By Emily Erickson
Perception is a fickle thing, and despite its dynamic nature, it has the ability to shape our choices and, ultimately, our lives.
I am a long-distance trail runner, regularly following a small strip of uncovered dirt into the deepest, most desolate wilderness areas North Idaho has to offer. Through this hobby, I’ve been exposed to heart-palpitating vistas, breath-taking climbs, and brain-tingling canopies, often finding myself hours from any shred of recognizable civilization.
In these spaces of significant remoteness, surrounded by towering pines, trickling snowmelt, and a forest full of critters, the power of perception reveals itself.
When accompanied by fellow runners and friends, winding our way through mountainous miles in collective camaraderie, a rustle in the leaves simply adds to the overall ambiance of an adventure run. While in a group, I have the ability to assess nature noises rationally, considering that the foliage disturbance was likely caused by the jolt of a field mouse or a family of bustling grouse.
When by myself, however, the same rustle of leaves just as readily becomes a ravenous, lumbering bear or a lurking mountain lion, hungrily rumbling it’s way through the woods in anticipation of its next meal (me).
Similarly, when in the comfortable confines of a city or town, walking along a three-foot-wide sidewalk is second nature. I confidently occupy the space, absentmindedly hopping over cracks and dodging anthills while on the phone or rummaging through my pack.
But, if that same three-foot-wide space is on top of a mountainous cliff, even the hyper-focus of individual, calculated steps can feel insufficient. My breath will likely catch if I peer over the edge, with the sides of the path seeming far too small to support the mass of my body.
Our perception of our reality directly impacts our experiences, as the same elation-filled trail run so quickly shifts into a short-of-breath, anxiety-fueled race for life, and the excitement of a mountainous frolic becomes a toe-edge away from certain death.
But why is this important? Because negatively perceiving our lives can strip us of the extraordinary, leaving us to exist in the confines of fear.
In psychology, fear is categorized into two camps: the biochemical reaction and the emotional reaction. The biochemical understanding of fear involves our bodies’ physical reaction to situations in which we feel endangered. These physical reactions include elevated adrenaline, sweating and increased heart rates.
Humans have evolved to experience physical reactions to feeling unsafe, and the symptoms are largely universal. The emotional reaction, however, is a highly individualized occurrence, with each person experiencing it in their own unique way.
For example, some people seek out opportunities to feel the biochemical reactions to fear, as they perceive it positively. These people are those that take big risks, fling themselves out of airplanes, or free-climb rock faces. Colloquially, they’re adrenalin junkies.
Others avoid fear at all costs, paralyzed by the physical reactions, as they perceive their bodily responses to danger as negative.
The trouble is, in most cases, like my irrational perception of rustling grass equating to my imminent death, a negative reaction to feeling afraid is unwarranted, and holds us back from living our lives to their fullest potential. We see angry bears and poisonous rattlesnakes instead of wildflowers and lush ferns.
Fortunately, we can train ourselves to alter our perceptions of and our experiences with fear through exposure. Exposure therapy, developed in the 1950s, is a psychological technique in which a person repeatedly confronts the things of which they are afraid until those sources become more familiar.
With increased familiarity to the things that evoke fear, is a reduction in the anxiety and rational that accompanies negative emotional responses to the biochemical reactions in those situations. Simply, through exposure, we can change how we perceive our realities to have better, more positive experiences when we are afraid.
So what does this mean?
For some people, confronting fear may literally mean jumping out of a plane or climbing a rock face. For others, it may simply mean trying; trying something new, taking a risk, talking to a stranger, making a phone call, starting a business or joining a gym.
And even though these things may evoke fear, they get a little bit easier each time they’re tried.
So, who knows? You may be chewing gum and skipping along mountain tops before you know it. As always, just be sure to watch out for the cracks.