Novice thrill seekers may point to the ups and downs of the stock market, but the true aficionado knows that for all-out anxiety-provoking, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping risk, nothing beats starting your own business. So maybe more entrepreneurs could use some training in "Coaster Phobics," a behavior-modification program designed for Universal Studios' theme parks by Michael Otto, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

"The ultimate goal is to get to a point where you've tamed your anxiety enough to have learned to love the ride," says Otto. His anxiety-taming tips:

  • Realize that you're going to be exposed to unfamiliar sights and sounds. "For many people the fear of enduring their own anxiety is even more terrifying than the actual experience," Otto says. By understanding how you can control most of the sensations you'll encounter--by reinterpreting the experience as neutral instead of dangerous--you can greatly reduce the level of anxiety.
  • Differentiate between the illusion of danger and actual danger. The best way to control anxiety is to separate your fear from the actual probability of a negative outcome. "You can train yourself to focus on what might logically happen and not on what you're afraid might happen," he says.
  • Understand the real degrees of risk. When we're anxious, "we tend to think in huge, global fear-inducing terms," says Otto. "Instead of believing that things will be catastrophic, realize that there will be anxiety-producing moments but that most of them will be very manageable."
  • Get comfortable with the highs and lows. Just as he would with roller-coaster riders, Otto encourages entrepreneurs to sit down with pencil and paper and map out how they think the experience might play out. By charting the potential ups and downs, one can anticipate and deflate anxiety-producing scenarios.

In very extreme cases, Otto resorts to "scream training," assorted techniques for breathing steadily while venting fear. That probably would also be a valuable skill for many entrepreneurs.

Published on: Sep 1, 1999