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Skydiving is an adventure sport, that involves a degree of risk

Yet many of us come to the sport precisely to meet that personal challenge of fear

In the early stages the competition is principally against ourselves and our natural survival instincts...

screaming student
First jump student fear
Image by Gary Wainwright

Article by Neil J Biscoe

Levels of Fright

Before we examine how to overcome fear we should first try to understand it better – both the causes and the effects. If we approach it with the right attitude, fear can be employed to produce positive results. Fear tends to be felt in three different ways. Let’s refer to them as levels:

Level 1 – The Butterflies

Anticipation / Excitement (Enjoyable)

Level 2 – Fight or Flight

High apprehension / Nervous agitation (Challenging)

Level 3 – Frozen

Terror / All consuming eg Panic attacks, Catatonia (Debilitating)

These should not be seen as sharply defined, but are more like shades of grey, level 3 being the darkest.

Level 1 – The Butterflies

We have all met people who say that they don’t feel fear; this is unlikely unless they are super-human. What they probably mean is that they only experience level 1 fear. For most to reach this level, we only have to ride big roller coasters or go to watch horror films. This lower level is achieved because of the relative safety of the environment and the certainty of a ‘happy ending’ outcome. We just sit back and enjoy the thrill of the ride.

Level 2 – Fight or Flight

Clearly a skydive is a very different situation. The speed and noise create a much more hostile environment and, on top of that, we now have to actively participate in our own outcome. The extreme nature of skydiving will throw the majority of people straight into level 2 fear. This is the level we will concentrate on, as it is at this level where we can modify our behaviour to bring us down closer to level 1.

Level 3 – Frozen

Level 3 belongs principally to those who are too scared even to contemplate leaping out of perfectly good aircraft. A small number of those who do come to skydive will experience this by ‘freezing’ in the door or bottling out completely. If that is you please read on, this article might be of help.

Hannah Betts, Milko and Gary Wainwright 'bricking it' before a mass demo of 672 into downtown Bangkok
Level 1 fear, three very experienced skydivers getting ‘the butterflies’ before a demo into downtown Bangkok – for others this situation could be a level 2 or level 3 fear

Fight or flight

What are the full implications of being in ‘fight or flight’ mode? Fight or flight hits us at the deepest level. It is our primal instinct for basic physical survival. As such it has a profound effect on our brain chemistry, our sensory abilities, and our perception. As our heart rate increases, pumping adrenaline and noradrenaline around our systems, we feel it everywhere. Nobody is immune to this effect. How we manage it will determine our reactions.

Developing a strong mental attitude is essential when we are trying to counteract the body’s powerful defence mechanisms. Instinctive actions don’t always work in our best interests. It is ironic that the things our bodies will do to keep us safe are precisely the things that can compromise our safety in a skydive. To override our instincts we need to concentrate on mental strategies and learn how to utilise this altered brain state in positive ways.

The physical effect of ‘fight or flight’ makes our bodies do everything they can to distract us from the right actions. As the heart pumps harder, our breathing changes as well. We take rapid, shallow breaths, or even hold our breath completely. This creates tension and a high level of preparedness for action when in fact, we need to get more relaxed in the air.

Breathing techniques such as those used in yoga can be useful to relieve stress
Image: Alethia Austin running morning yoga at Flanders Boogie

Controlled breathing

Controlled, regular breathing patterns have been proven to alleviate pain, tension and stress in many situations. The way we breathe is the key to physical and emotional relaxation. That inner conflict between the body’s natural survival instincts and right, safe action is strongly at work.

the boring reality is that we are more likely to have a fatal accident on the way to the drop zone than actually on it

Foetal position

Another, often overlooked, physical effect that can cause problems with exits and body position in free fall. Again that survival instinct seems to be working against us. The foetal position is a natural position we adopt at times of great danger or stress for self-preservation. This tightly curled posture serves to protect the head and genitalia, the two most vulnerable and vital areas for continued existence. Unfortunately it also happens to be the complete opposite of the stable spread position we need. Now we hear that ‘hips down, head up’ is the right way to fall, our leading edge is the pelvis (assuming belly flight). It’s hardly surprising that all these contradictions can feel overwhelming.

Projected outcome

Let us return to the example of the horror film for a moment; because we know it isn’t real we quite rightly can expect no consequence from watching it. Real life is less predictable. The drive to the local supermarket, like many other day-to-day activities, can have tragic results. It’s a sad fact that the media, family and friends only turn their attention to one single aspect of our sport; the boring reality is that we are more likely to have a fatal accident on the way to the drop zone than actually on it. Fearful thinking is based on projection of the potential outcome of events. Who can blame us if in unguarded moments, our minds automatically lock on to the least likely potential outcome of a skydive. When this thinking combines with our primal need for survival, we create a vicious circle.

Fearful thinking is based on projection of the potential outcome of events.

Before a BASE jump it’s important to assess your fear level – a little bit of fear is ok and helps keep you alive but too much fear can lead to poor decisions

Thinking it out

It is a good idea to address the physical symptoms first. Techniques learned and used here carry forward and are involved in the mental preparation. I strongly recommend the regular practice of any of the established ‘controlled breathing’ exercises such as meditation or self-hypnosis, these exercises will make you consciously aware of your own ‘relaxed’ breathing pattern. Now, when you are on your way to altitude if you feel your breathing change you can ‘remind’ yourself to breathe properly. This should enable you to become physically more relaxed and more able to focus clearly on your skydive.

Leaving the plane is a moment of the highest intensity; heart rates of 200 beats per minute have been recorded. By exhaling on exit you break the tension held in the chest. The natural consequence is then to inhale, this sets you into a good breathing pattern at the start of your skydive.

Control your breathing in the plane to be perfectly mentally prepared in the door
Image by Titch Wibrew

Mental preparation

By consciously using our minds to regulate our breathing we can change how we feel. We can carry that forwards and apply the same technique to the way we think. It is commonly said that 75% of a skydive takes place on the ground. Mental preparation is crucial for all levels of experience, but especially important for the novice who is still dealing with ‘the fear’. The repetition of sequences of events and/or actions develops the muscle memory and consciously familiarises you with the location of the different handles. This, in itself, will help to remove some of the tension but it is also an opportunity to practise your relaxation strategies. Build the awareness of your breathing and state of relaxation into the skydive at this early stage and it will be easier in the air.

Rather than thinking about what might happen, you should be focusing on what you want to happen.

Rather than thinking about what might happen, you should be focusing on what you want to happen. Remember, you are in complete control of your skydive, everything you do in the air is going to have an effect. The ground work and your time in the plane should be spent with a fully conscious attitude to your physical relaxation and your mental preparation. If you let your mind wander it will invariably drift towards that unsettling area of projection.

Image by Red Bull

Use your fear

Not many people address the beneficial effects of fear but this is another way to combat its impact on us. So long as you stay aware of the dangers you will not fall victim to avoidable accidents. Be scared, but let it prompt you into affirmative action. If you are concerned or worried about any aspect of the equipment or the jump, talk to someone, reassure yourself and give yourself one less thing to stress about. Above all else use your fear to make you practise those emergency drills. After all, the only time you might actually need to be scared is if you don’t have a good canopy over your head at the appropriate time. This is when those troublesome survival instincts that were giving us problems before turn back in our favour; as long as you know where the handles are you will use them instinctively!

Acknowledge and embrace that fear. Let it help you to stay safe without letting it interfere with your enjoyment of this exhilarating sport

This was a carefully planned stunt by Greg Gasson and not as dangerous as it might seem, he has a concealed strap holding him to the rig – but it’s still vital for Greg to control his fear
Image by Michael McGowan


To sum it up; accept the fact that skydiving is dangerous and it will trigger fear of some description. Acknowledge and embrace that fear. Let it help you to stay safe without letting it interfere with your enjoyment of this exhilarating sport. It won’t always be as scary, with experience comes familiarity. With every jump you will further integrate this ‘highly conscious’ way of thinking into your unconscious thoughts and actions – and here’s the bonus. When you learn to manage the level of fear that skydiving can induce, it will carry through into your whole life.

Article by Neil J Biscoe

Further Reading

Image by Joss Martin

Quick Fixes to Calm Down

Christy Frikken with easy ways to reset your brain in the plane

Quick Fixes

Controlling your breathing

World Champion Matt Davidson explains how controlling your breathing improves your skydiving and competitive performance

Control Breathing

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