While all these challenges of modern life can be genuinely frightening, none of them can hold a candle to the professional terrors of daredevil Felix Baumgartner. If you don't remember his name, you probably do recall his most jaw-dropping stunt: riding a hot air balloon to the edge of space and jumping out, breaking the sound barrier with his body on the way down (and thankfully landing safely).
If anything went wrong, he could have bled out from his eyeballs or died with his blood boiling from decompression. How did he face such terrors? That's the subject of a fascinating except from the new book The Power of Bad by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister published on Medium recently.
Even daredevils get scared sometimes.
The first interesting fact you learn from the excerpt is that even ex-paratrooper professional daredevils feel terror sometimes. On the eve of the first full test of the special suit he would wear during his five-hour assent, Felix "couldn't sleep. He kept thinking: Five hours. Could he make it that long locked inside the suit and helmet? By dawn he had his answer: No way. At six a.m. he booked a flight home to Austria," report the authors.
Rather than give in to his fear, however, Baumgartner put himself in the hands of a psychologist who taught him a two-part fear-busting strategy based on Cognitive-Behaviorial Therapy. The long excerpt goes into fascinating detail about Baumgartner's surprising struggle, as well as the neuroscience of fear, but the technique itself couldn't be simpler. It boils down to "thinking well and breathing well."
1. Think well
First, Baumgartner's coach suggested he rethink his mental image of the claustrophobic suit that was giving him so much anxiety.
"Instead of regarding the suit as a prison," Baumgartner was instructed, "think of how special it is. It will give you pure oxygen to breathe and keep your blood from boiling in a place that other humans can't go. It puts you in an exclusive club. The smell of the rubber seal is the smell of success. The suit turns you from a nobody into a superhero."
The therapist told Baumgartner to rate his fear on a one-to-ten scale. Every time it inched above a three he was to focus on this "coping statement" until he felt his fear retreat. At first Baumgartner was suspicious that cheery words alone would accomplish much, but with repetition his new mantra often worked. Sometimes however, despite the pep talks, terror overcame him. Then he had to rely on step two.
2. Breath well
"When the positive mantras weren't enough, when the rational reassurances from the prefrontal cortex were no match for the primal responses of the amygdala, Felix concentrated on taking deep breaths. This triggered the parasympathetic nervous system, a counter-response to fight-or-flight," explain the authors.
"Felix would press his hands and feet tightly together, holding his breath for 30 seconds, then taking slow, deep breaths until the anxiety passed and he was ready to proceed to the next step of his routine," they continue.
"As stupid and simple as it sounds, breathing helps a lot," Baumgartner said. "Just getting that good air into your lungs changes everything."
You don't need a space balloon to put this advice to work.
All of which makes for a gripping read, but this is also practical advice for those of us whose most hair-raising moment of the week is a contentious staff meeting. By re-framing your thinking about a scary challenge -- say, by seeing a speech as a chance to serve an audience that's rooting for you rather than waiting to judge you -- and repeating that mantra whenever your anxiety rises, you can beat back much of your fear.
And when that fails, there is always deep breathing to fall back on. A ton of science shows we have near miraculous power to control our emotions if we can control our breath.
Whether you're worried about a job interview or a rocket launch, your primitive lizard brain hijacks your fear in the same way. Therefore, this same, simple two-step process can help your higher faculties get back in control whatever the situation.