Friday 24 July 2015

Fear of death

The colloquial expression of "having a death wish" is often applied to people who expose themselves to great danger, and especially to those who enjoy extreme sports.

The most dangerous extreme sport is BASE jumping (above), where an individual leaps from a cliff, bridge or a similar structure, and free falls before opening a parachute. BASE jumping carries a five to sixteen times greater risk of death than skydiving from an aeroplane or helicopter [1], and an even more risky variant of BASE jumping is proximity flying using steerable wing suits. These suits allow fliers to pass very close to terrain before moving out into a region where there is sufficient altitude to allow safe release of a parachute and return to the ground. Take a look at this video clip and you'll see what I mean:

The fliers are Jeb Corliss (in the black suit) and Jhonathan Florez (in the light suit) and one can sense their exhilaration in flying quickly and so close to the ground. However, it can go wrong. Indeed, Jhonny Florez was killed recently in Switzerland and he was a highly experienced wing suit flier who had made many jumps of the same type as the one that resulted in his death from "impact with terrain". For close proximity fliers, then, death is a real possibility, but their attitude towards it is different to that of the average person.

In a study entitled Personality Characteristics of BASE Jumpers, Monasterio et al. [1] found that, while many personality traits showed a range that was similar to that of their peers, BASE jumpers tended to have very low HA (Harm Avoidance) scores:

The finding of low HA is not surprising or counterintuitive, as individuals with low scores in this dimension are described as carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident. Their energy levels tend to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively and vigorous. The advantages of low HA are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress..

..In our study there was a high prevalence of witnessed and experienced serious trauma, and near misses among BASE jumpers; despite this participants persisted in the sport and this suggests that they are likely to possess considerable psychological resilience to the effects of trauma.

Far from being reckless, BASE jumpers are very careful in their preparation, as they are aware of the danger of things going wrong, but this awareness is exceeded by the pleasure provided in making flights and jumps. Close proximity wing suit flying can be regarded as the pinnacle of the sport when it comes to exhilaration and, in discussing a range of extreme sports, Brymer and Schweitzer [2] point out that:

Fear was intimately related to decision making in terms of decisions to engage in or not engage in activities and potential consequences of such engagement. That is, the future which involved the potential destruction of the physical self emerged in the present..

..participants live in relationship to fear. Extreme sport participants perceive the experience of fear as an essential element to their survival. Fear is spoken about as if it is a healthy, productive experience..

..they are also able to objectify fear. Fear is thus not something to be avoided, but embraced as contributing to personal survival. Fear 'keeps you alive', revealing an intimate relationship between fear and the living self.

There are shades of mindfulness in these statements and the fear faced by BASE jumpers and wing suit fliers is not unlike the paralysing fear of those suffering from severe anxiety as a mental illness. However, the jumpers and fliers look at fear as something that is felt, challenged and benefitted from and the result is a feeling of release. Further in their article, Brymer and Schweitzer [2] write:

Participation in the face of the fear offers considerable benefits as participants note how the experience changes their life..

..a BASE jumper related how BASE jumping was the 'ultimate metaphor for jumping into life rather than standing on the edge quivering'. She described an acceptance of the inevitability of death and development of an intimate connection to nature as if just 'a leaf in the wind': ' you're totally vulnerable and totally part of the environment at the same time'..

.. Working through fear in an extreme situation empowers everyday life.. ..Fear emerges as part of the experience and meaning of extreme sports. Participants are very clear about the intense feelings during the preparation and pre-activity stage. It would seem that participants consider those who do not feel fear are a danger to themselves and others.

In another paper, Brymer and Schweitzer make a telling statement [3]:

A number of participants described a sense of freedom in terms of peace or being at one as participants were immersed in the natural environment.

Immersion in the natural environment is important to mental health, whether one is a BASE jumper, wing suit flier or, like me, a Natural Historian. Perhaps the only difference comes in the scale of intensity of feeling?

A sense of fear can be so overwhelming in beginners at free-fall parachuting that they have to make a first attempt by being strapped to an experienced parachutist who makes the decision of when to jump. This sense of impending danger also affects some bungee jumpers. Take a look at this clip (turn off the sound) and put yourself in the woman's position:

Bungee jumping and free fall parachuting are extreme sports with a good safety record, but fatalities do occur (the bridge in the above clip was the scene of a recent bungee jumping fatality). Yet the exhilaration of completing a jump often makes people want to make another attempt, just to see if the buzz is the same – and it usually is. In tackling the fear on a second, and subsequent, flight, the participant knows more about fear and that they can cope with it. Imagine that multiplied in BASE jumping and further magnified in wing suit close proximity flying and one sees something powerful at work [2]:

Participants in this study also report that facing fear in extreme sports and learning to participate despite the intensity of the fear facilitates the management of fears in other aspects of life. That is by facing our greatest 'true' fears whether they be death, uncertainty or something else and taking action despite those fears we transcend our own limitations and invite new possibilities into our lives.

Should we then encourage those with low HA scores in personality tests to take up the most dangerous sports because they provide a quite different perspective on life and one which is highly beneficial to the participant? Close proximity wing suit flying provides personal fulfilment and a great deal to the individual, but it is also selfish. If death results, the flier presumably knows little about it, but others have to cope with the trauma of recovery, and of bereavement, and this is the down side of the activity.

I don't know how many wing suit and proximity fliers believe in a supernatural force, but their sense of exhilaration in the face of death could be termed a religious experience, while providing tools to conquer day-to-day sources of anxiety and the fear of death. It all seems so much more real than the conventional religious approach to death, with the need to adhere to tenets throughout one's life, and the deep fear of judgement and retribution.

[1] Erik Monasterio, Roger Mulder, Christopher Frampton and Omer Mei-Dan (2012) Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 24: 391-400.

[2] Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer (2012) Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of Health Psychology 18: 477-487.

[3] Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer (2013) The search for freedom in extreme sports: a phenomenological exploration. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 14: 865-873.

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