The value of facing irrational fears

For years I’ve known that I’m one of those folks with irrational test anxiety. I say irrational because I’m typically over-prepared for any kind of test I take, whether a written academic exam or an evaluation of physical skills. Usually I know the things I’m going to fail before I even get to a testing stage, and either bail out or don’t pursue them in the first place. I hate failure, and while I’m really not that competitive, I do have high standards for myself, and I like to achieve them.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to do something I’d put off for quite a while – one of those irrational fears.  For the years I’ve worked in aviation, including flying over water on a near-daily basis in Southeast Alaska, but I’d never taken the official water ditching training, otherwise known as “dunker” training because you do in fact get dunked in a pool.  The irrational part of the fear is that I really have never been worried about what I’d do if I was ever unlucky enough to be in an aircraft that makes an unplanned water landing. That didn’t, and still doesn’t, worry me that much.  The class, on the other hand, caused me a pretty large amount of anxiety for several years.

For whatever reason, the prospect of going through the training, and failing, was more worrisome than the prospect of actually being in a water ditching scenario.  Just one more byproduct of my introverted personality I suppose.  I never avoided attending the training, but I never really sought it out either.  This spring however, I was presented with an opportunity to get the training right here in Boise, and the time seemed right to finally take the training and put to rest one more irrational fear.

As you might guess, the class wasn’t anything close to what my active imagination had made it.  I was lucky enough to be part of a small class, only six of us, and the atmosphere was very laid back, just the way I like it.  By the time we finished the classroom portion and headed to pool for the hands-on section, I was feeling better about the whole thing.  Once in the pool, the instructors eased us in gradually, starting with some breathing drills, laps around the pool, and practice getting in and out of a life raft.  Easy-peasy stuff, and half-fun to boot.

The final section, and the one I’d been dreading to some degree for the better part of six years, involved the dunker.  The dunker is a mock aircraft cabin made from PVC pipe and nylon webbing, complete with seatbelts and plugs for flight helmets.  To complete the training, you get strapped in, and complete three evolutions of being tipped in the pool; first upright, then face down, and finally upside down.  If you successfully exit the simulator, performing the steps in order, you pass.  There are a multitude of stories, mostly humorous, of students panicking during this section, and starting to go through the exit procedure before the dunker even hits the water.  Fortunately, everyone in my group was cool and collected, with no antics to be seen.

As the first two groups went, I helped in the pool and mentally calmed myself for my turn.  Even though I’m fully aware that you should go first if you’re anxious, I always prefer to go last, to be the “tail end Charlie” in just about everything I do, anxiety or no.  When the time came, I did my three trips into the pool without a hitch, and felt comfortable during the whole process.  As is often the case, I’d spent more time worrying about the irrational than I should have.  Not only was the dunker not much of a challenge, it was fun, truth be told.

The take home message?  I had known for some time that my fear of the training was completely, 100%, irrational, and facing that fear was something that just needed to be done.  And you know what?  The training was great.  I had fun, my confidence was boosted quite a bit, and after completing it I felt better about myself and life in general for a while.  You see, making it through the training wasn’t that much of a challenge – the instructors made sure that it was achievable for everyone.  Doing something I really didn’t want to – that, on the other hand, was the real challenge.

At some point or another we will all face things we really don’t want to do that will make us better, professionally and personally.  Facing up to these things, no matter how small, and taking pride having done so, is valuable.  Sometimes, facing my fears is just what I need to do in order to move on in life.  After all, having fewer irrational fears is never a bad thing.

And this time I got paid to swim around in a pool for few hours.  I certainly can’t complain about that that.

Until next time.

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About Justin Vernon

Fire and Aviation Specialist (aka jack of all trades) for the US Forest Service, based in Boise, Idaho. I'm also an amateur photographer, wanna-be writer, tech aficionado, and a classic introvert who values quiet time as much as I do the mountains and people of the Pacific Northwest. All opinions voiced are mine alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.
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