It was New Year’s Day 2013, and after dancing the previous night away at the annual Hogmanay Festival in Edinburgh, my legs now refused to carry me further than halfway up Arthur’s Seat.
But it wasn’t fatigue that halted my ascent; it was fear.
Arthur’s Seat is a hill in Edinburgh; the highest of seven with a maximum height of 251m above the city of Edinburgh below it. So you’re probably thinking it was a fear of heights that struck me that day. Well the answer is far more humiliating.
^ The hill what started it…
The route we had taken to climb the hill was composed of stone steps that had been forged into the rock. They had been worn down by hundreds of thousands of hikers over the years, no doubt on their personal quest for Camelot. The thought of the smooth rock, combined with the narrow steps shared by those of us ascending and descending at the same time, intensified with anxiety every step that I took.
With each step my excitement to get to the peak faded, and my legs got a little more wobbly.
Until my fear of falling all the way back down those steps overcame my fear of missing out on reaching the peak with two of my oldest friends.
Yep. I have a fear of falling down stairs.
Apparently so does Donald Trump… and the thought that I have something in common with that man makes me feel sicker than when my phobia kicked in halfway up a hill in Morocco the last time I was there.
^ I never made it to the top of this one in Morocco…
Some people call it bathmophobia. Others call it climacophobia.
Here is one of the few definitions I can find on the two concepts:
Honestly, neither of these two definitions seem to pin-point the way I feel about falling down steps. The sight of a staircase doesn’t send me into a panic attack. In fact, I’m not at all afraid of regular staircases in houses.
But similarly, I have no problem with climbing. In fact, I love rock climbing and have no problem getting up a ladder.
My issue comes when I’m climbing extremely narrow, tall winding staircases or extra wide stumpy staircases.
And I promise you, I know how ridiculous that sounds. So here’s an example of both: an extremely narrow, tall winding staircase on the left and an extra wide stumpy staircase on the right.
When it comes to these types of staircases, I can’t help but get anxious about how I’m going to get down without slipping or falling.
And when it comes to travelling, this ridiculous phobia of mine is a royal pain in the arse.
A couple of years ago I took part in my first Via Ferrata with three friends. On my way up, I was fearless. There were very few steps, so as I scrambled and hauled myself up the rock with my arms, carabiners locking me into place against the rock, I didn’t think once about getting down.
I got a bruise the colour of blue cheese mixed with beetroot on my arse after finishing off the final zip-line with a true-to-self clumsy landing, and hung about the peak with my friends posing for photographs. I felt on top of the world!
And then, I had to get down. Well it turns out that getting down from the top of a Via Ferrata requires a lot of steps and gravelly slopes. Two of my friends rushed off, in a violent and wonderfully reckless race to the bottom. The third was trying to get in my knickers at the time so he gallantly shadowed every slow step that I took until, after what felt like an hour, we reached flat ground.
By the time the slope and steps had levelled out, my heart was racing faster than if my friend had got in my knickers. My body had been sweating more on the way down than it had on the way up, during a climb that had required me to use every inch of my body strength.
My legs were shaky, my breath was ragged, and my mind was royally pissed off.
How I Use Travel To Overcome My Fears
I’d like to say that after that downhill experience, and my realisation that something had to change, that everything went uphill from there. I’d like to say that, but I can’t quite say it yet.
I’ve failed since then; most notably in Morocco when I refused to ascend a hill near the desert after an epic road trip, and to descend the gritty rolling hills of Legzira.
But, because I’m stubborn and have a burning desire to experience every rooftop view I can, I’ve bloody well tried.
Which has turned me into a climber of towers. If I visit a city, you can be damn sure that I’m finding a church tower to climb.
^ These are different towers, but I just live in this leather jacket…
The reason I do this is because I have incredible faith in the power of the mind. I like to credit this to my degree in Psychology, rather than my love for the X-Men franchise.
But either way, I know that this phobia of falling down steps is something that has been conditioned in my brain.
In a fantastic NY Times article from 1986, one lady was struggling with her own phobias when she went to a psychologist who told her this:
My views on whether this theory works or not are pretty subjective. I still get shaky legs. And it can often take me longer than an 80-year old with creaky joints to get down a spiral staircase.
But travel has helped me turn this mental exercise into a hobby.
I love rooftop views. I love the breeze that comes from the top of a tower. And I love the pride that rushes through me when I reach the ground again.
All I can hope is that each time I do get down to ground level I do so a little less sweaty than the last time I tried.
^ Shaky but strong at the top of the Bruges Belfry.
How To Overcome Your Fears While Travelling
I may have a degree in Psychology, but I ain’t no psychologist. So these tips are just ones I’ve come across when dealing with my own fears. But I’m leaving them here because it’s a damn shame to let any fears stop you from experiencing the spell-binding world we live in…
Tell your new hostel friends about your phobia. Trust me, this isn’t easy. Especially if you like to appear as tough as I do. But having supportive friends around who can encourage you with each next step is nothing short of relief. Travelling solo? Read my guide on how to make friends in hostels!
^ I had a very handsome Montengrin from my hostel help me up this one in Kotor.
Keep exposing yourself to your fears. In the same way that I regularly climb towers, find a way to put yourself in front of your fears as regularly as you can handle without going insane. Hopefully over time familiarity, and habit, will lessen the strain. Afraid of the ocean? Make it your mission to paddle a little deeper at each beautiful beach you pass by.
Keep a travel journal and focus on your fears. Identifying when a fear kicks in, or what details trigger your anxiety about something, can help you understand what’s going on in your mind when it comes to your fears. For a few more tips on this, read this Bustle post on 7 journal prompts that will help tackle anxiety.
For me, it’s not necessarily interesting to play a strong, fearless woman. It’s interesting to play a woman who is terrified and then overcomes that fear. It’s about the journey. Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s overcoming it.Natalie Dormer
In case you’re wondering what happened that day on Arthur’s Seat: I made it to the top. I stubbornly refused to move and insisted that I would be happier sitting on my bum waiting for my friends to return.
But they were having none of it. So instead, I spent New Year’s Day 2013 on the peak of a blustery hill. I loved every minute of being up there. And I loved it more for the struggle it took to get there.
Embrace your struggles.
The most beautiful thing about travelling is getting out of your comfort zone to experience once-in-a-lifetime moments that take your breath away.
And it’s fine if the view is shit once you get there. It’s the getting there that counts.
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Lots of love,
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