Flex your bravery mus­cle

A risk-averse writer faces her fears – and finds out how much you can gain from tak­ing a chance

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENTS - By Les­lie Gold­man

One de­ter­mined writer dis­cov­ers the rich life re­wards of not play­ing it safe

OK, con­fes­sion time: I’m the an­tithe­sis of a risk taker: a life­long type-a goody-two-shoes who al­ways ate her broc­coli and obeyed her par­ents. My one re­bel­lious phase, in my early 20s, in­volved trance mu­sic and glow­sticks – but the guilt I felt over the de­bauch­ery landed me in ther­apy. So, two years ago, when I scored an in­vi­ta­tion to travel to West Africa, I was du­bi­ous. On the one hand, it was an ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity: I’d be meet­ing with women in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast who’d suf­fered un­speak­able hard­ships – war, child mar­riage, fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion – and writ­ing about them, so their voices could be heard. On the other, the Ivory Coast had sus­tained a ter­ror­ist at­tack a week prior, and Sierra Leone had been dec­i­mated by Ebola in 2014.

Let’s just say, this trip would be a stretch for a risk-averse hypochon­driac who’d rather shower in socks than walk bare­foot in the chang­ing room. Then there’s the fact I’m a par­ent to two young girls. While I’ve al­ways been fine leav­ing them for quick trips, this was on the other side of the planet, in at least one coun­try marred by vi­o­lence. Co­in­ci­den­tally, my hus­band was sched­uled to be in Paris the same week. To­gether, we de­cided I’d de­cline the in­vi­ta­tion.

Once I’d made that de­ci­sion, though, it didn’t sit well. Did I want to teach our girls to be afraid, to play it safe in their com­fort zone? Or did I want to model the im­por­tance of chal­leng­ing them­selves, of lean­ing in in­stead of shying away? The irony: I’d be trav­el­ling with CARE, a non-profit ded­i­cated to em­pow­er­ing women and girls. So I cold-called a few in­ter­na­tional pub­lic health and se­cu­rity ex­perts, got more com­fort­able with the idea and chose to take the risk.


From the mo­ment we start walk­ing, girls are taught to shy away from risk. Re­searchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Guelph in Canada found mums were more likely to warn daugh­ters about tak­ing risks at the play­ground than sons. And a study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Pe­di­atric Psy­chol­ogy found af­ter chil­dren were treated in the ER for an in­jury, par­ents were four times more likely to tell their girls to be care­ful than their boys.

Long term, this gen­dered safe­guard­ing might stop lit­tle Katie scrap­ing her knee, “but she may also be less likely to grow up and say, ‘I’m not happy in my job so I’m go­ing to move to Amer­ica to fol­low my dreams,’” says Dr Jodie Plumert, a de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and co-au­thor of the ER study.

In­still­ing this kind of cau­tion can also pave the way for anx­i­ety. A 2017 study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Child & Ado­les­cent Psy­chol­ogy found girls en­cour­aged by their par­ents to take mod­er­ate risks (such as play-fight­ing) have fewer anx­i­ety is­sues as they grow up. “De­vel­op­men­tally, we need to be pushed into un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions where we grow and learn cop­ing strate­gies,” says Dr Michael Un­gar, a pro­fes­sor of so­cial work and re­silience ex­pert. Bub­ble-wrap­ping our kids, he says, means they have fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties to suc­ceed in tricky sit­u­a­tions so, when some­thing truly bad arises, they’re screwed.


Put sim­ply, risk tak­ing is mak­ing de­ci­sions with un­cer­tain out­comes. We take “hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of risks a day”, ex­plains Kayt Sukel, au­thor of The Art of Risk: The New Sci­ence of Courage, Cau­tion & Chance. You walk down the street to meet a mate for din­ner, even though you could trip and fall, get mugged, be hit by a car ... you get the gist.

Each time you try some­thing new, your brain re­leases dopamine – the plea­sure hor­mone. “But it’s also the learn­ing hor­mone,” says Sukel. “Dopamine helps your brain at­tach mean­ing to dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences: ‘This feels good. This feels bad. Ouch! That wasn’t fun.’” Every­thing gets tagged, so the next time you need to make a sim­i­lar de­ci­sion, such as whether or not to wear white on a rainy day, you can make it wisely. In this way, tak­ing chances – even small, mun­dane ones – is how we learn to nav­i­gate the world.

For Annabel Jack­son, 33, start­ing her own beauty busi­ness at the be­gin­ning of 2018 was a mas­sive leap of faith. Af­ter mov­ing to Aus­tralia from the UK – where she worked as a beauty tech­ni­cian – eight years ago, she took up temp work, ex­pect­ing to stay in the coun­try for only a year. But when she met her hus­band, her plans changed and the temp role be­came per­ma­nent. “I al­ways wanted to get back into beauty but didn’t know how, and the years just passed by,” Annabel says. “I kept on putting it off, [but then] I was like, ‘It’s only go­ing to come down to me to de­cide to do it; no one else is go­ing to get me there.’” With sup­port from her fam­ily, she de­vel­oped a busi­ness name (BELLE Braids and Beauty) and launched so­cial me­dia ac­counts to make her­self known. And al­though her mo­bile makeup and hair busi­ness is only eight months old, she’s al­ready seen the pros of tak­ing a risk. “Hav­ing this busi­ness has pushed me out of my com­fort zone, to net­work more and put my­self out there,” she says. “I wouldn’t nor­mally do that be­cause [I’m] fear­ful of get­ting crit­i­cised and not be­ing good enough, so I think it’s been re­ally ben­e­fi­cial for me.”

This cock­tail of psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits – emo­tional re­silience, con­fi­dence, open­ness to chal­lenges and en­gage­ment with life – has been dubbed “The Risk-taker’s Ad­van­tage” by Un­gar. And the ad­van­tage can be gleaned from big moves (start­ing over in your ca­reer) and small ones (cook­ing a tough-but-yum-sound­ing recipe, even if the re­sult looks like the ul­ti­mate #strug­gle­plate). Added bonus? Nov­elty also boosts blood flow to the brain, linked to im­proved mem­ory and re­duced de­men­tia risk.


Ready to get gutsy? You’ve got com­pany – and a leg-up.

Women are en­joy­ing a cul­tural mo­ment of push­ing bound­aries, from par­tic­i­pat­ing in ex­treme sports (ac­cord­ing to Ul­trarun­ning

Mag­a­zine, the per­cent­age of fe­male fin­ish­ers in ul­tra­ma­rathons grew from eight per cent in 1980 to 33 per cent in 2016) to helm­ing the #Metoo move­ment. And we tend to be bet­ter than men at tak­ing so­cial risks. We’re more likely to bring up un­comfy is­sues in meet­ings, for ex­am­ple, or to go to great lengths to help a friend, per­haps be­cause we’re more so­cialised to help each other.

As for me, the Africa trip was a game changer. It’s hard not to have a se­ri­ous shift in per­spec­tive when in­ter­view­ing an Ebola sur­vivor who lost her mother, daugh­ter and her sib­lings. I fell in love with my pro­fes­sion all over again. Our girls saw their mum chase her dreams. In the Venn di­a­gram of Sta­tus Quo and Dan­ger Zone, I dis­cov­ered the mag­i­cal sweet spot of tak­ing chances – and it’s a space I’m get­ting more and more com­fort­able in.


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