How an Extreme Skier Learned to Make Peace With Fear

“You should never ignore fear for any reason because you think if you ignore it, it will go away. It’s just going to come back louder.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How Kristen braved the world’s most deadly ski drops
  • Why ignoring your fear won’t make it go away
  • How to use fear as a tool to achieve your goals

Once dubbed “the most fearless extreme woman athlete in North America,” Kristen Ulmer is now a facilitator and fear specialist whose work has been featured on NPR and in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, USA Today, and Outside magazine. In her provocative new book, The Art of Fear, Kristen radically challenges existing norms around the subject of this deeply misunderstood emotion. She recently sat down with Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, to talk about what we get wrong about fear, and why embracing it, not avoiding it, is the key to a healthier, happier life.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.

Panio: You’ve been voted the most fearless woman skier, [is that right]?

Kristen: I’ve been voted a lot of things—some I brag about, others I don’t. I was considered the best woman big mountain extreme skier in the world for 12 years, and I was also voted by the outdoor industry to be the most fearless extreme woman athlete in North America, beating women in all sport disciplines, not just skiing.

Panio: What would you do that earned you that ranking? What kind of skiing does that mean?

Kristen: It means anything where if you fall you die. I jumped off cliffs. I did the first female ski descent of the Grand Teton. If it was dangerous, I skied it. I did a lot of other dangerous sports like rock and ice climbing and paragliding and kite boarding, too.

Panio: So everything that normally paralyzes other people with fear.

Kristen: Yes, loved it. The scarier the better.

Panio: In your book, you say, “Don’t conquer fear.” Were you not conquering fear when you put on skis and jumped off cliffs?

Kristen: I believe that you don’t learn from experience, you learn from reflecting on the experience. I retired in ’03 from being a professional athlete and I’ve spent the last 15 years becoming a fear specialist with clients around the world, and also reflecting on my ski career, what worked and what didn’t. What I learned is that what I was doing, and what everybody else in the planet does around the subject of fear, is I was trying to conquer it, overcome it, let it go, rationalize it away—you know the language. And I was exceptional at it. In fact, the media was more focused on my ability to suppress fear [than my skiing].

Kind of like Alex Honnold who just climbed El Cap without ropes. The climb is great, but his ability to do this thing with fear is just magical. It was the same with me. I realized that after 15 years, it was starting to really mess up my life.

KUskiing

Panio: What was it doing? Were you walking into traffic? Your threshold of fear was so low that anything goes?

Kristen: First of all, I was lucky to be alive, because whenever you repress or conquer that much fear, you’re getting rid of a primary wisdom in your life of intuition and instinct—you’re just blocking it out. So, I’m lucky to be alive.

The second thing is I had PTSD. I witnessed a lot of traumatic injury. I had so many near-death experiences. I saw people die doing these sports.

I also became really burnt out on my sports, on skiing in particular. I started to hate it.

And I started being exhausted. I had flat-lined cortisol levels. I had to sleep ten hours a night. All those years of conquering and overcoming fear, repressing fear, it took a toll on me. It just started destroying my life.

And how it takes a toll on other people, I’ve learned, is maybe they become depressed or they become totally stressed out and overly anxious and pickled in fear, or they become really hostile and angry or they have wicked insomnia. You can get away with [repressing fear] for about ten years, then it shows up and causes problems in your life—how it does that is different for everybody, but that’s how it showed up for me.

Panio: One of the things that really resonated with me was this idea of fear, or our resistance to fear, as a kind of inflammation. It gets worse and worse because you’re fighting it, and once you step back and relax, it subsides to a manageable experience.

Kristen: Yes.

Panio: I know this is an innocuous example compared to jumping off cliffs, but I had to get a root canal last week, and I was dreading it. Every time I’d look at my calendar I’d see it there: Friday at 4:00 p.m. I’d get hit by this fear. Then I’d have to make a decision: do I push it back? Finally, I went, and it wasn’t that terrible. I mean it’s still a root canal, it’s not a good time, it’s not an ice cream sundae, but if you could find a way to quantify and add up all the fear and anxiety I had in the weeks leading up to it, it was ten times worse than the experience itself.

Kristen: Well that’s because the root canal was a problem, but then if you also make the fear around the root canal the problem, you’ve now stacked one problem on top of another.

Just going back to the beginning of your question, here’s an analogy: let’s say fear is like a nagging child in your ear and you’re like, “Okay I don’t want to deal with you right now, I’m going to reschedule the root canal.” You ignore the fear and it goes away, and you think, “Well that worked. I don’t have to deal with those things. I’m back to doing whatever I’m doing in my life.” So we start to think that ignoring or avoiding the fear is the problem solver because we had success at that, but what do we know as a parent, if you ignore a whiny child, what happens?

“You should never ignore fear for any reason because you think if you ignore it, it will go away. It’s just going to come back louder.”

Panio: They come back louder. Or they go break something in the house to get your attention.

Kristen: Yeah. So, now imagine you’ve been ignoring your child, who’s now whining louder and louder and starting to break things and you keep ignoring them and still hoping that they’re going to go away. Over time, what does that do to that child’s psyche and self-esteem?

Panio: It’s terrible for them.

Kristen: Yeah. So if you ignore fear, who’s just trying to get your attention and warn you of danger, you’re now abusing this child of yours, this primary part of you. Next thing you know, over time, ignoring your anxiety and stress for so long, trying to block it out, trying to turn away from it, it becomes your whole life—but if we do the exact opposite of everything we’ve ever been taught, which is turn towards the child and say, “Hey, you’ve been trying to get my attention. You seem really upset. What’s going on?” Then that relationship starts to heal very quickly.

Panio: That’s the idea of the wisdom of fear. You’re fearful for a reason.

Kristen: Yeah.

Panio: Is there a superficial fear that’s not worth your time, that you can ignore? Or should you face it every time and then the false positives will go away—I’m mixing my metaphors.

Kristen: You should never ignore fear for any reason because you think if you ignore it, it will go away. It’s just going to come back louder. At some point you’re going to have to deal with this fear. I love the term “let go of fear.” Where does it go? Does it go out into the atmosphere?

Panio: Like a balloon that’s just drifting off.

Kristen: It’s like, “Oh, there it goes. Bye bye.” No, it gets stored in your body. Undealt-with fear shows up as knots or a low grade sense of stress or anxiety. And it just gets bigger and bigger and more uncomfortable until you have to do something about it. That’s what a lot of people are facing who have depression and anxiety—it may not show up as fear at all. It may show up as excessive anger. It could show up as blame. If you have a problem in your life, the repression or the avoidance of fear usually has either something or everything to do with it.

Credit: Brad Barlage

Credit: Brad Barlage

Panio: I imagine fear is behind a lot of the anxiety. Fear and anxiety seem to go together pretty well.

Kristen: Yes. If you have a lot of anxiety, that’s undealt with fear, for sure.

Panio: And anger too?

Kristen: 95% of modern anger is repressed fear showing up as anger. Instead of dealing with fear, it feels more powerful to be angry. There’s no power in feeling afraid. Especially for men, they don’t want to have to feel afraid, that’s not manly, but if they’re angry, then that’s a way to deal with their fear that feels more powerful.

Panio: I used to teach a martial arts class, and one of the things I taught my students was that if you get startled or scared, just get angry, because fear will incapacitate you, but anger will make you respond and lash out. I think in a self-defense situation it’s practical, but probably not the best technique for life in general.

Kristen: Well it’s okay because that’s you expressing your fear. Think about it, fear comes from the lizard brain, and it’s supposed to be inspiring fight-or-flight. The rabbit running away from your car, that’s flight. Or the mama bear, standing up and defending her cub, she looks angry, right? She has her claws out. But really she’s afraid that you’re going to hurt her cub, so it shows up as anger. That’s actually great. What a great way to express your fear and your anger, for that matter, through martial arts, using it in a creative way.

Panio: It brings me to this issue around fear as a motivator. You write that fear is a great motivator. You get things done. Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, all these fears propel people into success. [Is there a danger that] if I get too in touch with fear then I’ll become complacent and I won’t want to work, achieve, and improve myself?

Kristen: A lot of people say, “Fear of failure holds me back from being successful.” But for other people, fear of failure motivates them. What’s the difference? How is it a motivator for some and cripple others? It’s really pretty simple. It comes down to whether or not you’re willing to feel your fear and use it as a tool. It’s here to help you come alive, [but if] you don’t want to deal with the fear and you turn away from it, it’ll cripple you.

I was entirely motivated by fear. I had no clue I was motivated by fear of not being special, fear of not being loved, and so you jump off of a cliff, and you feel pretty special. Fear is so uncomfortable that it gets us moving—there’s a great quote by the Buddha, “A horse runs at even the shadow of a whip.” The moment I feel fear, I’m off the couch and doing the thing to get rid of the fear, which is to do something great, to get attention.

“It comes down to whether or not you’re willing to feel your fear and use it as a tool.”

Panio: It’s an elusive journey, though, getting in touch with your fear. That’s something that comes up in the book a lot: you make these strides, and then it kind of slips away, and you have to try again. It’s very nuanced. It’s easy to be reductive and think, “I’m going to turn around and address my fear and that’s it.” But in fact, it’s a journey.

Kristen: It is a journey. Your whole life is a journey of managing and experiencing all that life has to offer. And a lot of what life has to offer is fearful experiences. Fear is going to show up a lot.

I say that your relationship with fear is the most important relationship of your life, because it’s the relationship you have with yourself. If you’re abusive towards fear, if you hate it, then you’re abusive towards yourself, you hate yourself. That is one choice, to abuse yourself. Another choice is to make friends with fear, or even have a mad passionate love affair with it—and next thing you know, you have a mad passionate love affair with yourself.

If you’ve been avoiding or fighting fear your whole life, it’s really hard to make that transition, and that’s what this book helps people do. To make the transition, and see what’s going to get in their way, with really practical tips on how to turn towards it instead of away from it.

Panio: You’ve spent a long time counseling and coaching people about fear. One of the things you do with them is a trapeze class, right?

Kristen: Yes, I’ve done fear events in pretty much every sport there is, including flying trapeze. I am a facilitator. I don’t give advice. I don’t give lectures. What I do is I take people on a journey into their unconscious minds to see where they’re stuck in regard to fear and then get them unstuck, and it’s really interesting because it works.

It’s fast, too. I’ve had people come to me who have spent ten years in therapy and haven’t had much resolution to their depression or anxiety or fear or anger, and I’ll spend two hours, at the most six hours, and take them on this journey. I’ll ask good questions, help them be curious about their relationship with fear, help them start feeling their fear rather than thinking about their fear.

That’s why therapy doesn’t work. Thinking and talking about your fear is not going to heal that relationship. You’ve got to feel it. Setting them free from the war they’ve been carrying out with fear in their unconscious minds—next thing you know, after six hours, somebody’s life-long depression is gone. Or somebody’s panic attacks are gone and they know they’ll never return because they now know what the problem was, which is that, “I’ve been fighting fear instead of turning towards it.”