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What Alone Australia tells us about fear, and why we need it


Australia only follows individuals on an extreme adventure in wild Tasmania. From one perspective, this seems like a silly thing to do – contestants must be crazy or fearless. Why else would anyone choose to feel comfortable alone and without a supermarket for weeks on end?

Based on the American reality TV show with the same name, participants are dropped off in remote Tasmania where they must survive on their own. The contestants film themselves during the trial with the person who stays in the wilderness the longest and wins A$250,000.

The contestants must overcome many obstacles: basic survival, isolation and loneliness, and extreme fear. The traditional view is that people seeking extreme opportunities in nature either feel “no fear” or have an inappropriate relationship with it. Participants who engage in similar extreme activities in nature are usually examined from a negative perspective – for example, focusing on the “need to take unnecessary risks”, or the desire to prove themselves by competing against nature.

Although participants in Alone Australia have an “escape plan”, it is very easy for a serious accident to happen and participants to be gripped by the fear of that probability. For example, contestants on the show expressed concern about embedding an ax in a limb or getting caught by a large falling branch or getting stuck in a deep muddy swamp.

Presumably adventurers are piloted by a pathological relationship with anxiety due to a personality disorder, but these suspicions have never been scientifically substantiated.

Fear is seen as something to be avoided, but should it be? Perhaps, as the late President Roosevelt observed – to paraphrase the French philosopher Montaigne – we have “nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Research with people actively seeking out extreme activities suggests other motives. Only Australia shows us that fear is more nuanced and positive than assumed.

Fear as messenger and guide

Like other emotions, fear tends to ebb and flow. Rather than staying at the same level of intensity all the time, it depends on both internal and external factors and has to deal with fluctuating levels of danger.

Knowing when an endeavor would be too dangerous to attempt or pursue essentially requires a thorough self-knowledge of one’s strengths and limitations, as well as extensive experiential knowledge of the environment. This does not come from a mindset of competing with nature, but from being attuned to nature.

An important function of intuition is detect danger. This can be felt by the body, where a reaction and systematic preparation for action arise before the intellect has a chance to determine the source of the danger and its various characteristics, such as immediacy, degree, or complexity.

Gina, an Alone Australia contestant.

Intuition, like any other sense, triggers bodily responses to fear before bringing clear factual data into cognitive awareness. The intuitive body movements that occur in response to danger are, in part, what enables an extraordinarily fast reaction when perhaps only a fraction of a second is available to mitigate or avoid catastrophic danger.

Read more: Adrenaline zen: what ‘normal people’ can learn from extreme sports

Fear is pragmatic

Aside from being a source of rapid information transfer, anxiety has the pragmatic function of integrating senses, thoughts and actions so that hazards can be dealt with directly.

Fear is a force that requires sharper attention to the source of danger in preparation for action, such as escape.

Fear is a reliable messenger between the senses and the cognitive faculties. Awareness of danger, such as tree branches falling on an Alone Australia participant’s head, hypothermia, the need for food and effective shelter, or even the onset of serious illness, require a rapid shift in focus to the danger, with all other concerns immediately fall by the wayside.

If the environmental information were forced in fear to “line up and wait its turn” before it could eventually reach cognitive awareness, the likelihood in which the hazard could otherwise have been effectively evaluated and addressed , are already over.

Fear as a guideline

Fear is a benevolent force or guide that is often felt in the context of high adventure.

The information in fear is information used to make wise decisions under extremely dangerous and uncertain circumstances. An intimate and harmonious relationship with fear brings vital information pertaining to danger to the fore more quickly than any other means. The nature of fear is to immediately ignite the power of the body and mind at the same time, so that there is no delay in carrying out reactions to danger.

In adventurism fear is a friend, an essential companion, not something to be feared. In Alone Australia, accepting fear as something useful and necessary is essential to survival.

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