I was with my family in Mexico when I was five. Up to my waste in the water, with my mom close by and suddenly, a crab bit my toe.
My mom rushed over, picked me up, pulled the crab off and tossed it back into the water.
Ever since that moment I have loved looking at the ocean from afar, but was afraid to be IN it.
Thalassophobia, or a fear of the ocean, is something Will Smith and I do (or did) have in common. Smith attributed his fear of the ocean to the movie Jaws, a fear so great, he didn’t learn to swim until he was in his 40’s.
During shark week in August, Will Smith showed the world that he was overcoming his fear of the ocean when he went scuba diving and swam with sharks.
“I am a firm believer that fear creates the greatest atrocities and evils that have ever been committed on this planet,” Smith said while sitting on the ocean floor surrounded by sharks. “Fear is poison and I’m gonna cleanse mine.”
As an adult I had ventured into the ocean above my waist, but only with several other people. One was snorkeling on my honeymoon, when I was sure I was going to be eaten by a shark so I couldn’t enjoy myself.
The second was on a vacation in Italy at a local swimming spot in Cinque Terra. Unfortunately, my dip only lasted about five minutes. I saw an eel within seconds found myself out of the water, I’m still not quite sure how I moved that fast!
That was until I went to Panama in 2018 for a surf/yoga retreat to ring in the New Year.
Why would I voluntarily go on a retreat where I would be exposing myself to my known fear you ask? I was entering into a new year, no longer married, and I told myself it was time to conquer my fears and grow.
As I walked into the ocean with my surf instructor, I felt my body tighten up and I wondered what creatures were around me. Then, something I still can’t 100% explain happened.
I felt the warm water touching my body and was so focused on wanting to stand up on my surfboard that my fear sort of melted away. I felt proud of myself for being in the water, trying this new experience and told myself if I’m going to be eaten by a shark, I guess it’s a pretty “cool” way to go!
I spent the next 7 days excited to enter the ocean! I just had to face it!
Don’t Be Afraid Of Fear, Let It Be Your Guide…
Since then I have kite surfed in the Dominican Republic, swam to a buoy that was ¼ mile from the beach, and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef in Belize (even seeing a shark and a barracuda without peeing myself, WIN!)
My fear of the ocean has turned into a respect for the ocean. Could I still get hurt by something living in the ocean or even by the current sucking me out into oblivion? Yes, but I use that fear to keep me aware, then accept that I can’t control what happens in life.
I want to live, explore and try new things. Grow as a person, and with that can come a healthy dose of fear.
Fear can cause an adrenaline rush, which occurs when the body senses danger. There are some people who embrace this fear induced adrenaline.
These sensation-seekers, or adrenaline enthusiasts aren’t immune to fear, they just thrive on it.
When you experience strong emotions such as excitement, anger or fear, our adrenal glands release adrenaline into the blood stream which causes a sequence of biological reactions in your body.
- It increases blood and oxygen flow to your muscles so you can run faster
- It restricts blood flow to other areas
- It dilates your pupils so you can see things around you better
However, these reactions are only helpful when you are facing real physiological danger. They do not aid you when you are facing self-perceived dangers which truly do not result in physical harm.
External fear is the easiest to recognize and manage. An external fear is defined by fear or anxiety that is caused by an outside source.
Examples of this would be a fear of heights, fear of snakes, or fear of the ocean.
When a person is faced with a situation that exposes them to an external fear, they can experience discomfort and anxiety (or an adrenaline rush).
Internal fears are usually associated with low levels of self-worth. People who experience anxiety from internal fears typically have low levels of self-confidence or self-esteem.
An example of an internal fear is doubting your capability to accomplish something or questioning your talents or value.
I remember having to give a presentation at a board meeting when I was 26. I ran to the bathroom before the meeting to throw up and could feel my heart beating so fast I thought I was having a heart attack.
I had an internal fear that I wasn’t going to do a good job, that my boss would judge me, and that I would forget my presentation…even though I was thoroughly prepared.
In order to overcome internal fears, it is important to build your confidence and self-esteem. Once you recognize your internal fears, you can start to build yourself up and face your anxieties head on.
This is not easy to do, since confronting your fear can produce a lot of initial anxiety. You will have to stay in the feared situation and stay with the heightened fear response until it begins to subside, which it eventually will…but it takes practice and time.
Confronting your fears (external AND internal) instead of backing down can bring about a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.
Every time you confront your fear, you gain power and your anxiety loses strength.
“I can tolerate it; it’s uncomfortable but NOT impossible”.
Every time you confront your fear you accrue proof of your capability to cope.
“I did it yesterday, I CAN do it again today”.
We have so many internal fears in life:
- Fear of disease or injury: If you are a true hypochondriac and this fear becomes an unhealthy obsession, seeking help from a medical professional might be necessary. But a fear of disease or injury is normal. Think of COVID-19, many people have a fear of contracting this virus. A healthy dose of this fear can keep you safe.
- Fear of failure: Afraid to try something new, afraid to step out of your comfort zone? Will Smith says, “Fail early, fail often, fail forward”. Failure has such a negative connotation, but failing at something is an opportunity to learn from your experiences and try again.
- Fear of not being accepted: We fear being rejected; we fear not fitting in. Working on your relationship with yourself, loving yourself and being happy with your choices and who you are helps give you that confidence and self-esteem to say, “This is me and I’m amazing”. Not everyone will like you, that’s a part of life; but don’t change yourself to be accepted, be you!
- Fear of judgement: People will judge you, that’s life. Let them judge you! Be you and be proud! You can’t control other people, if you are happy with your choices and you are being authentic, dance like no one is watching! It’s your life, not theirs!
- Fear of the unknown: None of us can predict the future or see what life will look like in 5 years. What has COVID-19 done to us? Caused us to live in fear of the unknown with increased anxiety. Letting the fear of the unknown keep your senses heightened can be beneficial, but letting it consume you is unhealthy.
Fear can motivate you to be brave and try things you would never try, say things to your boss you never dreamed of, surf in the ocean, or move onto that next unknown chapter of your life.
- Let fear keep you alert and safe.
- Let fear encourage you to try those things you were always too afraid to do or try.
- Let fear help you achieve things that you thought were impossible.
Don’t let fear rule you, don’t let it hold you back…let it be your guide.
Remember, You Got This!
If you or a loved one are struggling with extreme fear or anxiety and could use support, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline
at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.