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Tap that fear factor

Fear is universal. It's just that those who push the envelope learn how to use it to their advantage

travel Updated: Jul 25, 2010 11:00 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent

If one man can do it, another
should be just as able. That's the
theory. The fact, however, is that
those who push the limits, especially
in extreme sports, seem to
have an altogether different take on
fear to the layman, they appear to
be quite fearless given that they leap
off cliffs, jump from planes and otherwise
seem to redefine the comfort
zone that most of us live our lives
cocooned in.

Living with fear
India's four-time Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan rides a sled that has him hurtling down an icy track at speeds in excess of 150kph while lying supine just inches from the ice. The speed keeps increasing as most luge tracks drop an average of 150 m over a length of 1.5 km. By the end of the run his world is one big blur.

"It's not that one does not feel afraid. It's just that by repeatedly experiencing the same thing over and over, the adrenaline goes down while the mind comes to grips with the actual threat factor. Then, each time, the fear stays but it seems to just heighten the senses which allows you to push yourself to another level," says Keshavan.

William Trubridge holds the world record for the longest free dive that had him plunge 95m deep in the Atlantic Ocean off the Bahamas, without fins or an air tank. It's a scary thing to do since, at that point, the amount of pressure on the human body is 10 times the normal. He does not deny being scared, but then he has also learnt how to use this powerful emotion as a tool in his pursuit of the deeps.

"Fear can be used as a positive tool, as it makes you prudent and methodical. When we become over-confident then we often allow greater risks."

Trubridge's state of fear, however, also does not come in the way of his dives: " It is important not to let it affect the state of relaxation before or during a deep dive. Any anxiety or stress will increase the heart rate and burn oxygen faster, cutting into your breath hold time."

Redefining fear
Most people hesitate before jumping off a bridge for a bungee. Others baulk at the very thought of going out of an airplane to experience the exhilaration of skydiving. And hardly anyone picks the dangers of basejumping that introduces the unpredictable thermal and airflow fluctuations that crop around solid structures. Now, imagine jumping off a 6,604 m mountain.

It's been done. Heather Swan and Glenn Singleman hold the world record for the highest basejump off Mt Meru in the Garhwal Himalaya. The couple have no qualms in accepting that they are afraid each time they step out from that high.

"Yes, we do experience fear, the fear of heights is a primeval instinct. But all the adventure training we have done in the past years has helped build the strength of our rational mind, and inhibit our fear system (flight, fright and freeze)," they told HT in an email interaction.

Regular exposure has trained their minds: "We underwent tests at the Brain Development Institute at Westmead Hospital in Sydney to understand our fear system. We found that our base level of fear is half that of the general population."

Singleman says that it is the fear factor that puts a stop to many a leap -- both physical and of the mind. "Knowledge, experience and reason work together to reduce fear. Fear leads you to think things are impossible, it's a paradigm, a system of thinking that controls what we do. The more we get in control of our fears, the more we realise that we can do things we usually fear we can't."

He sums up just how one can rationally get over the shakes: "The need is to understand the real risk, not the perceived risk."

Using fear
Anybody can drive a car but driving at 300 kph on a sinuous racetrack is a wholly different ball game all together. India's pioneer F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan has been doing that all his adult life. He's also had some horrific crashes but still keeps on driving.

"It's a natural human reaction to brake when one feels that the speed is getting out of hand. However, the body is an amazing mechanism that adapts quickly once the initial fear subsides and sharpens the reflexes. You can overcome fear when the desire to perform is strong enough."

Finally, some amount of fear, he says, is always a good thing. "Afterall, it's a mechanism that's rooted in our survival instinct."

First Published: Jul 25, 2010 11:00 IST