Photo credit: Leon Christopher,

Your heart starts racing, your palms start sweating, you recognize this feeling — fear. Our first instinct is to start judging our fear, being embarrassed by it, or running from our emotions.

What if we could lean into that fear instead? What if we could embrace it and use it as motivation? Fear may keep us stuck, but so many motivational gurus encourage us to just push through it or to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Why doesn’t that work?

On the One Idea Away podcast, we talk a lot about facing fears, so that we follow through on what that next “big idea” … what that next leap… looks like, feels like, and certainly, what it will be like upon taking action toward our dreams. I had the privilege of speaking with Kristen Ulmer on a recent episode about how to move beyond that fear, not from avoiding it, but from embracing it.

Kristen Ulmer is a fear specialist and former professional extreme athlete. No stranger to facing her fears, she was named the Best Woman Extreme Skier in the world 12 years running, North America’s Most Extreme Woman Athlete, and labeled “fearless” by the Outdoor Industry. Over the course of her career, however, she discovered that title not only to be unattainable, but undesirable too. 

With her latest book, The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work, and What to Do Instead, she tackles facing and accepting fear as a way to resolve many common problems.

What’s your relationship with fear?

When Kristen was younger, she thought that fear was something to conquer, to let go of, or to ignore. She learned that fear helped her to be the world famous skier that she was. After about 10 years of operating that way though, Kristen started to burn out and even hate skiing.

Her adrenal system crashed and she needed more sleep just to function. Continuously overcoming fear, in the way she had, can cause depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Kristen was more repressing or shutting down the fear than anything else – and it was those years of repressing that led her to retire in 2003, as it had taken a significant impact on her career and personal life.

Healing the Relationship with Fear

In 2003, Kristen started ski camps focused on mindset — not the technical side of skiing. She notes that great athleticism is all mental.

However, there was more going on. The real reason Kristen started these camps was to heal her relationship with skiing, following her burnout. Her training with clients shifted, helping them make “friends” with fear. Her clients then began to ask her to work with them, not just on skiing, but on their depression and anxiety also. After a few sessions with her, their lives and well-being improved.

Friends with Fear … Really?

If you see fear as a bad thing, you start fighting a war with it, and not just fleeing a scary situation, but running from the fear itself. Instead, fear can serve you.

The first step is to see what your unique relationship is to fear. Kristen realized she had been avoiding fear her whole life and needed to be aware of and acknowledge that.

The next step is to notice if you’ve been denying fear, and ask yourself how to repair your relationship with it, which starts by changing your language around it.

Another aspect is in changing your perception of what fear is. Kelly McGonigal’s famous TED Talk on stress cites research that showed that it’s not the stress itself that’s not good for you, but whether or not you believe that stress is bad for you — it’s the belief that triggers the consequences to occur.

Kristen refers to further research that found that fear, and all of the associated chemicals that get released, happens in about 10 to 90 seconds. After that, it’s gone. It’s temporary – UNLESS we continue to re-trigger the stress cycle. However, when we begin to acknowledge and validate our fears, we can let the worries pass. 

So then, how do we move closer to the life we wish to have?

Something I see with my clients and with stories shared through the podcast is that too many people put off their “tomorrows” for too long, out of fear.

Kristen thinks that we can’t turn away from what’s unpleasant to make our lives better. If you do that, you can’t find your purpose. If we turn toward fear, we’ll find out it’s not so bad, and you won’t have to work as hard to let it go. Since fear goes away in 10 to 90 seconds, then we know it will pass, and we can begin to move through those profound challenges of depression and anxiety.

“When we heal from within, accepting our fears, we can improve our relationships with each other. This creates a ripple effect, and we can stop isolating and connect to the wholeness of our experience.”  _ Kristen Ulmer

Perhaps the best way to sum up is with a Zen saying included in Kristen’s book, The Art Of Fear:

Kiss a dragon it becomes a maiden,

kiss a tiger it becomes the Buddha,

kiss a demon it becomes love.

Check out Kristen Ulmer’s interview, in its entirety, on the One Idea Away podcast. You can also click below for quick listening access.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This episode had originally aired on our network’s affiliated podcast, The Meaningful Way. 

Also published on Medium.