Rock Climbing & Anxiety
Looking up at the horizon of the rock’s face, the sun hit my eyes, and for a moment I was blind. My eyes burned, and I could only divert my gaze downward. And when I looked down, the rocks on the ground appeared like small gray spikes, awaiting my return to Mother Earth. I could also see my partner who was belaying me and holding my weight with devices that attach him to me like a mother would be attached to her newborn baby with an umbilical cord. He was smiling. I was out of breath, as I hung fifty feet from the floor of the crag, cradled by my harness. My heart was beating fast, but the fear of falling or heights was not the culprit of my tachycardia. I was recovering from hyper-focus, and enjoying for a brief moment, euphoria.
Despite these brief moments of euphoria, I’m not afraid to admit that anxiety before and during rock climbing is something that I personally experience. In fact, I’m mostly a very cautious person. My safety-orientated nature could in part be attributed to the fact that I suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder. So, pretty much everything is scary to me to some degree. It doesn’t make any sense that I, as someone who is generally anxious, would choose to participate in actions that are legitimately terrifying. The American Safe Climbing Association is an organization that replaces deteriorating old fixed anchors that keeps climbers safely attached to the wall of a rock (The American Safe Climbing Association, 8). On their website they claim that “Climbing of any type inherently involves the risk of death. Those hiding their unwillingness to take responsibility for their own actions behind the current legal system of the U.S. should never attempt to climb anything” (Rock climbing and rock protection anchors, 4). Upon reflection of that sentence, and being a fairly new climber, I could retreat to the lowest possible elevation that exists and be okay with never climbing again. However, I actually notice a lessened state of anxiety in myself after climbing. For example, when I’m driving my car, I exit the outdoor crag’s parking lot, and I attempt to maneuver through a semi-blind turn. I feel an inner confidence as my foot pushes on the gas pedal, with no feelings of anxiety bubbling up inside of me. This feeling is in opposition to my normal response (after not climbing) which involves me anxiously looking both ways and slowly pressing down on the gas pedal. Then after taking the turn, I feel anxious upon the possibility that I could have gotten into a wreck, even though I wasn’t even close to getting into one. So, I wanted to know, does participating in the dangerous sport of rock climbing actually decrease anxiety?
Firstly, how dangerous is climbing really? And, can rock climbing actually induce anxiety in a person? According to a study written by three medical doctors that was aimed to assist radiologists in diagnosing climbing-related injuries, “The overall risk of injury with climbing is relatively low, at approximately 4.2 injuries per 1000 hours of climbing, compared with 15.7 and 9.8 injuries per 1000 hours of American football and basketball, respectively” (Chang, 3). The MD’s went on to explain that “the risk of indoor climbing is even lower, with approximately 0.2 injuries per 1000 hours of climbing” (Chang, 3). And, they went on to declare that “The risk of outdoor climbing, however, is much greater, with a case-fatality ratio of 6%” (Chang, 3). So, maybe after all, the fear and anxiety that rock climbing could cause, may not be warranted if climbing indoors. However, the fear of falling in an outdoor environment is prevalent in the climbing community. That fear is something that many climbers have to overcome in order to enjoy their favorite sport. In fact, it’s such a prevalent fear that Arno Ilgner, an extensively seasoned climber and author of The Rock Warrior’s Way, wrote a book about how to overcome the mental hurdles that rock climbers face, including the fear of falling (4). Also, climbing doesn’t only have the threat of falling to your death, there is also the fear of large rocks falling on you. According to the American Safe Climbing Association, “Loose rock…can only be negotiated safely with a decade of mountaineering experience, and which regularly kill even the best climbers in the world” (Rock climbing and rock protection anchors, 7). This sobering information leads one to believe that being afraid of climbing would be an appropriate response to participating in the sport. How could this sport possibly reduce anxiety?
According to Don R. Catherall in Traumatology: An International Journal, he writes “Animal models conceptualize anxiety as a response to potential danger while fear is a response to present danger” (Catherall, 2). This suggests that fear and anxiety are different in some ways. The anticipation of danger causes anxiety. Therefore, if you were on your way to a climbing escapade, you might make yourself anxious by building up scary scenarios in your mind. And, once you start to climb, you might encounter close calls, causing fear to arise. For example, if your foot slips on loose rock and you lose your balance. I have felt both types of emotion during a climbing session. However, somehow, the experience is still worth it. According to Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer in their research article titled “Extreme Sports Are Good For Your Health: A Phenomenological Understanding of Fear and Anxiety In Extreme Sport,” “Participants’ experience of extreme sports was revealed in terms of intense fear but this fear was integrated and experienced as a potentially meaningful and constructive event in their lives. The findings have implications for understanding fear as a potentially transformative process” (Brymer, 1). This exposes the fact that the fears associated with rock climbing can in fact have a positive impact on individuals. However, this doesn’t necessarily explain a decrease in anxiety. One technique to reduce anxiety comes to my mind, and is one that my therapist has used to treat my anxiety. It is a technique called exposure therapy. According to the American Psychological Association, exposure therapy is defined as “…a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears…The exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance” (What Is Exposure Therapy?, 9). The term fear in that definition sounds like it could also be termed anxiety since it is referring to the anticipation of a fearful situation. Also, climbing isn’t considered safe, but it definitely exposes you to fear. So maybe taking risks and being exposed to fear, allows a decrease in overall fear and anxiety outside the confines of the crag.
I am curious too, if the state of hyper-focus and euphoria upon accomplishing their goals that many athletes experience has anything to do with decreasing anxiety. Alex Honnold, a widely recognized professional rock climber who recently free soloed (climbing without the assistance of ropes) El Capitan in Yosemite National Park said that “‘pain ceases to exist’ when commenting on the euphoria of achieving a focus so acute” (Rich, 6). Participating in rock climbing can make you become hyper focused. Sometimes fear and anxiety are slightly, or even entirely diminished in that moment. And, all you’re left with is the thrill of climbing a mountain 100x larger than yourself. Someone who would agree with me on the thrill of climbing, is professional climber Tommy Caldwell. For those of you not familiar, Tommy and his climbing parter, Kevin Jorgeson, recently free climbed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, something that had not been accomplished before (Worrall, 10). He explained in an article his philosophy on fear and climbing, “‘Some of us process risk and fear rationally; others process it emotionally. For me, it has to do with being out on the battlefield starting at a very young age, experiencing very scary things and living through them. I process things very rationally. I don’t have an emotional reaction to things like heights’” (Worrall, 6). According to Tommy, someone who grew up around climbing, taking such risks is normal. It’s almost as if his entire upbringing was a series of exposure therapies that now allows him to use reason over emotion to reduce his anxiety while navigating the dangers of climbing.
There’s also the relationship that spending time in nature has with lessening states of anxiety. In the Journal of Health Psychology, a research article detailing the relationship between nature and anxiety reported that “Quantitative results indicated that connection to nature was significantly related to lower levels of overall, state cognitive and trait cognitive anxiety” (Martyn, 3). That alone might be a significant reason for the noted reduction in anxiety that I feel after climbing. At the end of the day, the risk is worth the reward. And, if it lessens my anxiety too, then that is awesome.
Brymer, Eric. Schweitzer, Robert. Extreme sports are good for your health: A phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 18, Issue 4, Pages 477-487. Published April 1, 2013.
Catherall, Don R. How fear differs from anxiety. Traumatology: An International Journal Vol. 9, Iss. 2. June 2003. Pages 76-92.
Chang, Connie Y., M.D. Torriani, Martin, M.D. Huang, Ambrose J., M.D. Rock Climbing Injuries: Acute and Chronic Reptitive Trauma. Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology, Volume 45, Issue 3, Pages 205-214. Published May-June 2016.
Ilgner, Arno. Description of The Rock Warrior’s Way. September 3, 2009.
https://warriorsway.com/the-rock-warriors-way-mental-training-for-climbers-2/ Accessed January 30 2018.
Martyn, Patricia. Brymer, Eric. The relationship between nature relatedness and anxiety. SAGE publications, 07/2016. Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 21, Issue 7.
Rich, Nathaniel. The Risky Appeal of Free Climbing. The Atlantic, November 2015 Issue.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/11/the-cliffhanger/407824/ Accessed February 04 2018.
Rock climbing and rock protection/anchors. Overview, About ASCA. Copyright 2016 American Safe Climbing Association. http://www.safeclimbing.org/about_overview.htm# Accessed January 30 2018.
The American Safe Climbing Association. Home, More. Copyright 2016 American Safe Climbing Association. http://www.safeclimbing.org Accessed February 04 2018.
What Is Exposure Therapy? Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. American Psychological Association. APA Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology). http://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy.aspx Accessed January 30 2018.
Worrall, Simon. Being Kidnapped and Losing a Finger Couldn’t Stop This Climber. National Geographic, published June 25, 2017. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/book-talk-climbing-endurance-adventure-caldwell/ Accessed January 30 2018.