College Times

Face Your Fears? Extreme Athletes, First Responders Say it’s the Best Way to Overcome Them

By Pat Marrujo • College Times

Published: Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Updated: Thursday, July 19, 2012

Marilyn Monroe once said that “we should all start living before we get old. Fear is stupid. So are regrets.”

Fear forces us to make irrational decisions. It makes you not ask out that girl you had a crush on, it makes you pass up a job opportunity and it limits your ability to chase your dreams.

Taking a risk and doing something crazy makes life worth living.

When people look at me, they generally notice the mohawk and the sneakers. But something I have wanted to try doing my entire life is trade those in for a cowboy hat and boots and ride a real life bull.

Something about attempting to hold on to a 2,000-pound beast for eight seconds that wants nothing more than to hurl me off it’s back sounds exhilarating.




No doubt.

However, for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain, the fear of being stomped to death by my bucking adversary has kept me from trying this yet.  

It’s Dr. Patrick McGrath’s job to help people face their fears. “Slowly and gradually” McGrath, who is the director of the Alexian Brothers Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, said that he puts people into situations that they fear, in hopes that they can overcome it.

According to McGrath, it is our brain that leads us to having fears, not necessarily the thing that we are afraid of.

“We often want to blame the thing that we are afraid of for our fears, but it turns out that we fear things based on how we perceive them, not actually on what they are,” McGrath said. “This is why one person can fear something while another person can think that it is really cool.”

The causes of fear vary from case to case, McGrath said. However, the way people respond to them seems to be somewhat more consistent.

“We learn that something is dangerous, maybe we almost got hurt by it, maybe we saw someone else get hurt by it, or maybe it even hurt us,” McGrath said. “Whatever it was, our fight-flight-freeze response was activated and now we associate that triggered response with whatever triggered it and we do not ever want to experience that again.”

McGrath explained this as our brain’s natural reaction to stay out of danger.

Like many things in life, McGrath said that the best way to face your fears is head on.

“The only way to overcome a fear is to face that fear. If you do not face it, then you will always fear it,” McGrath said. “You cannot be talked out of a fear. You have to behave your way out of a fear.”

McGrath agreed with me when I said that it seemed like some people are generally more resistant to fear.

“There may be genetic aspects that lead some people to be more fearful than others. Learning may also play a role,” McGrath said. “People who have faced fears through their lives may have some more resilience than do others, but this is in no way a guarantee that you will not fear something.”


Face to Face


Ahwatukee resident Tom Wiggins is one of those seemingly fearless people.

This 47-year-old surgical assistant is currently training for his second Ironman in two years.

“I trained for my first Ironman in 2009 from mid-November till the end of August but had to pull plug because of knee surgery,” Wiggins said. “[I] still did swim in 1 hour, 19 minutes but had to pull out after that.”

However, Wiggins didn’t let his injury crush his dreams of running an Ironman.

In 2010 he ran his first full Ironman, finishing in 13 hours and 35 minutes.

“I was never scared, but had doubt that I could ever finish one,” Wiggins said. “[I] just trained as hard as I could and day of race told myself, ‘Let's just have some fun.’”

This year, Wiggins will compete in Ironman, Arizona which includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

“This year's goal is under 12 hours 30 minutes,” Wiggins said. “I know to accomplish this, I have to get my ass off the couch and hit the road.”

Not only is Wiggins unafraid of the Ironman, but he feels that lessons can be learned from fighting through the pain and fear of not finishing this strenuous race.

“Pain and fear are friends you misunderstand,” he said. “You can handle much more pain than you ever thought you could. Pay attention to your fears; they will help you overcome them if you listen.”

Wiggins said that the most beneficial thing about the Ironman is it’s a great way to develop mental toughness and to relieve stresses.

In his opinion, anyone with the time, money and willingness to commit to doing the race should definitely go for it.

“Make sure your family and friends are behind you and support you,” Wiggins said. “Once you have their blessing, give yourself at least seven months of training and 10 to 20 hours a week of swimming, biking, and running. Proper nutrition and plenty of rest are a must.”

Some people are like Wiggins, who punches fear in the face and feeds off the energy that comes with taking risks.

However, others fight fear using things have been trained or learned.


Fire with Fire


John Valenzuela, the Assistant Fire Chief for the City of Tempe, has been with the fire department for 20 years and held nearly every position during that time.  

He said the knowledge and training given at fire school is what makes firemen seem fearless.

“We teach you how to react to fear,” Valenzuela said. “Naturally, your body only has one way to deal with fear, fight or flight.”

To battle that natural reaction, Valenzuela said that we must first face what he calls “the unknown.”

“Fear is what is unknown,” Valenzuela. “So what we do is remove the unknown.”

This is possible when dealing with fire because situations are consistent.

“Everything on the fire side is predictable,” Valenzuela said. “I know how fire burns, and I know things like how long I have before a building will collapse.”

Aside from being a fireman, Valenzuela was also in the police force for five years as a SWAT team medic and describes the daily work of police is a “different beast.”

Valenzuela said the ability to “remove the unknown” is not there for police, because you never know what could happen on a call.

“In 20 years with the fire department, I only remember two times when I thought I was going to die,” Valenzuela said. “While I was a cop, I felt that way every week.”

According to Valenzuela, the only way for an officer to feel less anxiety is to become desensitized. He added that the one thing he could never become desensitized about is pediatric drownings.

Despite the life threatening moments, Valenzuela says he misses being in the middle of all the action.

“Oh I definitely miss this stuff, but I know it is a young man’s job,” Valenzuela said.

Dr. McGrath, Tom Wiggins and John Valenzuela agreed that you had to face fear directly and that doing so would help you become more comfortable with the situation.


Bull by the Horns?


When it comes to me and my desire to ride a bull, I know that I must face this obstacle head on.

Professional bull rider Justin Koon told me that riding a bull is all about working your way up.

In Koon’s first rodeo, when he was 10 years old, he rode steers.

“The first few times you ride, they just kind of run you out there,” Koon said. “I didn’t know what to expect and the next thing I knew, it was already over.”

His first full eight-second ride was later that same year when he rode a bull that was about 600 pounds.

He remembers it like it was yesterday.

“He ran out and I rode him all the way around the arena, Koon said. “People kept telling me to get off, but I didn’t know how because I have never ridden this long before. The next think I know, I am rolling on the ground like a basketball.”

Now a pro and ranked 14th in the Professional Bull Riders tour, Koon rides some of the toughest bulls in the world.

He encourages people, like me, to try bull riding out for themselves. However, he says, you have to be smart.

“You’re obviously not going to stay on your first time,” Koon said. “You can get on bulls – just don’t get on something that will kill you.”

Koon says that too many people try to go too big their first time. He suggests finding a weaker bull until you actually figure out what you’re doing.

What Koon said can apply to almost any fear, mine, obviously, included.


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