Jaimal Yogis had only enough time to gasp. The first rogue wave at Mavericks, a Central California surf spot so dangerous its waves are often called “death waves,” had just held him under for longer than he’d ever been down before, no clue which way was up or down in the icy darkness. And in the moment that he finally breached the surface: a gulp of air and another wave, this one every bit as massive as the first.
“An avalanche of foam mows me down and I’m back into blackness: punched, kicked, splayed, held under again,” he writes of the experience in his book The Fear Project. “I’m gagging for air, again with no sense of direction. Where the hell is the surface?”
Eventually, the water pushed him up. The logical thing would have been to bail to shore, but the moment that he considered paddling into safety, he had two realizations. First, he had survived. Second, what he called the “horrible unknown”—that is, how would it feel to have a 40-foot wave pummel you?—was now “demystified.”
Yogis was on the verge of completing a years-long quest, not just about courting the waves at one of the world’s most foreboding surf spots, but to understand the emotion that every sane person would feel when attempting to do so: fear. A few years prior, life events had been taking a toll on him. There was some public speaking he was required to do, an undertaking that terrified him. One of his book proposals had been rejected. Then he and his longtime girlfriend split up, the fallout of which consumed him with fear and jealousy.
In his personal misery, he stopped doing the things he loved. He avoided his friends. It all made him wonder: Why are we all so afraid all the time…and of so many things? Public speaking, job interviews, the prospect of dating again, really reaching for our goals—even things like heights, sharks, monster waves. Whatever it may be, fear, it seemed to Yogis, has a way of holding too many of us back. So he wanted to know: Instead of letting fear sabotage us, is it possible to use this most primal of emotions to our advantage?
The answers to those questions are in Yogis’ book The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing…and Love, in which he interviewed the world’s leading neuroscientists, extreme athletes, meditation teachers, and psychologists to better understand the science of fear. Throughout his research, he used himself as a guinea pig to confront the things that scared him.
It starts not long after the breakup. Following a period of sorrow, he ventures back into the dating world, and finds it isn’t so bad. He attempts an open-water swim to Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay, and leaves the water feeling thrilled. He goes cage diving with great white sharks, and emerges in awe. He tackles public speaking, and learns to love it. He trains to surf Mavericks, and, well, first he’s nearly swallowed whole, but after a few hours, he catches one of its monster waves for the ride of his life. By the end of the project, he’s fallen in love, gotten married, and become a parent.
So how do you turn fear into positive opportunities? “We need tools,” he says simply. It helps to first understand how fear affects us. There’s a tendency for us to get stuck in “negativity feedback loops,” letting one bad experience frame the narrative for our relationship to whatever we’re afraid of. Evolution, as a matter of survival, has conditioned us to emphasize threats, to give fear prominence. But in the modern world, with rare exception, threats are nowhere near as real as they once were. Back in our early history, Yogis notes, real threats, like hungry wild animals, for example, could mean death. Even social events could carry the same weight; getting rejected from the tribe could be a death sentence.
With that kind of social pressure imprinted on us, it’s no wonder we’re terrified by things like public speaking, or why some 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder every year. Nowadays, even though living circumstances are much safer, our “early, primal brain isn’t that good at differentiating” between real and perceived threats, says Yogis. “We have to work against that tide, to check in with what’s real.”
Luckily, there are countless techniques to counter getting sucked into these “anxiety whirlpools.” Yogis lays them out: Debunk your negativity bias by emphasizing the positive. Remember that anticipating something scary is often worse than just doing it. Meditation lessens stress. Exercise and movement reduce fear and anxiety. And consistently preparing for and facing your fears helps eliminate them. “It doesn’t really matter which ones you choose,” says Yogis. “You have to try on different shoes and see which fit.”
Counter to what the scientific community previously thought, it’s even possible to reprogram fearful memories. The neuroscientist Daniela Schiller gave Yogis an example. “Let’s say you have a memory of a place and something bad happened there. Whereas before I might have avoided that place, now I deliberately go there. I go with other people. I go do different things. I go listening to a song I like. Over time I feel the memory has changed. It requires deliberate action.”
What doesn’t help is avoidance. “If you avoid the thing you’re afraid of, you can initially lower your stress response, which will feel good and right, but that only teaches you to avoid again,” Yogis writes in his book. The way Schiller puts it: “Avoidance is a natural response to fear, but it’s not the one that helps.”
Early on in his research, Yogis encountered a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” That’s a tough pace to keep, but for Yogis, the concept was a profound one. He thought of it when tackling challenges both large and small, everything from randomly talking to a stranger in an elevator to asking his close friend, the MMA fighter Urijah Faber, for financial help to complete a documentary he was making. When Faber agreed immediately, Yogis thought, “Look at how perseverance pays off!”
“Courage really is a muscle,” he notes. “They’ve done interesting studies with language where if you learn one, it permeates all areas of the brain. It’s the same with courage.” The more we tackle our fears, the less they hold us back, and conquering one helps us conquer the next.
Even now, three years after Yogis’ project and book were completed, the lessons have stuck. “I think our fears are gifts,” he says. “They’re the challenges that motivate us to then break through those fears. Each one is a new puzzle, something I can learn from. And when I do, I can understand more of who I am.”
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Journalist Bryan Schatz writes about outcasts, miscreants, and society’s more unsavory fringes for Mother Jones magazine. He’s currently based in California.
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