Overcoming Your Mental Obstacles On The Course

Guest Blog Post By: Bobby Newman, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Bobby Newman is a New York State Licensed Psychologist, a Licensed Behavior Analyst and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. He is a marathoner, OCR (Obstacle Course Racing) enthusiast, and AFAA-certified Personal Trainer. Mr. Newman participated in Warrior Dash Pennsylvania 2016. He has published thirteen books and dozens of popular and peer-reviewed research articles.

At Warrior Dash Pennsylvania this past year, we had all completed the obstacle around the same time, and I found myself pacing alongside a group in matching t-shirts. We were heading towards the Trenches, and as we got closer, I noticed someone’s breathing change. An extremely fit looking guy was nonetheless suddenly breathing in a rapid and shallow fashion. His stride went from effortless to uncertain. He slowed. He began to speak incoherently while his teammates spoke soothingly to him. There was no mistaking it, he was heading into a full-blown panic attack. The looming Trenches obstacle was touching off his claustrophobia. Friends tried to speak sense to him: He would be fine. He would not be trapped. They were all here for him. Someone even tried humor: “You’re not going to get stuck halfway in and halfway out like Winnie the Pooh.”

This mistake here is in believing phobias are rational. They aren’t. In fact, part of the definition of a specific phobia when I was getting my Ph.D. was that the person realizes the fear is way out of proportion to any actual danger (although that portion of the diagnosis has recently changed). Nonetheless, while a person may rationally realize that the odds of any kind of danger are more imaginary than real, that does not make the fear any less real or any less limiting. As fate would have it, the very nature of Obstacle Course Racing brings participants into contact with very common phobic stimuli like heights, fire, enclosed places, water, mud and dirt/germs, and the potential to run into specific animals like snakes or bugs. Overcoming not only physical obstacles, but also these mental obstacles, is a huge part of what makes OCR such a rewarding experience for so many.

Another mistake is in believing that people can just get over a phobia by thinking about the feared stimulus differently. While changing one’s thinking is a big part of overcoming a phobia, that change is not something that is easily simply willed by a person. It is not easy to just “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” and overcome a phobia through simple willpower to change thinking. Luckily, there are behavioral techniques that help to make that change in thinking and behavior occur. Two of the most common are flooding and systematic desensitization. Let’s look at them in turn.

Flooding is extremely straightforward. If someone is afraid of snakes, do the Indiana Jones thing and have the person sit in a bathtub full of them until the fear is gone. Afraid of the water? Go over the side of a boat! As we somewhat glibly comment regarding flooding, “It is generally successful as long as your client doesn’t have a heart attack.” Of course we’re kidding, and I have never read of anyone who ever had an actual heart attack during a flooding procedure. But the procedure is obviously extremely uncomfortable for the person with the phobia. If you were afraid of heights, could you imagine simply sitting atop the two-story Goliath slides at Warrior Dash until your fear went away? It would work, but you would be having majorly uncomfortable anxiety until then. Unless a client is truly pressed for time (think: I am taking a job 3,000 miles away and I need to be there in two days and I am afraid to fly!) or truly prefers this procedure, I generally suggest systematic desensitization.

When one conducts systematic desensitization, the following occurs:

A. One constructs a list, a hierarchy of fear-provoking stimuli. The list goes from least anxiety-provoking to most. If one were thinking of a fear of dogs, one might begin with the written word “dog” as least anxiety-provoking, and a large pack of rabid aggressive Cujo-sized dogs for most anxiety-provoking (although maybe you should be afraid of that one!) There might be twenty steps or more in between.

B. One learns some sort of coping skill, often a relaxation strategy. This is practiced repeatedly AWAY from the anxiety-provoking stimuli, perhaps for a half hour each night, until one becomes practiced in getting oneself relaxed when needed. Common choices are progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, specific calming imagery, and soothing music. The person will choose what works best for them.

Once this is accomplished, one begins by first getting very relaxed. When this is achieved, the person is exposed to the first thing on the list, the least anxiety provoking stimulus. When, and only when, this can be encountered and interacted with without anxiety, one is then exposed to the second item on the list (the slightly more anxiety provoking one). If anxiety is felt in response to any stimulus on the list at any time, however, that items is immediately withdrawn and the person uses their coping strategy to achieve relaxation again. When one is sufficiently relaxed, one tries again with the previous item on the list and then attempts to move forward. In this manner, the person slowly and systematically encounters stimuli that would previously have caused massive anxiety, bit by bit and without that previously intolerable anxiety. Slowly but surely, the anxiety decreases and the person learns to think about what used to scare them in a different light. It is not as fast as flooding, generally speaking, but it tends to be a heck of a lot more pleasant. Trying this technique may just help get you through the claustrophobia of Trenches, overcome the heights of Goliath, or help get you through the watery nets of Alcatraz.

Phobias are common. A qualified behavior therapist, though, can help to reduce or eliminate the hold that phobia has on your life. It is a worthwhile investment in some time and effort to get rid of those fears that can really interfere with life or simply the enjoyment of the OCR hobby and competition we all love. I’ll see you out on the Battleground!