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Never Fear: How to Beat Backcountry Phobias

Don't let groundless phobias ruin–or even prevent–your backcountry adventures. Here's a foolproof plan for overcoming your terrors.
Phobia falling(Photo Illustration by Stephen Beneski)

It’s out there.

It’s lurking in the woods, hiding in the canyons, lying in wait on the highest mountain peaks. It’s the stuff of nightmares, making your heart pound triple-time and your hands tremble. No matter where you roam, it’s just around the corner, ready to reduce you to a quivering, whimpering mess.

It’s fear itself, of course. The most primal human emotion. For some, a distant rumble of thunder summons it; for others, a grizzly or a scorpion. It doesn’t matter what sparks the feeling—everyone has something. What matters is that it’s creeping into your backcountry experiences, ruining your trips, and driving you away from the wildest, most spectacular trails. Or perhaps even preventing you from going out at all. It’s paralyzing. It’s everywhere. And you can’t escape it.

Or can you?

We have good news. When a healthy dose of fear crosses the line into irrational anxiety, there’s a time-tested cure called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). To understand how it works, consider this unreasonable fear: Let’s say your nightmares are haunted by huge, fanged, poisonous spiders—creatures so scary that even a garden-variety arachnid makes you want to puke. When you’re this horrified, an eight-legged intruder at your campsite will trigger a flood of adrenaline known as the “fight or flight response”—an instinctual physical reaction to danger (real or imagined) that primes your body to either battle or escape. Fight or flight is a lifesaver in truly threatening situations, but it’s overkill in response to a harmless daddy-long-legs. “It’s like the body gets a false alarm,” explains Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. “You have to override the brain to realize that it’s not dangerous.”

That’s often easier said than done. The trembling hands, hammering heart, and panic of a strong fear response are so uncomfortable that the truly frightened will do anything to keep from even thinking about spiders, much less interacting with them. It’s a hallmark of irrational fear called avoidance—and it prevents you from understanding how extremely unlikely it is that you’ll actually find a black widow in your boot. Avoidance leads to a classic cognitive error called “confusing the stakes and the odds,” says Sally Winston, co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. Threats are composed of two elements: how much harm the thing could possibly do (the stakes), and how likely it is that it will actually harm you (the odds). “Some people only respond emotionally to the stakes,” Winston says. “If it were to happen, and it would be terrible, then it feels dangerous—even if it’s a one-in-a-trillion chance.”

The cognitive part of CBT teaches you the truth about your fear. But it’s the behavioral part—called in vivo exposure—that’s really going to fix your phobia. “Exposure means helping someone confront what they’re scared of in a therapeutic way,” says Barbara Rothbaum, professor of psychiatry at Emory University. “It’s staying with it long enough for the anxiety to come down. And you have to do it repeatedly to teach the body and head that what appears to be frightening isn’t really dangerous.” In other words, you have to face your fears to fix them.

And it’s easier than you think. Exposure therapy is gradual and designed to keep you in control—and you can do it yourself in a matter of days. Here’s your step-by-step plan to becoming the confident, even fearless, backpacker you’ve always wanted to be.

The Phobias
Use this step-by-step guide to beat 7 common backcountry fears. Plus, ideal hikes for overcoming–or avoiding–the source of your scare.

The Fix
Conquer any fear with this DIY guide to applying a proven treatment plan called cognitive-behavioral therapy. Think of it as training for the mind.

Q&A with Psychiatry Professor Barbara Rothbaum

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