“Why are you doing this?” is a question I hear quite often – I asked it myself in the very same moment this photo was taken. Is it the Adrenaline? No, definitely not! During my first highline experiences I felt sick and my stomach felt like hit by a rock. Never before have I felt close to death – now I did. My movements froze. I had no chance of moving. The only thought I was capable of thinking of was: Why the f*** are you doing this? In these moments you are faced by fear, faced by an overwhelming fear of height. For myself, it is a very personal challenge. Can I deal with this fear? Is it possible to overcome this fear? Does it change my relationship to fear in daily life?
I started to challenge myself and a unique journey started. Sometimes I felt close to the top of a mountain, sometimes I found myself back in this dark hole of fear. It took a year and a half with many ups and downs until there was this one key moment.
I was sitting at the anchor of a 90 meter long and over 200 meter exposed highline on Drill and Chill festival in 2019. For me it was the first experience at that height. Many thoughts and feelings were running through my mind. I expected fear, expected a frozen body, expected to look into the devil’s eyes again. But also, I was very excited and remembered me dreaming about this festival and walking on these breath-taking lines. So, I tied into the leash, took my Hangover and went out into the empty space. I felt the wind on my skin, saw all this beautiful people at the anchor-point and I had a bird´s eye view of this unique canyon. In this moment the miracle happened. I was not scared and with the first try I mounted the line. I was really surprised by the unexpected feeling of freedom and for the rest of the day I had a huge smile on my face. Since this “breaking point” highlining is really enjoyable to me. Somehow my mental barrier resolved and I became able to reflect my journey of fear. What happened on this festival? How do I deal with fear now?
To get started, we have to asked ourselves the question: What is fear? Fear is a powerful and a primitive emotion. In evolutionary history, fear had an important function as a protection and survival mechanism that sharpened the senses and activated physical strength. The brain area that is involved in processing fear is the amygdala, which is responsible for releasing adrenalin. Together with cortisol it increases the blood flow, the heartrate and the blood sugar level – to fight or flight. This response is universal, but the emotional response as well as the physical reaction to fear is very personal. Fear can be perceived in both ways: positively or negatively. Why? On biochemical perspective fear is closely related to positive emotions like happiness and excitement.
Because of this individual reaction, there are many different methods how to deal with fear – here just my favourite ones. When you start highlining, fear can be powerful. You sit on the line, you feel lost in this empty space, you lose the feeling of balance and control, with thoughts like “I shouldn’t be here, that’s not my environment”. Even taking off the hands from the line might scare you. In this case, try to start moving the body gently, shake your arms, bend your legs, change the sitting position, try a chest-roll – do every movement that feels intuitive and comfortable. Our mind is strongly connected with our body and vice versa. This is what Yoga is all about (actually). Yoga means „union“ – union of body and mind. And in case of a freeze response, it is much easier to control the body. To increase this body-mind connection, the simplest and the most powerful technique is to focus on your breath which significantly reduces stress (Wim Hof). Take ten, twenty or more slow and deep breathings to relax (without hyperventilation!). If you feel comfortable and you want to try the next step, take a sitting position and start to visualize the chongo-mount. Prepare your mind with an affirmation. For example, formulate and REPEAT the sentence: “I will go into the chongo-position, I will put both foot on the line and get up”. As soon as this is done do not waste any time – just do it. Visualisation and affirmations are really powerful and common in mental training or meditation. But be prepared, affirmations can lead to autohypnosis and maybe you wake up a few seconds later, standing on the line and think “shit, now I´m here high up in the air”. I think it was this method that helped me most when I started highlining.
In times you are not too scared, calm yourself down by listening to music or even singing. A very similar approach to cheat your mind is a “fake” smile. Both, singing and activating your smiling muscles quickly release neurotransmitters as endorphins, dopamine and adrenalin, that are responsible for the emotion of joy – fake it until you make it 😉
What is also very useful is to collect save experiences to learn that a specific situation is not dangerous – your brain never forgets these experiences. If you have been afraid in a situation before, you need to recover this fear memory (Armita Golkar). When it comes to highlining, try to rig a line at a modest height above water, get used to the leash and increase the height as soon as you feel comfortable.
Alex Honold, a free solo climber and a master of dealing with fear, said “reframe fear as excitement”. As mentioned in the beginning, fear is closely related to positive emotions. Remember your childhood: doing tests of courage and dealing with fear playfully? I really like Ido Portal´s description of a “serious playful approach […] and being playful doesn’t mean you don’t do it full-on serious till you bleed.”
On the other hand, it is essential to use your mantle power (focus) to get into a meditative state or flow. Here the Buddhism perspective can be very helpful: fearlessness arises from good will, instead of fighting against it. Embrace and accept fear to evolve loving-kindness as a direct antidote. Never, really never tell yourself “shit I’m scared, why? That´s stupid”. It´s okay to be scared, that’s “normal”! But being angry about yourself makes everything worse.
And let’s think about mindset. Don´t go highlining just to get in contact with fear. I heard this sentence very often, but in this case, you will just find yourself in this black cold hole of fear, again and again. You will never get used to this feeling. It is important to have a clear mindset – go highlining to OVERCOME fear. This is a huge different!
I´m still not sure about the reason for my breaking point on the Drill and Chill, but I think it is related to multiple factors. I have been travelling for month before. Therefore, I was on no stress and had a stronger mind as in daily life. On top, there was the slacklife community with its unique spirit and energy. Also, I have been dreaming about this festival and this beautiful canyon for a year. I visualized myself walking through this empty space quit often. The only thing I wanted was to enjoy walking on these lines. That is why I took a decision – in the right moment: “I am fearless – I am joy”. And this is the last and the most powerful key-note I would like to share with you. As often as possible visualize yourself walking on a highline. Imagine yourself walking on a highline with positive emotions – with joy. Feel your next stepping stone, even FEEL the success of your next step. Your brain cannot distinguish a good visualization or imagination from reality. That way, with this kind of meditation mental barriers can be resolved. Let the miracle happen!
Sometimes I still feel fear and a little bit shaky on a highline, but with my described toolbox I can solve this quickly. Most of the time, I feel unleashed by fear. This opened the door to Freestyle-Highlining and many moments in the flow-state. That is something I am really excited about 🙂 In addition, this experience of overcoming such a strong fear has significantly strengthened my self-confidence. If I feel fear in everyday life, I can now face it in a completely different way. This gives me a strong feeling of freedom.
But don’t forget: it is a very personal journey. Take your individual speed. Choose your travel buddy’s. Find your own method. “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own” (Bruce Lee) – always enjoy this unique experience and celebrate every little step.
A big thank you to all friends who were and are part of this incredible journey!