Fear is Learned
There are very few fears a person is born with aside from loud noises. Anyone who has a basic background in psychology can recall the controversial testing of B.F. Skinner and “Baby Albert” who Skinner was able to make cry after teaching him to associate a white lab rat with the loud noises the child was inherently afraid of. Eventually “Baby Albert” cried without hearing the loud noise with just the introduction of the white rat in his proximity. Skinner was onto something with his conditioning study and that is why we remember his name to this day. How, you might ask, is a psychology experiment from the early 20th century relevant to the outdoors and survival training? The answer is quite simple. Fear is learned through experiences and we never stop learning from them. Our minds are constantly working and we make associations, consciously and subconsciously, that introduce fear into our decision making process. Fear can motivate and it can freeze us in our tracks. In a survival situation, willingness or the lack thereof is part of readiness and if one isn’t ready, disastrous outcomes can follow.
Think of all the reasons why you have heard people avoid the woods or avoid experiences others would gladly accept. What were the excuses they used? Was it too dark? Were they worried about an animal attacking them? Was the weather too severe? Think of these excuses and ask yourself what fear created them. While fear can’t be responsible for every excuse, I’m fairly and unscientifically certain we can conclude it explains the majority. Fear sprouts from life experience as well as ignorance since we often fear what we don’t understand. Popular culture and movies portraying the wilderness as filled with maneaters haven’t helped people control their fears. Somewhere, along the line, the fearful may have learned to be afraid due to the influence of someone else who was afraid. In this way, fear perpetuates. It exists not only in the woods but in so many other areas of life. How many people do you know who fear success? Failure? Death? Etc.
I understand fear is powerful and know it cuts both ways. Just as easily as fear can freeze us, it can motivate us. As you sleep in a debris hut or emergency shelter, sounds are amplified as your senses compensate for one another. Darkness lets your eyes relax and makes your ears pick up more sounds. I’ve watched as survival students have struggled to adjust to these new and unfamiliar sounds. Some have left their shelters to the “safety” of a nylon backpacking tent. Others have held their knives closer or tucked deeper in their shelter and rode out the night. In reality, the noise they heard was likely nothing more than a squirrel or possum and nothing that would have actually warranted any drastic action. This doesn’t stop us from lighting up our surroundings with our flashlights at the moment we hear a noise we can’t identify. Our minds have a habit of playing tricks on us. How often have you thought you packed something only to realize you didn’t? How many times have you sworn to have seen something sitting on your table where you thought you left it but then find it elsewhere? This is the reason we must take control of our thoughts through logical processes and avoid letting our fears dictate our actions. Fear clouds our judgment and interferes with our mind we already know is not perfect.
Fear is learned and we can learn to fight our fears. We can use approximate successions to come closer and closer to our fears until we are finally ready to face them head on. If this means hiking more and more exposed trails with steep precipices before we try rock climbing, so be it. Admittedly, I am not a fan of heights but that didn’t stop me from hiking to the top of Pulpit Rock in Norway. If our fear is based on negative experiences, we can replace them with positive experiences until we no longer believe what once was. We can educate ourselves to the reality of our fears instead of buying into the media and social hype surrounding them. For example, we can investigate how many actual plane crashes there in a year and the likelihood of getting into a plane crash over the likelihood of dying in an automobile accident. Perhaps this will make a reluctant flier want to travel the skies (even if he/she faces getting thrown off United AIrlines). We can surround ourselves with those responsible enough to introduce us to fears in a controlled setting and help us experience these fears with a mentor or guide along the way. Many survival students have expressed they wanted to take survival classes because they’re “afraid to go in the woods alone”. A good instructor will let you bounce ideas and questions off of them. Select your instructors carefully though as they may be negatively affected by fear too. Perhaps they want you to fail at a skill because they cannot successfully accomplish it themself. What are their motivations? A good instructor will provide solid instruction and serve as a knowledgeable coach to develop skills and understanding. If your training is good, you’ll never walk alone. You’ll realize the more the instructor teaches you, the more you learn and the less you fear.
When people take control of their fear, they generally replace it with respect. Those who are afraid of the water but learn to swim with sharks in a shark cage likely don’t disregard a shark’s ability once they see it feed. After that they should, more than ever, respect the shark’s ability instead of fear it. The same is true for the outdoors. Plenty of outdoorsmen learn to make fire by friction but still rely on a BIC lighter or other method to fight off that fear of the cold. Cold is respected and prepared for instead of disrespected and disregarded. If fear teaches us to be ready, is it necessarily bad? To paraphrase a line from the quirky Nicolas Cage character in “The Rock”, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, the moment you disrespect this, it kills you. That line is applicable on so many levels. You can face a threat with better understanding if you learn more about it but at no time should you ever disrespect it. For some threats, you don’t get a second chance to experience it if something goes wrong. Ultimately, your best option is to educate yourself and possibly re-educate yourself in the “why” you fear, not just the “what”.