for dear life and whooped like an idiot, I realised I’d ordered a portion of fast food fear.

David Dodd facing fears white water rafting

Look how fear made my muscles bulge…but it won’t last…

A couple of days later I headed up into the Colombian hills for my first ever paragliding session and had the same feeling yet again. Exhilaration and novelty, but the vacuum quickly returned. As the dust settled on my Extreme Sports Weekly Challenge I was left questioning whether most of us spend too much time sampling artificial, fear-inducing pursuits, using them as yet another device to escape the essential business of exploring and understanding the real life fears and anxieties that make us all the fascinating people that we are.

Facing fears paragliding

Feeling the wind beneath my (bare) feet while paragliding in Colombia

Horror movies

We’ve always needed cheap thrills, and clever capitalists keep presenting expensive new ways to deliver them: consider that Hollywood – a reliable mirror to the times in which we live – churns out more gory, porny highly-profitable horror movies (and tied-in video games) every year, as this nice tdylf.com blog piece discusses, and it does so because we keep going to the box office and buying our ticket to the artificial horror show. We need fear in our lives, that much is clear, and for some of us, the spooks of a good horror movie feel like the perfect outlet.

When we’re not watching horror movies, we’re making them ourselves! One of the fastest-selling consumer video cameras on the market right now is the Go Pro. It’s a dinky, indestructible bit of kit used mainly for recording amateur extreme sports, and it is selling like hot cakes. Forbes even named Go Pro ‘The World’s Hottest Camera Company’ recently. No longer are extreme pursuits the exclusive territory of experienced thrill-seekers, many more of us want a piece of the action…as long as it guarantees us a buzz (which we can later share on Facebook). Increasingly, we actively seek out pre-packaged fear, and the market has evolved to the point of offering us tools to record and share the action. But if these are your only attachments to darker, more uncomfortable emotions,  you may be living on an unbalanced fear diet.

Why have fast food when you can have the real thing?

How did it come to this? Are our lives becoming so anodyne that we search for fear in ever safer, more artificial arenas? Now that we’ve evolved beyond struggling and facing death on a regular basis, must we feed our fear quota like everything else in our lives, with an addictive-yet-under-nourishing fast food derivative instead of the real thing?

Spending a week trying extreme sports out here in Colombia showed me more clearly than I’ve ever seen before that we need to spend a bit less time (and money) seeking out artificial, pre-packaged fast-food-fear, and face a few of our own REAL fears instead.

I’m not saying that consuming fear in a falsified form is wrong (it’s merely feeding a natural impulse after all), but I do believe that sampling artificial anxieties should be part of a balanced fear diet. We should all be confronting the unknown and stepping outside our comfort zones in a natural way, on a regular basis as well as enjoying our desired brand of pre-packed petrifaction!

Baby steps outside your comfort zone

I know how rewarding facing fears can be, because I’ve spent the last few months doing it on a regular basis as part of my new routine. When I decided to quit my job and home to spend every single week traveling and trying something new for an entire year, I could easily have spent 12 months thrill-seeking, but I decided to use my Weekly Challenges to face my fears, anxieties and deep-seated prejudices instead.

The process can be an ugly business at times, but an eminently positive side-effect is that I feel little need for fast food fear any more, because the lifestyle I have chosen determines that I naturally have a new thing to be scared of every week. This habit, of confronting our own fears through pushing our boundaries and trying new pursuits, is far more nourishing for me than any extreme sports ‘experience’ could ever be.

I’m not saying cancel the annual ski trip, nor am I bashing extreme sports (nor horror movies, violent video games or other similar pursuits), I just think that a more balanced diet of fear would make us all much happier. So the next time you find yourself indulging in some form of voluntary anxiety-inducing experience or other, pledge to confront a real, personal fear as well. It might be as simple as calling someone you really don’t want to (but really should) speak to, confronting financial problems or quitting a habit you dislike. Whatever it is, you’ll still get a kick from confronting the fear of the unknown, before coming out the other side with a happier, more nourished smile on your face.