There are two types of fear

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I thought I knew what fear was. It was the feeling that made my heart race, breath quicken and hands tremble as I stood on The Ramp, surfboard under arm, legrope fastened around my ankle, watching the enormous waves roll in…

Long before I could surf, I was enchanted by the excitable energy that weaved its way through every soul around the coastline when there was talk of swell on the way. I grew up watching men run through Noosa National park, one after the other all chasing the same thing. With surfboard underarm, their faces covered in zinc and expressions of determination, they raced against the incoming tide, and against the fatigue building in their muscles. They raced toward The Ramp, a large flat-surfaced rock covered in slippery moss and sharp barnacles leading down into the ocean: A popular jump off spot for surfers to take them out to the top of the break. They would surf all the way down the point toward the bottom of the park, catch a wave into shore, and begin the run to The Ramp to jump back into the ocean.

Twenty-something years on, the day came for me to do the same.

I had only been surfing for about a year, and the town was buzzing with talk of the building swell and strong southerly breezes. This day was by far the biggest conditions I had ever considered paddling out in. I noticed my hands shaking as I pulled my legrope around my ankle and realized fear had worked its way into my body. I tried to slow the heavily beating heart inside my chest with long, slow purposeful breaths. I marched with my dad through the dirt tracks and thick bush of the National park. Far off in the distance I could hear the sounds of whistles and cheers of surfers in the water watching on as their mates got spat out of firing barrels. The rumbling of waves crashing against the rocks tied knots in my stomach. We reached the clearing on the path and climbed down the rock face, surfboard under arm, expression of determination across my face, and made it to The Ramp.

The only female and by far the youngest and most inexperienced surfer on the rock, I tried to disguise the violent battle that was going on inside of me. Seeing the sets roll in, much bigger than we both expected, Dad softly assured me that we could sit this one out and try again tomorrow. But my stubbornness to commit and determination to fight my fear took over. We inched closer and closer to the edge. The only thing stopping me from slipping on the moss was sharp edges of broken barnacles digging into my feet; my toes clung to whatever they could. In that moment I was taken right back to the times I was a little kid sitting on Dad’s shoulders, and everything he ever told me about jumping off The Ramp rang through my ears. Time it with the wave, wait for right the moment between sets, don’t paddle on the inside of another surfer, don’t stop paddling until you make it out the back… As a wave crashed at my feet something inside of me screamed, “go” and I propelled myself forward. The back-surge of the water sucked me out into the stormy ocean and I paddled ferociously towards the walls of water building on the horizon…

There are two types of fear.

Firstly, there’s the instinctual, rational fear that grips you when you are doing something that risks physical injury. That’s because fear is an emotional response to an actual threat, it’s a fundamental survival mechanism built into our physiology. When you’re in immediate danger, fear tells you to get yourself to someplace safer. As adults (and females) typically we aren’t out all day chasing an adrenaline rush, the effect produced when the adrenal glands dump a large dose of adrenaline into the bloodstream. If we do experience this state of hyper-alertness or “fight or flight”, chances are it’s on rare occasion and not by choice unless you’re jumping out of a plane or in my case, paddling out in big surf.

This is a healthy fear, one which I have become addicted to. Going out in bigger waves, paddling out with my heart in my throat, even though I might not have the guts to try and catch any of the sets, I know that being out in those conditions is a feat of its own. Feeling this fear is healthy, it awakens the life force within you and makes you want more.

Then, there’s the irrational fear – the kind that has no real substance. Instead of being a response to physical danger, this false fear arises when the Ego-self is threatened, which makes you cling to the familiar and creates worry, apprehension, anxiety, depression and even paranoia. In fact there’s a faultless acronym which describes it perfectly. F.E.A.R = False Evidence Appearing Real, something we fabricate in our own minds which we then convince ourselves is real. This fear is an illusion. It’s a fairy tale we tell ourselves that keeps us from doing what we really want.

Here’s the problem. The sensation people experience in the face of taking action to achieve their dreams – business, personal, spiritual, whatever – is usually not true fear. It’s our sense of fear that derails success more often than actual failed attempts at success. But are past failures real evidence that justifies fear of future failure? No, because unless you keep doing the exact same thing over and over and expecting different results (one definition of insanity), you have no real evidence that your next approach will fail. Just because the fear feels real, it doesn’t mean it is.

I spent years avoiding my favourite bars and spent countless nights home alone without my friends because I was so terrified of bumping into my ex, to the point it made me physically sick. I obsessed over every possible bump-in scenario, and planned out every possible escape route to each scenario. I knew the fire exits of all my favourite restaurants, and I became accustomed to leaving the house with lots of hair falling heavily around my face. Once I even jumped straight into the back of a cab when I thought I saw the back of his head in a crowd. Everyone knows this fake fear. It can come in an instant and throw you into chaos. It triggers the need to be on the defensive, but in this self-protective place the heart goes out of reach and you cannot feel or experience love or hope.

Five years after the break up I actually spotted him on the street in Melbourne of all places. Possessed by determination I marched right up to him with a huge smile on my face and said hello even before I had the chance to run away. Cool as a cucumber with the steady hands of a surgeon, I commanded the conversation with confidence and ease, realising the tables had been turned. I could hear his voice wavering and see his hands shaking. That afternoon in Melbourne I wished my ex well, truly meaning it, and walked away feeling light as air knowing that chapter of my life had finally come to a close after eight long and painful years. Not because I had nothing to fear anymore, but because I realised there was nothing to fear in the first place.

In the face of adversity we always surprise ourselves. I’ve heard of a mother being overcome with superhuman strength, enough to lift a car on her own which her child was trapped underneath. I never thought I’d be able to keep it together seeing him. Much like I never thought I’d ever be able to paddle out in big surf.

That afternoon in Noosa, I made it out past the break and bobbed around in the swelling ocean for three hours shaking like a leaf way out the back before I paddled for a wave. But when you paddle out in big surf, you always have to make it back in, and the only way to do that is by catching a wave. So I lined up the first wave of the next set coming towards me, committed to the drop and made it to my feet. Pumping my legs on the board to race around a section, I sized up the wall in front of me. Everything was moving at the speed of light until I realized I was on the ocean floor being held under by the downward force of the wave’s heavy lip that had knocked me off.

I couldn’t remember taking a breathe before falling, and I couldn’t work out which way was up or which way was down. As I was being tossed around like a rag doll, I seemed to manage to retain whatever oxygen was in my lungs. I made it to the surface, eyes open looking for danger, mouth open swallowing a deep gulp of air, just as another huge wall of water came crashing down on me. It happened over, and over again.

The lack of oxygen in my muscles had drained me of my strength. Once I caught my breath and the ocean had calmed I used my last ounce of energy to clamber in over the rocks with my surfboard, miraculously still in one piece and thankful to be alive. People on the shore who saw it unfold told me it just so happened to be a freak wide, five-wave set, and that I was crazy for paddling for the first wave one of the biggest sets of the afternoon from way out the back. Dad soon made it in and joined me on the shore, with a huge smile across his face blissfully unaware of the horror I had just endured. Before I had the chance to tell him what had happened he gave me a kiss on the forehead and proclaimed with adrenalin fuelled enthusiasm, “I just had the craziest wipeout of my life!! Didn’t think I’d make it out alive of that one! …wanna run back up to The Ramp?”

Don’t let fear decide your fate. Head to the Libra #IAMFEARLESS blog to read more about fear.