Forget two weeks lounging by a palm-fringed pool. After a nerve-jangling attempt at jungle surfing in Queensland, writer Stefanie Bisping makes the case for facing your fears on holiday – just no-one mention the snakes…
Hesitantly, I stood on a small wooden platform in the crown of a tall tree. A gorge opened up in front of me and on the opposite side I saw another tree. A sign claimed it was just 30 metres away, but that seemed a bit of an understatement.
Anyway, my feet were supposed to land on this tree when I, hanging from a harness on ropes, was hovering over this rather deep ravine. Luckily I only suffer a mild fear of heights and it could hardly be called a phobia.
The solid steel cable that held me over the abyss, the harness that had me in its grip, and the helmet on my head, made me feel so secure that the height soon became the least of my problems. Because I was in the tropical rainforest of northern Queensland, an area whose charms also attract reptiles. More specifically, snakes.
At first, I pushed this thought to the back of my mind. “Sometimes a python suns itself on that platform,” said one of the staff who helped set up our group for ziplining. I immediately broke out in a sweat. In vain, I told myself that at most the first of our group would wake a dozing snake. Just the thought of landing near a rolled-up reptile was enough to make me snap.
The freeze effect of fear
In reality there are many fears that plague people and make their imagination run wild. This does not include perfectly reasonable concerns that protect us from various dangers and prevent most of us from taking the most reckless risks.
Those who go through life fearlessly presumably have more accidents than those who are more cautious; it is not for nothing that fear is one of the instincts supporting human survival. But fear – of heights, of open spaces, of crowds, of flying – can be disproportionate and hold people back.
It is comforting to know that anxiety disorders are treatable. What is more disconcerting is how. Because most therapists agree that fear can be conquered by experience – simply by exposing oneself to the seemingly threatening situation in order to confront the cause of the angst.
Already 60 years ago, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl – who not only survived a concentration camp, but also later regularly scaled Alpine peaks and earned his pilot’s licence at the age of 67 – recommended facing your fears.
“Must one put up with everything? Can’t one be stronger than fear?” he asked and immediately provided the answer. No you don’t have to. And this doesn’t just apply to anxiety disorders but also to fears that hinder us in everyday life, rather than just warning us of dangers.
Confrontation as cure
To this day, hardly any expert has deviated from Frankl’s maxim; confronting fear is still considered the best way out. But this strategy requires courage. It seemed unthinkable to me on my Australian tree to consciously go anywhere near a snake.
Back at home, the risk of a chance encounter was low enough to steer clear of going the hard way – desensitisation through confrontation. Regardless, I didn’t want to let the critter spoil my Australia trip.
It was clear that going back to the ground via the stairs wasn’t an option. I knew that everyone in our group would accept my decision not to fly through the rainforest but I was still itching to do it. The first three had already set off over the gorge and their howls of joy would have forced any snake with an ounce of self-respect to flee.
I took a deep breath, pushed myself off and darted off after them. It was fantastic – I felt so secure in the harness that the abyss didn’t bother me. Instead I enjoyed the feeling of flying through the forest. Already the end appeared in front of me.
The cable ran upwards and slowed down my speed, giving me enough time to frantically scan the branches and the platform. But I was alone. No animal could be seen.
Laughter lets you free
In addition to confrontation, laughter also helps conquer fear. Barbara Wild, a neurologist, psychiatrist and chief physician of the Fliedner Klinik in Stuttgart, relies on the liberating power of laughter in her work. It is an important ally against fear, she says.
Her book, Humour in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, describes the positive effects of laughter. In her clinic, patients with anxiety disorders are offered a combination of fear confrontation and specialised “humour training”.
For laughter means instant relaxation and can prove very liberating in emotionally-stimulating situations. Back in my Australian treetops, I had no idea of the healing power of humour.
The python, whose sunbathing I would have disturbed, would have had to make a very good joke to not make me panic. Luckily it didn’t happen. Instead, I felt euphoric for overcoming my fear, and wore a broad and happy smile on my face.
The road to self-confidence
Back on the ground, I wouldn’t have missed the experience. True, I hadn’t shaken off my phobia. But that wasn’t the point; I didn’t want to sacrifice my experience of flying almost silently through the rainforest to my irrational fear of reptiles. To have overcome fear just for that moment gave me a sense of elation.
At the same time, jungle surfing showed me that creatures weren’t lurking everywhere, ready to grab me if I dropped my guard, and that provided a useful insight for the future.
And I realised something else: I wouldn’t have had this experience if I’d been in a deckchair on the beach. Jungle-surfing remains in my memory as a highlight of the trip. In fact, a holiday is a great opportunity to deal with your own fears – even if you simply want to relax.
You shouldn’t deal with real phobias this way; those who have strong phobias should always seek specialist help. But overcoming light discomfort or mild fears opens up new horizons and provides a sense of personal achievement. Far from the everyday, most people are ready to venture into unknown waters and try something new.
In addition, the sense of security of being in a travel group, where the chemistry is right and people laugh a lot, can motivate an individual to go that step further than they’d normally risk.
A souvenir that lasts
On holiday, you are more relaxed and open-minded. This applies to not only meeting other people, but also to new adventures and experiences, or sports. Anyone who hasn’t dived before and dares to go underwater in a tropical sea with heavy equipment for the first time will not forget that day any time soon. It could even be the start of a lifelong passion.
It works the same with other experiences that combine the appeal of the new with positive nervousness. It could be a dog sled ride in Lapland, that giddy sensation of surfing for the first time or abseiling down Table Mountain. For those who are insecure, perhaps even afraid, this kind of exposure can only be a positive thing as you come face-to-face with the challenge.
That’s not to say you should take risks that puts you or others in danger. Instead, it’s about moving your own limits back a little. The payoff is at first elation and, further down the line, greater self-confidence. And that’s a souvenir that’s truly priceless back home.
Images: Flash Pack, Shutterstock, Perry Grone on Unsplash