Fight or Flight: Overcoming Fear

FEAR: It’s one of the biggest hurdles we encounter every day as flying trapeze instructors and as flyers ourselves. Luckily, I am in a unique position to help people manage and overcome their fear while doing flying trapeze. If you haven’t met me yet, my name is Keira and I am a visiting flying trapeze instructor and also a psychologist with a Ph.D. in Behavior Analysis. I actually wrote my dissertation on anxiety, so I’d like to think I am at a distinct advantage when it comes to coaching people who are fearful on the flying trapeze. In this blog, I’d like to discuss a bit about what fear is, where it comes from, and some tips for overcoming fear on the flying trapeze whether it’s your first class or you are a regular flyer.

First of all, let’s talk about what fear is and why it is such a prevalent problem on flying trapeze. Being afraid is actually a very natural, biological response to a threat or perceived threat. We often talk about the “fight or flight” response when people are fearful, which basically means that when we encounter a stimulus in our environment that is threatening, the body responds physically by releasing hormones (such as adrenaline) to prepare our bodies to either escape from the threatening stimulus or fight it. This is a completely natural, reflexive, and healthy response to potentially dangerous stimuli.

The biggest trigger for fear in flying trapeze is height. Standing on a small, wobbly platform high above the ground is a stimulus that should cause fear in any normal person who does not routinely engage in this behavior. In addition, encountering something new that we have never experienced (and have no reference point for how it will feel) is also fear-provoking for most people.  For example, many people tell me before their first turn on the trapeze that they are afraid when they jump off it will feel like a rollercoaster where you get that dropping sensation in your belly (in reality you won’t actually feel that way). When dealing with a scary situation, is important to realize what we are actually fearful of. Usually it is not the stimulus itself, rather the consequences associated with the stimulus that scares us. For example, we are not actually afraid of being up high on the platform, we are afraid of falling off it and getting hurt. So, the height in-and-of itself is not the scary thing, the scary thing is the potential for injury. 

Typically, fear manifests as both biological responses and behavioral responses. Biological responses include things like sweaty palms, shaking or trembling, increased heart rate, nausea, and pale or flushed skin. Behavioral responses are things like freezing or inability to move, increased rate of speech (sometimes referred to as “verbal diarrhea”), moving quickly or very slowly, and difficulty focusing or following instructions. Again, these are all completely normal responses to fear!

So now that we understand what fear is and how it affects our bodies a little better, we can better understand how to overcome fear. Remember, it is totally normal to be afraid when doing flying trapeze- especially on your first few tries. Here are some tips on how you can overcome these feelings and still enjoy your flight!

Top tips for overcoming fear
  1. Recognize how you are feeling and remember that it is completely normal and expected. Also remember that fear and excitement, although opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, present in many of the same ways (e.g., feeling shaky, butterflies in the stomach, heart racing, increased rate of speech, fast movements). Try to assess whether you are just feeling scared or maybe you are feeling excitement as well. Either way, neither of these emotions or responses are bad- they are natural parts of how the human body works! Try to take it all in, realize how incredible the human body is and enjoy the fact that you are doing an activity that allows you to experience these emotions!
  2. Take a second to do a reality check. Remember, what you are probably actually afraid of is falling and getting hurt. The chance of this happening in your trapeze class is highly unlikely. Remind yourself that you are going to be attached to safety lines the entire time, with a trained professional holding the other end, and you will be landing in a big, soft net. In reality, you are in much more danger crossing the busy streets of London then you will ever be in on the flying trapeze. Try to remind yourself that you are in good hands!
  3. Try to engage in responses that will help counter the biological responses that are happening to your body. Take slow, deep breaths, shake out your arms and legs, put chalk on your palms, and take a drink of cold water. Try to relax as much as you can before you climb the ladder, then again before you grab the bar. The most important thing you can do is breathe!
  4. Try not to think about being scared or what you are scared of. Instead focus your thoughts elsewhere. A favorite distraction of mine is singing a favorite song either out loud or in my head, especially if it’s a song I have to think about to remember the lyrics. You can also try counting backwards by 3s from 200. Do it out loud to help you focus.
  5. Take one small step at a time and be proud of each small step forward you make. Make your way up the ladder one rung at a time and realize that each rung you climb is an accomplishment. Once you reach the top focus on one small movement at a time, and again be proud of each move you make toward grabbing the trapeze bar. Remember, many people are not even brave enough to make the first step toward climbing the ladder!
  6. Try to focus on what your instructor is telling you. Being quiet and listening to instructions is one of the most helpful things when taking your first turn on the trapeze. Remember your instructors are all very knowledgeable and are there to guide you safely through your flight. We all remember our first swings on the trapeze and how it feels to be scared and we can help you fight through that. Trust us when we say that after you make your first jump off the platform, the feeling of flying will be worth it and the fear will disappear!

Remember, fear is a normal and healthy response and it will go away as soon as you are flying through the air! For most people, once they get their first turn out of the way, it’s much less scary and they are able to enjoy the flight!

Keira Moore