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Understanding Fear and Anxiety on the Water

Understanding Fear and Anxiety on the Water

After a day of some really poor boating on the Kyburz section of the South Fork of the American River and failing at some new maneuvers with a less experienced friend in the boat, I was recently reminded of my own experience on the same river at nearly the same spot during my early boating career. For those who have not had the pleasure of running Kyburz, the first 2 miles are is an unrelentingly continuous class IV section that gets easier after hoes first couple miles. The water was low, but it was snowy and cold that day adding to the anticipation of a cold swim. During a particularly poorly executed slot maneuver, the boat pinned and I watched my friend freeze up in just the same way that I did years ago. I realized that she and I react very differently, back then I lashed out in fear, but both my younger self and her spent the rest of the trip anxious and unable to relax. Although I am not pleased with the way in which I reacted on this recent trip I spent some time trying to figure out what happened mentally. My reaction and state of mind after the boat pined were generally well rehearsed and experientially driven problem solving with a general state of annoyance at the whole situation. So what can we uncover from this series of events about my state of mind in this example? How do fear stimuli interact with our state of mind and reactions when boating?

What is Fear and Anxiety?

  • Fear responses are elicited by specific stimuli, and tend to be short-lived; decreasing once a threat has dissipated. An encounter with a swim, a flip, a wrap, a log jam, and an undercut are all common specific fear stimuli.
  • Anxiety may be experienced in the absence of a direct physical threat, and typically persists over a longer period of time. However, anxiety is commonly conceptualized as a state of sustained fear. Anticipation of a portage, a rapid, or navigating a particularly steep mile in a river are common examples of anxiety triggers.
Carnage Rock Lobin NF Feather

Responses to fear

Your response to fear can manifest in several forms, but they typically fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Focus Response – This response will fixate our minds on the threat making us hyper aware of the stimuli in exclusion to all else. In boating, this will lead to the “head in the boat” phenomenon, you will most often see this when there is a large feature in the river and the boater is solely concerned with what happens in or to the boat directly related to that feature. This response is responsible for reduced situational awareness and caving to it will diminish your ability to link moves and features.
  2. Freeze Response – Freezing is a basic mammalian reaction based on the premise of blending in with our surroundings to avoid the threat spotting us or to buy time to decide what to do. Freezing up is frequently cited in boating as the precursor to mistakes; however this is also an unconscious biological response to cold water immersion.
  3. Fight response – This response is where courage and overcoming fear often live. Here we find the reaction is to combat and overcome the threat. This response is typically carries the stigma of being the superior response in boating.
  4. Flight response – The flight response is the natural instinct to flee from the fear stimuli. In boating this will often lead to frequent portaging or avoidance of a river all together
  5. Panic Response – This response is a combination of the focus and flight response and is typically seen as the most detrimental fear response in adventure sports. Panic is often characterized by rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, threat fixation, and loss of rational thinking. 
Low Head Dam Rancho Murieta

Decision making theories 

All of these responses play into how anger and fear affect your decision making process. The decision making process that you typically engage in and maintain is a key component to your ability to deal with adversity. In the world of boating this can have far reaching social and learning consequences from being passed up for invitations on future trips to being denied employment. There are two basic types of decision making processes Intuitive or Rational.

Intuitive decision making has either an Expert or an Emotional basis, however both involve unconscious, fast, association based solutions. Intuitive decision making relies upon experiential knowledge and expertise. The fear stimuli are often experienced in an emotionally vivid context.

Rational decision making is always made consciously, slowly, sequentially, and casually. The decision maker relies upon abstract and theoretical knowledge. Fear stimuli are usually experienced in a neutral context.

South Silver Scouting

Expert Intuitive Decision Making

  • Cause of the decision making process: This is mostly the realm of experienced decision makers who will draw upon professional or previous expertise about a given situation to make an intuitive decision.
  • Common emotions elicited: Moderate anger or fear.
  • Ability to resolve external problems: The main focus of this decision making process
  • Ability to remain calm, balanced, and motivated so you can remain functioning at your highest ability: Achieved automatically through feelings of mastery
  • Results of this Process: Swift resolution to the current problem with few new learning opportunities 

Emotional Intuitive Decision Making

  • Cause of the decision making process: Decision makers typically have no previous expertise with a situation then conjure up tacitly related personal emotional experiences make an intuitive decision about a given situation.
  • Common emotions elicited: High Anger or High Fear
  • Ability to resolve external problems: Decreased
  • Ability to remain calm, balanced, and motivated so you can remain functioning at your highest ability: Generally achieved by avoiding the threat
  • Results of this process: Decreased ability to build or strengthen relationships

Rational Decision Making

Evaluating Routes on the North Fork American RIver
  • Cause of the Decision Making Process: The decision Maker has little previous experience with a situation relying on a conscious deliberative decision-making process.
  • Common emotions elicited: Moderate Fear
  • Ability to resolve external problems: generally achieved through reasoning and group discussion
  • Ability to remain calm, balanced, and motivated so you can remain functioning at your highest ability: slightly diminished because it demands more cognitive resources
  • Results of this process: Personal growth building expertise or learning something new is occasionally achieved

What can you do about fear and anxiety on the water?

Recognizing fear and anxiety is a good start; unfortunately fear and anxiety can clearly mask itself as a slew of other emotions or reactions. Admitting to fellow boaters that you are fearful and accepting that vulnerability is another good step. Your boating group is your family and your lifeline on the water thus letting them know what your most common response to fear is will help to forge stronger bonds with your fellow boaters. If they shame you, mock you, refuse to accept your vulnerability, or shun your feelings because of it though this may be a sign that you should find others to boat with. True mastery of your fears however comes from understanding the way in which you make decisions and how you process information.

Cosumnes River Portage

A large body of research points to two key information-processing biases related to anxiety:

  1. A bias to gravitate toward threat-related information
  2. A bias toward negative interpretation of ambiguous stimuli.

This premise can explain why some fear stimuli are such powerful triggers for boaters. In addition to mindfulness of your decision making process, understanding that you may have a negativity bias will help drive you towards mastery more quickly by opening you up to new concepts.

To strike at the core of this issue and really address the root of the problem requires that we seek out training opportunities that are positive in nature and not ambiguous in format. The positivity will circumvent our negativity bias formed by anxiety and a clear non-ambiguous format will prevent any latent anxiety you may feel from being translated into a negative emotional response. This becomes particularly important if you are less experienced and you are typically making decisions in a rational context. Since rational thinkers experience fear in a neutral context, anxiety can drive your thinking into a negative bias towards a new situation and impact your ability to develop your skills.


For some more light reading on concepts referenced in this article please see:

Jean-Francois Coget, Christophe Haag, Donald E Gibson's Calpoly Article 

Catherine Hartley and Elizabeth Phelps National Institute of Health Article

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