I’ve been chewing on this topic all summer, but never really get far. Time to post some disjointed thoughts, maybe. In the holidays, I sometimes take the odd summer job - climbing courses for the Norwegian tourist association. Nice to change my office from this:
So: there's always someone on a climbing course who freaks out. At least on the inside. For this person, their own struggle with fear becomes the main component of the whole course. It often happens on rappel. Halfway down, the student freezes and an instructor often has to go down/up to them and talk them down, even re-rig and take them down physically.
These people often take things easier afterwards, dropping out of sessions as much as possible and not covering any optional material. Still, even though they may seem to accomplish less than most, these individuals who struggle with fear may be the ones who walk away with the greatest feeling of accomplishment. That's why I do kind of like beginner courses, even though many instructors look down on them.
But what about those who just give in to their fear, or who don't manage to get any further? It happened to me on a course this year: a student just gave in completely to fear each time she attempted something and the course ended without her having achieved anything, really. The question that gnaws me is of course: could I, as a teacher, have done anything differently to help this person?
Fear is often an issue when taking the inexperienced outdoors. Heli-ski guides can have trouble because extremely dangerous situations on winter snow can be perceived as harmless by skiers accustomed to managed ski slopes. Rock-climbing instructors can experience the reverse, with students or clients paralyzed by fear in safe situations. This is what happened on my course. We don’t have beginners in dangerous situations, but they may find themselves in unfamiliar situations and ones that look dangerous. Every so often, someone cracks and doesn’t manage to overcome their fear (fear, again, of a safe situation).
What happens here? My thinking is that this may be a product of our modern, protected lifestyle. This lifestyle can result in a very limited play of emotions, and when different emotions finally occur, the flood of feelings can be so overwhelming, unfamiliar, and awful, that the individual looses the ability to decide on their own actions. Fear, to take my example here.
Fear is not itself a negative thing. It keeps us alive. Our feelings connect us to our lives and help us navigate through them and fear is the most fundamental. I believe that fear is the primeval emotion – all animals must feel some kind of fear. Not all organisms seem to feel contentment or love, but everything avoids what is dangerous to it. Fear is directly connected to an organism’s survival, so it isn’t surprising that fear is a powerful emotion with somatic effects.
My wife thinks that many of us are unable to distinguish between our emotions and ourselves, especially in these moments of powerful feeling. Myself, when I am afraid, I am able to look at my fear a bit from the outside and think about whether or not I am reacting to something real about my present situation or if my situation is simply provoking old emotions. An inability to do this may result in an inability to function when powerful emotion takes over. This seems to be what happened to a couple of my students this summer. Unable to distinguish between themselves and their fear, they have no opportunity to function when they are afraid. Some really absurd situations result. This summer, one woman sat whimpering on a ledge despite being fully secure when another young woman who was full of excitement at something she had just done skipped by her unsecured on the same ledge, smiling and chattering. I frequently see small children waltz up climbing routes chattering to their parents, while on the next route a frightened adult student cowers, completely paralyzed by fear.
Well – is there anything to learn from this? Does any of this have relevance for the classroom? I think so, because many pupils struggle with fear in the classroom. Many educators think of the fear that pupils fear in the classroom as something different than the fear one feels in a ‘dangerous’ situation, but I feel my experiences as a climbing instructor challenges this thinking. One can’t make a distinction between rational and irrational fear. Fear is always ‘real’ to the one who feels it, and fear on a climbing route may be far less rational than the fear of one’s classmates. The key is the relationship the student has to his or her own emotions and their ability to not be taken over by fear but to let other parts of themselves decide on their course of action.
So how can we as educators help students overcome by fear? My thinking above would seem to hint that these are complex issues rooted in the student’s life experience, so the help we can offer is limited, especially in the case of weekend courses. Being supportive (eye contact!) and challenging at the same time seems to help, and so does breaking things down into one task at a time. Present a frightened person with simply the next step they have to do, not the whole project.
Since I believe that the problem may be rooted in the student’s relationship to their own emotions, the teacher / instructor can help by trying to make the student aware that they are not the same as their emotional reactions, but that these things are simply a healthy part of them. This is a long journey for some people and we have to have realistic expectations about what we can accomplish with people in the time we have available.