Trauma Sensitive Climbing?

Have you ever had an experience that has immediately given you a 100% knowing of your direction in life for the foreseeable future? It’s happened to me twice: the first time was in 2004, when I realised I wanted to train as a Life Coach; the second time was last Sunday, on the final day of the Foundation Course in Trauma Sensitive Yoga1 (TCTSY). On the course I learned the neuroscience theory behind trauma and the principles and practice of Trauma Centre Trauma Sensitive Yoga2. I’m now wondering what a Trauma Sensitive Climbing practice could be like.

Whilst on the TCTSY Foundation course in Kenngton, London, I went for morning walks before the start of each day’s lessons and took photos of trees.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga is the practice of having a body in relationship with others having a body. I first came across this at the beginning of 2018 and I signed up to attend an 8 week TCTSY course3 facilitated by Alex Cat, Founder of The Yoga Clinic, in London. What struck me about the practice was Alex’s consistent demonstration that she didn’t need anything from me. What I mean by that is: every part of the practice was an invitation to move, or not, and Alex did the moves at the same time. She never touched me or watched me. She stayed on her mat and described the shapes as she moved into them, inviting us to join in or to feel a sensation (or not), or to change what we were doing based on what we could feel, and it didn’t matter if we couldn’t feel. She kept her eyes closed during the practice, so there was no sense of being watched or judged on whether we were doing it correctly4.

Why trees? I was doing daily 2 inch drawings of trees and wanted inspiration.

Every shape that Alex made came with two or three invitations to make the shape and a couple of suggestions as to where we might have sensations (interoception), so there was a constant, soothing flow of words delivered in a mid tone. This meant that if I zoned out I would ‘come back’ to the consistency of her voice. I remember deciding not to do several of the shapes in one session and felt a little rebellious at first, but then the rebellious ebbed away leaving a realisation that I actually didn’t have to do any of the shapes at all if I didn’t want to.

I didn’t know it at the time but some of the trees stayed in my mind when I sat down to draw later, although not the ones I photographed.

TCTSY is ‘not trauma’, which is an important experience for people whose early relational experiences of trauma continue to affect them in adult life. The twenty hour Foundation course that I attended at the weekend gave me an insight into how I might incorporate this into climbing sessions for survivors. Since the essence is to experience (or not; no pressure) having a body in relation to other(s) having a body in a safe environment, it would need to be in a place that is closed to the public during the session. The warm up could be done with eyes closed or gaze down, so that my gaze is not on someone else. I could invite people to make the movements I’m making, or not, and offer suggestions, based on my own authentic interoception, of where they may, or may not, have sensations. I could offer choice in regards to types of movements. Bouldering would be better than anything to do with ropes, partly so that everyone is autonomous and in control of their own experience, and partly because ropes, per se, could be triggering for some. No other equipment would be necessary and people could use their own shoes, rather than climbing shoes. I could invite people to step onto the wall, and suggest sensations, based on my own. Trauma Sensitive Climbing would be a very different kind of climbing to anything that is currently offered.

This is one of the trees I drew at lunch break.

Trauma: I know this subject from the inside – I experience the effects of trauma every day – so, even though the Foundation workshop was intense, and sometimes triggering, I stayed in the room and found ways to ground myself so I could keep listening. It was fascinating and affirming to do the practice sessions and have my feedback honoured, which indirectly gave me acceptance that my needs, as a survivor, are valid. For example, when I stated periods of silence felt unnerving and made me wonder whether the teacher was still there (i.e. not dissociated5), Alex confirmed an important part of the practice is for the Facilitator to keep talking in a mid tone, to let the clients know she is still there. This is particularly useful if the clients have their eyes closed as it also lets them know the Facilitator is still in the same spot and not moving around the room. Not only was this validating for my personal needs, it helped me see that my expanding awareness of the effects of trauma on my everyday life could enable me to offer a ‘not trauma’ practice to other survivors.

And this is another tree I drew.

Everything about the practice makes sense to me, especially the Facilitator’s authentic interoception and non-attachment to changing her clients’ experience; simply practicing having our bodies whilst together. It’s so simple. I haven’t been so excited by a process since I came across coaching 14 years ago. I’d like to attend the TCTSY 300 hour course, which runs from September 2019. I have no idea whether there will be a market for Trauma Sensitive Climbing. If you made it to this end of this post, feel free to let me know if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, and/or, if you’d like to, please share this post. Thank you.

1The Foundation Course was offered by Alex Cat, the UK Facilitator of Trauma Centre Trauma Sensitive Yoga 20 hour course. Alex runs The Yoga Clinic.

2Trauma Centre Trauma Sensitive Yoga comes from The Trauma Centre at JRI, Boston, MA.

3The Yoga Clinic’s 8 week TCTSY course

4At the last yoga class I attended before TCTSY, some 4 years ago, the teacher surprised me, whilst I was laying on my back on my mat trying, unsuccessfully, to relax, by suddenly pressing down on my shoulders to ‘make’ me relax. I’d been a regular at this class for months; I didn’t return after that. The shock of being suddenly touched was too much for my system to bear.

5Dissociation occurs when sensations and/or feelings are intolerable. In early relationship trauma, survivors dissociate in order to form some kind of trust bond with their neglecting and/or abusive caregiver(s). This coping mechanism is often triggered in adult survivors.

Even when you feel sh*t, climb.

In August a family crisis stopped me in my tracks, and triggered memories of childhood trauma. My climbing wound down; I couldn’t feel glee or joy at the movements and I certainly didn’t have the energy to push myself. The 6a’s1 that I had just started to work on now seemed well out of my league and I felt like everyone was judging me for climbing low grades (obviously, this was my projection of my own harsh judgment of myself – imagine if a friend was that horrible; I certainly wouldn’t hang out with them. I can’t get away from myself, though, so I’ll have to gently remind myself to be nice every time I notice harsh thoughts).

A few days before my CWI training2, I received an email telling me the training was going ahead and to be prepared to do some lead climbing in front of the trainer and other participants. I freaked out. I hadn’t done any lead climbing since climbing with the Vertigirls3 in Cornwall at the end of August. I talked to Henning, Manager at High Sports Brighton4, about my fears and we set up a coaching session a couple of days before the training. In the session I climbed a 4 on top rope. We noticed I was really over-gripping, and Henning got me to try leaning on the slab and using my feet only to go up. Then I led the same route twice and I felt much more comfortable about leading it at the forthcoming training. Henning commented that my comfort bubble had shrunk and prescribed endurance training twice a week.

Rockbox autobelays at High Sports Brighton

I’m in week four of the endurance training. I started by using the Rockbox autobelays, which are vertical and about six metres high. I did three times five minutes, with three minutes break in between, of climbing up and down a route I knew I could do. In the second session, a few days later, I did three times eight minutes, with three minutes break in between, of climbing up and down the route. In my last session, I progressed to the fourteen metre high overhanging auto belay to do my eight minute reps. I found this tricky to down climb because I got tired more quickly so I let the auto belay take me down and then immediately climbed again.

14 metre overhanging autobelay at High Sports Brighton

I’ve been climbing with others in addition to endurance training and I’m noticing I’m starting to get curious about higher grades. I’ve been sticking to 4’s, 4+’s, and the odd 5, but, as I climb with people who attempt 6’s and overhanging climbs, my desire to do those, and enjoy them, is piqued.

Bouldering wall at High Sports Brighton

Yesterday I started bouldering again. I made a goal of climbing all of the lowest grade routes at High Sports. I climbed two of them on first attempt, one on second attempt, and three I didn’t complete. So, next time, I’ll start with the ones I could do, then work on the ones I couldn’t complete. Physically, I can complete them but my issue is psychological. I panic when I get to a certain height; my worry is that if I slip or run out of strength that I could twist my ankle. Actually, the only times I’ve twisted my ankle whilst climbing have been on a vertical, rather than overhang, route, and being belayed too fast over an overhang and landing on an uneven ledge. I guess the latter has a similar vibe to the boulder problems in that an overhang is involved. I think the thing to do is climb up and climb down until I’m more comfortable with down climbing the boulder problems and trust that my comfort bubble will expand. I’m going to repeat these problems so many times that I can climb them confidently, with slow, controlled movements.

I’m starting to have fun again with my climbing. It’s a relief; I remember watching the people climbing at High Sports and feeling envious of their desire to climb at all when mine had dampened to a smoulder. The next time life deals a blow that affects me mentally and emotionally, I’m going to keep climbing, doing what I know I can do, without pushing myself to climb harder, because the biggest challenge in those times is in leaving the house to go climbing. Doing what you know you can do, repetitively, can keep your flame alive until you’re ready to go further. Can you relate to this experience? Please feel free to comment 🙂

1Grades of rock climbing are explained here.

2Climbing Wall Instructor Award is a qualification by Mountain Training. More information here.

3Vertigirls is an all female climbing club, based in Brighton.

4High Sports Brighton is a climbing wall in Brighton, where I work.

Life-changing goals can change your life

I haven’t written for a while. Partly, it was because I couldn’t decide which thing, out of many, to write about. Partly, it was because my life has been going through massive changes and I didn’t quite know how it fitted with the blog’s raison d’ĂŞtre of overcoming irrational fear. Let me catch you up on what’s been happening since Spring 2018 and some new goals for this blog.

Manchester Climbing Centre is in an ex-church! It’s a beautiful building.

In June 2018 I visited Emily Pitts, founder of WomenclimbÂą, in Manchester. Whilst there, we visited the Manchester Climbing Centre² and Emily coached me into doing two lead climbs. I felt scared but focused whilst lead climbing; my mind had an extra thing to focus on by clipping the rope (the right way round!) through the quickdraws3. Emily was amazing – incredibly supportive and I loved climbing with her. Also during my trip we discussed Womenclimb instigating regular climbing meet ups for women in various parts of the country, led by volunteers. We wondered whether the volunteers would need some kind of qualification; this question led me to research climbing qualifications on the Mountain Training4 website.

The first It goes, boys! meet was held at The Castle Climbing Centre in North London in March 2018. We had an amazing time together with no pressure.

I decided to register for the Climbing Wall Instructor Award (CWI). I had devised a workshop for women to overcome irrational fear in climbing5, and I run a monthly meet up for women of all abilities to climb in London6, called It goes, boys!. I figured I could provide a better service for women climbers if I had some climbing instructor training. In the background was also my desire to climb better, and something around climbing as a resource for trauma recovery. To attend the training I’d need to have completed at least ten indoor lead climbs at grade 4 or above, prove I had at least six months climbing experience, and have visited at least three different climbing walls. I set about racking up the lead climbs.

High Sports, Brighton; lots of overhanging routes!

Around this time, I noticed High Sports Brighton7 were looking for part-time Climbing Instructors. I applied and got the job, which is mainly working with children. At first, I was a little cowed by the idea of working with children, particularly as I wanted to work with women, but the more work I do with children, the more I love it. After running the Mind Game: overcoming irrational fear in climbing workshop at Adur Outdoor Centre8, I began doing freelance work instructing children on Low Ropes activities.

The Adur Outdoor Centre re-opened in February 2018, and is run by the amazing Alex Hardman and his team. All the holds were taken down and cleaned before new routes were set.

High Sports paid half my CWI training fee and I did the training a couple of weeks ago. There is a consolidation period before undergoing assessment and during this time I need to complete at least thirty more lead climbs at various centres, practise rescue at height techniques (which the lovely Chris at Adur Centre has said I can do there, in addition to the training provided by High Sports), and review the course syllabus to ensure I have everything covered. I reckon this will be about three months, which is well within my goal of being qualified by 31 March 2019.

My life has changed drastically since I last wrote and I’m on this path that feels very uncomfortable sometimes and incredibly joyful sometimes. In my first sessions at High Sports I’d come away grinning because the kids were brilliant – so funny, some of them. And then I got some devastating news about my son. Life suddenly became heavy and I got up every morning, dragged myself out of bed and did the necessary, essential things like work, and self-care, even though I didn’t want to. Often, I just wanted to sit at home and stare into space. I’d message my son to see how he was doing and I’d receive messages back that I had no idea how to respond to or, sometimes, nothing at all.

Handmade bed (and cladded wall) in my VW Caddy.

One of the things that got me through was working on converting my VW Caddy to a campervan at my friend, Margaret’s, house. I’d started on it before the drama occurred and focusing on the woodwork gave me something to think about besides whether my son was okay, and the helpless feeling, and the longstanding sense of ‘being wrong’ that came with it. I’d pretty much stopped climbing at this point. I was finding it hard to instruct the children at High Sports, especially as I wasn’t climbing myself, and it seemed like everyone, except me, was loving climbing.

With the CWI course a few days away, I talked to Henning, my lovely Manager at High Sports, about my lack of motivation for climbing and my performance anxiety, which was also getting in the way of my desire to climb. Henning kindly arranged a coaching session so that I could practice lead climbing before the CWI training and he gave me an autobelay training program so I could improve my endurance. The coaching session was inspiring and I’ve been doing the endurance training for two weeks now. The performance anxiety is something I’d like to go into more deeply in another blog post as it seems to have deep-seated roots and it can be a show-stopper or just mildly present.

For this post, I wanted to catch you up and share some goals for the blog. I started this blog as a way of researching, experimenting and sharing my results for overcoming irrational fear in climbing. I did it publicly to a) share potentially useful information; b) be accountable; c) connect with other climbers; and d) tackle my fear of being seen. Turns out the latter, which occupied a small piece of the purpose pie at the beginning, seems to be the biggest part of irrational fear for me. New situations with new expectations can paralyse me, despite my ability to climb. It’s so frustrating! I know the roots (deep psychological traumas) but knowing them doesn’t make it stop.

I’m going to focus the blog now on climbing for fun. It’s not fun when I’m worried about who’s looking, what they’re thinking, and what they might do. Climbing is fun when I’m engaged, learning, enjoying the flow, challenging myself, teaching and seeing others ‘get it’, connecting with other climbers, sharing my passion, and inspiring others to climb. These are my new goals and subjects for the blog. What do you think of the new goals/subjects? What would you like to see covered?

1Womenclimb’s website is here.

2Manchester Climbing Centre’s website is here.

3Some info on what quickdraws are is here.

4Mountain Training “is the collection of awarding bodies for skills courses and qualifications in walking, climbing and mountaineering in the UK and Ireland” and their website is here.

5Mind Game: overcoming irrational fear in climbing took place in July at Adur Outdoor Centre and gave women a taster in some of the tips and techniques you can use to focus your mind on climbing, rather anxious thoughts.

6It goes, boys! has been meeting every month since March 2018 and is a supportive, fun group. We use Facebook to arrange meetings and we have a Facebook group.

7High Sports Brighton website is here.

8Adur Outdoor Centre website is here.

How shutting out doubt can be re-traumatising and the antidote: embodied mindfulness

This post was going to be a super-positive ‘this is how to do it!’ kind of thing, but then I thought more deeply about shutting out doubt, and wrote to Lynn Hill about it (and she wrote back). This article will talk about how powerful it is when the brain takes charge to meet your purpose, the unique ways of achieving possibility mindset, my association of trauma with shutting out doubt, and motivation and mindfulness.

How powerful it is when the brain takes charge to meet your purpose

The indescribable beauty of Lawrence Field Quarry in the Peak District

I recently went on a Vertigirls1 climbing trip to the Peak District; aside from being blown away by the beauty of the area, I had an unexpected revelation in relation to possibility mindset. I’ve written about possibility mindset2 in my blog post series on overcoming irrational fear in climbing, but I felt I hadn’t been walking my talk lately, partly because I didn’t know how to lock into possibility mindset when my fear was so intense. It had been bugging me since arriving in the Peak District, and on the final day of climbing I felt frustrated and ashamed after untying from a climb I couldn’t get started on. I sat down on a boulder and told the others how I felt. Christine (founder of Vertigirls) said, “I’ll coach you up that climb; don’t worry, we’ll get you up there”. I tried to smile; my mind was full of doubt.

As I put on my climbing shoes, a voice in my head (unexpectedly and suddenly) began chanting, “I can do this”. It was a quiet, serious chant and I began to feel slightly different to the usual wobbly way I approached the wall – I stood straighter. I tied in, and shouted, “take!” As the slack in the rope eased out, the words in my head kept going and I looked at the rock to see how I might start this climb. I placed my toe on a little ledge and pushed my hand against the rock, heaving myself up and pasting my other foot against the wall, giving myself the balance I needed to straighten up and find new hand holds. Christine’s voice, “you got this!” and other Verti-voices, “awesome, Julia!”, “you’re doing great!”, floated up to me, and the internal, “I can do this,” never wavered. I topped out to the sound of cheers, and, on request, I pulled a pose for the camera.

Pulling a pose after nearly completing the climb, helped by a little internal voice repeating, “I can do this!”

The next climb was a grade or two harder and I consciously decided to put the internal chant into practice again. As I approached the rock, I noticed my mind looking for what I needed to do to start and what the move after that might be. There was no room for fear, even when my feet slipped and I slid back down the slab to the bottom. Instead of letting that experience deter me, I looked at what I could do differently, and I tried it out. I got to the top and sat there for a while after untying.

The unique ways of achieving possibility mindset

My friend, Sophie, has experienced possibility mindset kicking in during a table tennis match; her self-talk was, “don’t smile” (she told me: “smiling meant you were doubting your ability and not taking it seriously”). Between each match point she was aware of a feeling of being able to win the next point and letting go of what had just happened for the previous point. She was also aware of “a slow breath before beginning” and stated “if pissed off, laughing, nervous [you’re] not breathing properly”; there was a motivation to win.

Lynn Hill, in her book Climbing Free3, described her recognition of how powerful doubt thoughts can be:

Just as my legs began to circle around overhead, the thought flashed through my mind that perhaps this was a bad idea… Suddenly I froze in midair. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my upper back and neck on the mat.4

Lynn quickly realised from this incident that shutting out doubt thoughts allowed her to focus on what she wanted to do, rather than what she didn’t want to have happen. Although she didn’t state how she did it, there are clues in this quote, especially the first few words:

The combination of controlling every position of my body and of forcing my mind to shut out the ever-present urge to submit to the very real fear of falling created… a feeling that I was simultaneously acutely aware of both everything and nothing… twenty-five years later I still recall the kaleidoscope of crystal patterns in the rock in front of me as I moved over it… I felt no sense of time, gravity or existence.5

My association of trauma with shutting out doubt

For me there is a cost that comes with determinedly shutting out doubt thoughts and I wrote about it in my diary. Here is an excerpt:

I got up that climb because I felt pressure. I had to shut off part of me to do it. To get up climbs, I need to shut off doubt. Not all climbs. Some I can do with ease and joy. The blue 4 at High Sports. This is confusing. Determination. Single-mindedness. Goes hand in hand with getting it done, getting it over with. No wonder I don’t like it. Machine-like. I started writing a blog post about Lynn Hill, shutting out doubt, and abandoned it because I came to the same place [association with trauma]. Is there a way of climbing that doesn’t connect me to shame and shutting off parts of me, where I can challenge myself to climb harder without the fear getting in the way? Or is it a case of re-associating that temporary shutting off with positive actions? It’s me in charge of myself, after all. I’m so fucking tired of this.

I also had suicidal thoughts, which alerted me to the fact that I was re-traumatising myself. This could not be right! I wondered whether I had to become a single-minded monster in order to progress (climb harder climbs) in climbing. I wrote to Lynn Hill:

I’m writing a blog post about stopping doubt thoughts and in your book you talk about when you first noticed the power of doubt to disrupt ability. You quickly realised that shutting out doubt thoughts allowed you to focus on what you wanted to do, but you didn’t describe how you shut the doubt thoughts out. Any chance you could share your process?

Motivation and mindfulness

I met the Vertigirls at High Sports for our regular Monday meet up and shared that I was feeling “crazy” with Christine, who gave me a big hug and suggested climbing might make me feel better. Feeling agitated, I climbed and got stuck repeatedly. I began asking myself about motivation. What was my motivation for climbing? To get to the top? To prove something to myself? This wasn’t fun. And then I remembered my motivation for climbing: enjoying the movement of my body, feeling sensations in my body, and slowly increasing my tolerance for fear. I really enjoyed the next climbs. At the Vertigirls’ funding meeting that evening, I checked my phone. Lynn Hill had replied!

Hi Julia! I shift my focus on the solution rather than reacting or resisting my fears or negative self-talk. Cheers! Lynn

Ah! That felt much better and subtle-y different to blocking out thoughts/feelings; it felt like mindful breath practice: a non-judgemental noticing that you’re caught up in fear or negative self-talk and gently shifting focus to the breath. The next day I climbed, by myself, at High Sports, focusing on how it felt and when I felt afraid I noticed that and wondered how it would be to stay with it a moment or two before falling off and letting the auto-belayer lower me gently to the ground. It felt okay. My aim is to continue this practice and to keep reminding myself of my motivation. It’s easy to lose connection to motivation / purpose when caught up in the day to day stuff of living and/or your last experience at the wall.

Being a coach, I have a question about my motivation in relation to goal-setting. It feels like my motivation is a goal in itself, yet it’s not really measurable. It will be different on different days, like meditation. I guess I have little goals that I’m working on; for instance, at High Sports, when I’m on my own, I work on the purple 5 auto belayer route. At the moment, I haven’t climbed the whole thing, so my goal is to get to the top with embodied mindfulness, and that might involve using other colours from other routes. Once I’ve done that, my next goal will be to get to the top with embodied mindfulness using only the purple holds. Once I’ve done that, my goal will be to climb that route over and over with embodied mindfulness, finding out all the different ways I can climb it and, ultimately, finding more efficient ways of using my body on that route. These feel like achievable goals and I can break them down further using my embodied mindfulness motivation each time I visit the wall.

What is your motivation for [climbing] (insert other subject in square brackets if climbing isn’t your thing)? How does your motivation work with your goals?

1Vertigirls is a Brighton-based all female climbing club. The website is here.

2I wrote about possibility mindset in Part 4 of my Overcoming Irrational Fear in Climbing series, which is here.

3Climbing Free, Hill, L., 2002, HarperCollinsEntertainment, Hammersmith.

4Ibid., p.25.

5Ibid., p.36.

Why do you climb?

“Why do you climb?” I asked participants this question during a training session and invited them to write as many reasons as they could in five minutes. Since then I read an article1 by Ben Hardy which includes an exercise that asks ‘why?’ in a different way; he states the exercise will help us get to our “deepest why”, so I decided to try it on myself.

My version of Ben Hardy’s ‘how to get to your deepest why’

Instead of asking ‘why?’, you ask, ‘what about [insert subject] is important to you?’, which gets under the barrier of resistance that ‘why?’ can sometimes put up. You ask yourself the same question seven times, each time taking your last answer and making it the subject of the question. I drew out a blank version – there’s a photo of it above, which you could print or copy to use for yourself. Here’s my completed version:

My completed version of Ben Hardy’s ‘how to get to your deepest why’

Ben Hardy  states “once you know your deepest WHY for what you’re doing, you should operate FROM THAT STATE, not from your lower and base-level reasons”. Despite other people’s ‘shoulds’ being a trigger for me, I shall rise above my reaction by first acknowledging it – garrrrrggghhhh! Don’t tell me what to do! Rrraaarrrrr! That’s better – and second, getting curious….

“I feel happier” is my “deepest why” for climbing. So, what is it like to “operate FROM THAT STATE” rather than “working out mind and body”? Well, I feel less inclined to go to the climbing wall to work out and more inclined to go to feel happier. How about “getting to know myself”? I think it’s important to note that I imagined myself climbing whilst writing my answers (and some of them took ages to dredge up; I’m feeling quite low energy at the mo), so although I could get to know myself by writing my journal or having a psychotherapy session, it’s a different kind of getting to know myself. It’s about what I’m capable of, and how my body works and feels in conjunction with my mind.

“Getting to know myself” led to “knowing when to push; when to stop”; whilst thinking about this I had several memories of different examples of what I meant: times when I’ve felt mentally unwell but pushed myself to injury, times when I’ve recognised that although I mentally wanted to climb, I was too tired or still physically ill and so I didn’t make myself climb. Thinking about it made me realise how far I’ve come in taking better care of myself and led to the next answer, “I can enjoy moving my body”, which is a relatively new thing for me. I used to haul my carcass around, but now I can enjoy the flow of moving from hold to hold and I had no idea this was even possible!

This enjoyment of moving made me aware of the “sense of choice” I have; I can move this way or that and when I feel stuck I can move a tiny bit and something might open up or I can choose to climb down or be lowered down. I have choices! This sense of choice is being reinforced at my Trauma Sensitive Yoga2 class, which iterates choice in each session and that is “empowering”. It’s “empowering” because it’s me who decides what to do with my body and I don’t have to conform to someone else’s idea of what what they want me to do, and that makes me “feel happier”.

Ben Hardy says,

Suddenly, you’re not just going to the gym to “feel good,” but because you have a higher calling to perform and need to be as healthy as possible to make it happen (or whatever your deepest WHY is). Your DEEPEST why will almost always expose something very personal about you, and about your fundamental beliefs about life.

My “DEEPEST why” doesn’t seem to have revealed a fundamental belief about life. Hmmm. Perhaps I’ll start again from “I feel happier”.

My second completed version of Ben Hardy’s ‘how to get to your deepest why’

This time, I felt huge resistance as I worked my way through; I thought it was stupid until I got to “healthy community” and then the next answer made me cry as I imagined a community where we share stories and heal stuff together by dancing it out and singing, cooking and eating, and when we need alone time, that is respected. I have a deep yearning for this community. At the same time, I don’t want it because it will require me to be more open, more vulnerable, and to experience more loss because community members will come and go. Feeling more joy also allows more sorrow, but in that kind of community, we would dance and sing it out, so I guess that would be okay.

This exercise has connected me even more deeply to my vision for Wonderland, an indoor adventure playground for grown ups. I first had this vision in 2005 and it has morphed over time into an indoor climbing wall, but recently, inspired by Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted3, I’ve gone back to my original idea of a place surrounded by wild countryside, with homegrown vegetables, sustainable materials and zero waste. I’m working on creating visuals of how it could be so that I can show them to potential funders. I’ll share more about it soon in another post. In the meantime, I highly recommend Ben Hardy’s exercise. If you have ‘mind sentries’ on duty, like I do and don’t get to a fundamental belief on the first go, give it another go and see what happens. Feel free to share your comments and/or questions with me – I’d love to receive them.

1Ben Hardy’s article, Want to Become a Multimillionaire? Do These 15 Things Immediately is here. Accessed 02.05.18 12:41.

2The Trauma Sensitive Yoga class is run by Alex Cat in London.

3If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie, S., 2016, September Publishing, Tewkesbury. This book is about the power of ancient Celtic stories in relation to women recovering power and the mutual respect of the feminine and the masculine.

What are the conditions for climbing at your best?


I use Clean Language Questions1 with clients to invite them to think about what they’d like to have happen. Sometimes, I invite them to draw what it would be like when they have that and then ask them Clean Language Questions about the drawing. A book2 I’m reading invited me to use this process on myself so I decided to use it to think about climbing at my best.

I found the process to be a mind-opening tool that allowed me to think more deeply about climbing at my best. I’ve documented the process below. It’s easy enough to do on your own with paper and pen, or with a friend to ask you the questions, or you could contact me to arrange a coaching session. The questions are in bold type and my answers are below them. Here we go…

What would you like to have happen or to know more about?

Something to do with climbing at my best. What the conditions are for climbing at my best.

Make a drawing of the conditions for climbing at your best.

My drawing of the conditions for climbing at my best. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.

Describe your drawing aloud.

[I wrote as I spoke]. I’m looking at the [climbing] wall. I’m thinking objectively about the next move and I’m imagining myself successfully completing it. There are moves after this one but I’m focused on what I need to do to complete this move, so I’m aware of what comes next but I’m really present with the current situation. I’m feeling relaxed and I’m wondering what position my body could take to meet this situation. I’m not consciously aware of other people or sounds other than my breathing, which is deep and slow. I’m enjoying the movement of my body.

And is there anything else about ‘looking at the wall’?

I’m looking at it to gather information that I can use to decide on my action.

And what kind of ‘action’ is that ‘action’?

It’s thoughtful, determined, possibility-based.

And is there anything else about ‘imagining myself successfully completing the next move’?

Yes. Sometimes I know for sure I can make a move and I don’t need to imagine it, I just do it, but if I’m not sure then I can imagine what it will be like and then try that. There is an element that it might not work, in which case I’ve gained information so I can adapt and try something slightly different.

And what kind of ‘just do it’ is that ‘just do it’?

It’s feeling-based, no thinking. I’m feeling the holds, reaching, pushing, breathing; when it gets strenuous or more difficult I hear my out breaths more because they’re louder. I’m in flow. I’m enjoying my body movements.

And is there anything else about ‘I’m focused on what I need to do to complete this move’?

Yes. I’m not worried about the past or the future. I’m not planning ahead. I’m curious about the move, my ability, what I can do to move efficiently; I’m not overly scared but fear is there – I’m just more focused on what I can do instead of what might go wrong. The question, “what could I do here?” repeats if it’s a move I find tricky and helps me get my body into positions where I can try things out.

And what kind of ‘fear’ is that ‘fear’?

It’s fear of something that hasn’t happened. It’s fantasy. It’s fear of a ‘bad’ future. It’s fear that I’m going to do something stupid and end up hurt, but, even if that were the case, I’d learn from it. And it wouldn’t be stupid, it would be too frightened, or disassociated. If I got to that point it would be better to stop rather than push myself without being fully present. So I guess the fear has basis in reality because I’ve pushed myself to injury before whilst disassociated but if I’m really present, can feel my body, and I’m curious about what I can do then I’m not disassociating.

And is there anything else about ‘I’m aware of what comes next’?

Yes. It’s like macro focus. What comes next is there, in the background, but blurry.

And what kind of ‘blurry’ is that ‘blurry’?

It’s soft-focus – it’s going to come into focus after this move, or not if I don’t make the move. I’m wondering what it would be like if I change the lens and make the next 2 or 3 moves be in focus, like a sequence of moves. That might help me get past stuck points actually [I added some holds to my drawing at this point].

And is there anything else about ‘I’m really present with the current situation’?

Yes. I’m present to the immediate future as part of it.

And what kind of ‘present’ is that ‘present’?

Focused, possibility mindset, can hear my out breath, enjoying my body movement, noticing feel of the hand and foot holds, noticing the tensing of my muscles in preparation for movement, noticing opportunities to rest, aware of the next moves and shapes my body will make. Feels like a dance.

And is there anything else about ‘I’m feeling relaxed’?

Relaxed in a ‘ready’ way, not a ‘laying in a hammock’ way.

And what kind of ‘ready’ is that ‘ready’?

I have the energy and desire to move.

And is there anything else about ‘I’m wondering what position my body could take to meet this situation’?

I might begin by assuming something and realise that doesn’t work so I try something else. Or I might begin by looking at the holds and, based on the type of hold and direction, I’ll try positioning my body so that I’m in balance as much as possible and then move.

And what kind of ‘balance’ is that ‘balance’?

It’s moving bits of me so that my centre of gravity isn’t overcome by gravity.

And is there anything else about ‘I’m not consciously aware of other people or sounds other than my breathing’?

Yes. This is when I’ve made at least one move off the ground. And more often, when I’m higher up and it feels like just me and the route and what I need to do. I come out of this if my belayer shouts to me or if I shout to them.

And what kind of ‘just me and the route’ is that ‘just me and the route’?

I feel supported by my belayer and I can get on with it.

And is there anything else about ‘breathing, which is deep and slow’?

It’s a conscious choice to focus on my breathing and slow it and deepen it if it becomes shallow and fast because I know it has a calming effect and helps my mind have possibility thoughts.

And what kind of ‘calming effect’ is that ‘calming effect’?

It stops my heart fluttering.

And is there anything else about ‘I’m enjoying the movement of my body’?

I’m aware of the pressure on my toes as I press and push myself up or the pointing of my toes as I flag, or the feel of the stretch as I hang off my skeleton and I love these feelings.

And what kind of ‘love these feelings’ is that ‘love these feelings’?

It’s my body and it’s doing these (sometimes) graceful moves and it feels a little like ballet when the moves flow together and I feel all tremble-y after.

You might have noticed a pattern: after describing the drawing, the question “and is there anything else about” is used on a string of words in the first sentence of the drawing description. The next question, “and what kind of —- is that —-?” is used on a word or string of words in the answer to the first question. Then the first question is asked again about the next string of words in the drawing description, followed by the “and what kind of” question again. This pattern repeats until the final string of words in the drawing description has been dealt with in this way. In her book, Gina Campbell suggests keeping your drawing in a place where you’ll see it daily for at least a week.

I invite you to try this process and feel free to let me know how it works for you.

1Here’s my blog post about Clean Language Questions; it gives background information on them.

2Hope in a Corner of My Heart: A Healing Journey Through the Dream-Logical World of Inner Metaphors, Campbell, G., 2018, Balboa Press, Kindle.

How to avoid a sprained ankle: weak messages create bad situations


“It’s too fast!” I pushed my hands against the overhanging rock and landed abruptly on the ledge, ankle twisting over my foot with a “scrtch” sound. Oh no, not another sprained ankle; how long before I can climb again? And how am I going to get down? I gingerly put some weight on my right foot but it hurt. My belayer shouted suggestions for how I might get down with a useless right foot, but in the end I did it in the usual way with my left foot stepping very slowly on the rock.

As I lay on the rock at the bottom of the cliff, sea crashing nearby, I wondered what I could have done differently. I’d made an assumption that my belayer would go really slowly, because that’s what had happened on my previous three climbs (with different belayers), and because I assumed everyone knew to belay slowly over overhangs. When I talked this through with Christine (founder of Vertigirls, my climbing club)1, she made the point that communication with your belayer is of paramount importance.

When you’re at the top of a cliff and your belayer is at the bottom where waves are crashing against the rock some feet away, they’re unlikely to hear, “it’s too fast,” as a clear instruction to slow down. In fact, they might hear the word “fast” and believe it’s an instruction to speed up. These situations require few words that get to the point, like, perhaps, “SLOW!” or “SLOW DOWN!” Perhaps it would even be pertinent to have a conversation before the climb to discuss the route: “assuming I make it to the top, can you belay me really slowly over the overhang, please?”

After reflecting on this experience, I completed an exercise from a book2 I’m reading regarding personal process for making conscious change. It asked me several questions and I’ll list them and my answers here:

How did it come to your attention you might try something different?

My communication to my belayer was terrible – unclear – and resulted in an accident.

How did you then choose what to cultivate or change?

It became apparent that my communication needed to be crystal clear in order to get my needs met.

Did you try something new to see what happened? Did you think about it for a while? Did you follow your instincts, your heart, your head?

So many “dids”! I reflected on it immediately after the accident, then talked about it with Christine. I guess I also reflected on it later. The accident caused pain for me and created a burden for my climbing partners (they had to rig up a way to get me up the cliff; I had to borrow a walking stick from someone who would have used it if I hadn’t needed it). It became obvious that with clearer communication that wouldn’t have happened. Back at home, a situation arose where I had a choice to either confront someone in person or avoid that and write an email to them. My default was the latter but, despite feeling uncomfortable, I chose the former. I felt I had to – like it was the right action. I stayed assertive in the conversation despite the other person’s attempts at emotional blackmail. After the conversation I felt a mix of discomfort and assuredness.

Another situation arose a couple of days later and, again, instead of avoiding the situation, I remained in it and stated what I needed clearly. This time the other person responded with thoughtfulness and care, and we shared a powerful, cathartic moment that brought us closer together.

How did you judge whether the new approach suited you?

Feelings. It felt better to be clear, even if my needs didn’t get met. It felt full of integrity. I was really ‘in’ my experience and could express it.

Which parts of your process involved thinking, feeling, processing ideas?

Most of the process was internal – I’d say it was 98% internal and 2% action, although the 2% felt bigger because of the discomfort. There seemed to be an unconscious change of belief somewhere in the process – probably when I realised that if I’d communicated clearly there would have been a better outcome. I think it’s the belief change that powered my ability to stay in the uncomfortable conversations.


An accident at the cliff face led to a belief change that allowed me to stay in uncomfortable situations and communicate with integrity in a different area of my life, which means I now have an additional option to add to my communication toolbox. Thinking about the process with the aid of some questions is really useful in identifying links between learning in climbing and applying it to other life situations. What a powerful experience!

What’s your experience of communicating with your climbing partner? Any tips or stories we can learn from?

1Vertigirls is an all female climbing club, based in Brighton, for all women, especially those with additional needs. The Vertigirls website is here.

2Pause for Breath: Bringing the Practices of Mindfulness and Dialogue to Leadership Conversations, Ridings, A., 2018, Live It Publishing, Kindle edition, Loc 348.

It goes, boys!

L-R: Sioban, Julia, Hattie, Daniela at The Castle Climbing Centre

Just over a week ago, I rendezvoused with 3 women I’d never met before at The Castle Climbing Centre1 in Stoke Newington, London. We arranged to meet there after a conversation in Womenclimb Climbing Confidence2 group on Facebook; we’d discussed the need for a women’s climbing session that welcomed all levels of climbing.

We met in the cafe of The Castle, which uses organic vegetables grown in the surrounding gardens in the vegan and veggie dishes it offers. After chatting for a bit, we donned our shoes and warmed up by traversing the boulders. Then we moved to one of the top roping sections. Daniela (left photo) and Hattie (right photo) were more advanced at climbing than me, and I had a moment where I could have felt inferior but I noticed the thought and decided it wasn’t helpful.

Daniela belaying Julia on a 5.

Daniela and Hattie were both very supportive of where I was at and that helped my confidence grow; I didn’t need to be further on than where I was. I climbed some 5s, and attempted some 5+s.

Sioban having fun climbing; Julia belaying.

Sioban was very nervous to begin with. In our online conversations she’d been ready to hang up her climbing boots for good. Once she’d settled in, she was climbing 5s in no time; by the end of the day she’d had so much fun that she knew she would carry on with climbing.

Hattie belaying; Daniela and Julia in the background.

During lunch we decided on our next meet up: Saturday 14th April at The Reach3 in South London. Hattie suggested a name for our group, based on Lynn Hill’s statement after climbing an ‘unclimbable’ route: “it goes, boys!”4. Our group, It Goes, Boys!, is open to all women of any climbing ability. We have a Facebook event for the next meetup, and you’re welcome to just turn up and look for us.

1The Castle’s website is here.

2Womenclimb has two Facebook groups: Climbing Confidence and Find A Climbing Partner.

3The Reach’s website is here.

4An article on the amazing Lynn Hill is here. Thanks to Hattie for providing link.

Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 7

The 14 metre auto belayer at High Sports, Brighton

In part 6 of the Mind games blog post series, I came up with a challenge for myself: to climb three times a week, with or without partners, which means using the auto belayers when there’s no-one available to climb with; I wanted to see whether climbing more often would dampen my climbing anxiety. Whilst carrying out this experiment I became acutely aware of the effect of other people’s presence on my expectations and fears, so I decided to research pack/group psychology. I felt a huge relief to read about the power of unconscious fear and how to disarm it, and I’m very happy to share that in this post.

Avoiding the crowds and enjoying the auto belayers

I arranged to arrive at High Sports, Brighton1, at 14:30 to avoid the crowds and climb in peace and quiet. However, four other Vertigirls2 turned up and I hadn’t climbed with most of them before. I found myself shrinking inside, a feeling so uncomfortable that when asked, “what would you like to climb?” my mind would go blank and I’d stare at the wall, hoping it would do something to make me feel better. It didn’t, of course.

As there were five of us, I took the opportunity to quietly try out the auto belayers – I hadn’t used them in a while and I wondered whether I’d scream after letting go at the top (even though it was only 10 metres high). I didn’t scream. It was a tiny bit scary on the first go, but by the third go I was loving it and feeling freer than expected. The auto belayer had no expectations of me and I couldn’t project my own expectations onto it. This meant I could come back to High Sports by myself to use the auto belayers when no-one else was available to climb with, and there is an auto belayer on the 14 metre wall with routes ranging from 5 to 6b, which means I can work on progressing my climbing.

Auto belayers are incredibly safe. I knew this because I read an article some weeks ago on the braking systems inside them3; knowing how something works can create a feeling of safety. After working with the auto belayers, a sixth Vertigirl arrived and I was asked if I’d like to be belayed on a route. Again, the unsettling feeling arose in me and I chose routes that I knew I could climb. Eventually, Christine (founder of the Vertigirls) asked me what I wanted to climb and I pointed at the blue 4, which flows so beautifully and I enjoy climbing so much. I’d just climbed it with someone else and belayed them on it; Christine reminded me that if I only climb routes I know I can do I won’t progress. That statement went in and connected with my ‘truthometer’; I decided to try the white 5 that I previously got stuck on at the overhang.

Already anxious, I got a little bit stuck before the overhang and Christine encouraged me to twist my body so that my right hip, rather than my left, was against the wall. Suddenly the next move became obvious and I made it, got to the overhang and pushed through to the next move, one more than I’d accomplished last time. Flushed with surprise and elation, I asked to be lowered down. At the bottom I stated I’d learnt how important small moves are when you feel stuck. The small move doesn’t need to be up; it can be a twist or a climb down to the last move to get into a different position, or match feet… anything. One of the things I love about climbing is there isn’t only one way to approach a route or solve a problem; the solution can be as unique as your creative thinking allows.

Although I was pleased that I’d climbed part of the 5 after all that fearful climbing routes I already knew, I felt a different kind of uncomfortable; here is an excerpt from my diary that I wrote the next day:

Expectations are the biggest cause of suffering, I found at High Sports yesterday. By using the auto belayers I had no expectations of myself and no projected expectations onto my belayer. This is the main thing. My anxiety was worse with a bunch of people, some of whom were climbing at an advanced level to me, than when I was climbing on my own or with people who climb at my level or below. There’s some kind of reluctance to climb when with people who climb harder than me. Fear kicks in. What is that? Need to research pack/group [psychology] stuff. How to make it okay to climb in a group?

Research: pack/group psychology stuff

In Vertical Mind, the authors state:

We don’t recognize fear of failure because we don’t feel [embarrassment, shame] all that often on account of avoiding the risk of looking bad in front of other people and feeling those emotions.4

It’s not just looking bad in the minds of others that we might fear – it’s also the negative judgement by ourselves when others are present5. So, my free feeling whilst using the auto belayer makes sense – I couldn’t project my expectations of myself onto the machine and everyone else was busy (no-one was watching me) so I couldn’t project onto anybody else either. The authors of Vertical Mind talk about this fear of looking bad in front of others as a mammalian part of our brain that evolved thousands of years ago to keep us from being isolated by the tribe; if the tribe banished you because of behaviour that didn’t fit within the social norms it would have been more difficult to find food and stay alive on your own6, hence fear of abandonment. This may be true. However, I think there’s more to it than that.

On top of evolutionary brain design, we each have unique stuff from our past that we may or may not have dealt with; for example, I associate being watched with judgement of me at identity level (rather than behavioural level) as wrong/bad/naughty, and a strong possibility of violence, or at least verbal attack, to follow. In addition, as women, we have had the male gaze to deal with in the form of pressure from our culture to look and behave in certain (‘feminine’) ways7. Whilst we may consciously choose to think and talk about that stuff as bullshit, and look and behave in ways that are right for us regardless of what anyone thinks, I think it does have a subconscious affect. All these things create unhelpful beliefs that we can dig out and question to drain their power over us.

How do we know when an unhelpful belief is controlling us? For me, I feel crap and avoid taking action. I don’t know how to label the crap feeling that I get, but it certainly encourages me to avoid doing stuff in front of other people. Vertical Mind talks about coping strategies for dealing with these feelings; they come from a psychological model called “the compass of shame”, whereby ‘shame’ could be “a whole family of emotions: embarrassment, humiliation, hurt feelings, self-disappointment.”8 In this model, there are 4 ways of reacting to the feelings we don’t want: avoidance, attack self, attack other, or withdraw. These coping strategies are scripts – they run automatically, unless we do something about them. This, obviously, relates to all life situations as well as climbing. If we work on this at the wall, we can make changes in our life situations too.

So, how do we make changes?

  1. We notice that we’re running a script.
  2. We identify the underpinning beliefs.
  3. We question those beliefs.
  4. We take action based on curiosity.

With this process in mind, I thought back to my visit to High Sports and asked myself what belief was underpinning why I felt I couldn’t climb anything higher than a 4. “Other people’s opinions of me might lower if I can’t climb it,” was the answer. I challenged that: “will they? No. They might admire me for giving it a go.” That felt better. I admire people for trying things regardless of whether they succeed and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does. As it says in Vertical Mind, “when we shy away from challenges because of what other people may think, we really limit our progress.”9

An unexpected opportunity to try new beliefs

 My next visit to High Sports was solo and I used the 10 metre auto belayers several times, before moving onto the 14 metre one, where I ‘rainbowed’10 up to a point past where I felt comfortable. Letting go, I swung into space clutching the auto belay tape. I did it again, this time higher. My body was trembling all over when I landed on the ground so I decided to rest for a while. A couple of Vertigirls arrived and offered to climb with me. We did the lovely, flow-ey blue 4 route and then we did the white 5 that I was stuck on. We tried it several times, and couldn’t get past the overhang but got further than we had before, which felt satisfying. During that visit I felt relaxed, and curious and my uncomfortable feelings that previously made me avoid climbs were absent.

The third time I went to High Sports that week, was “surprisingly good”, according to my diary. I tried a purple 5 on the 14 metre auto belayer; I got past the 10 metre mark and felt scared but kept going. After giving it another go I went and found another Vertigirl and her partners and climbed with them. I decided to attempt the green 5 route that felt unattainable to me 2 visits ago, when I watched others doing it. I found the start a bit tricky but I managed it. I had to think carefully about each move and I felt scared several times but it took less effort to keep going – it seemed more natural to keep going than to stop. The last move near the top, was a little tricky and I almost used a different colour as an aid but my self-talk said, “you don’t need to do that,” and my foot moved higher to the green hold. And then I was at the top, which was a bit of a surprise because I’d been so in the moment.

I belayed my partner on a pink 5 (another one that seemed unattainable to me a few days before). At the bottom there’s a move where you’re in a left lay back and you have to pull yourself diagonally to the right and then push with your left hand to keep going right until you can stretch and reach a right hand hold. When my partner approached that move I wondered, internally, whether I’d be able to do it and she turned to me and said, “when you get here, this is how you do it,” and showed me how. How thoughtful! She climbed it beautifully and then I had a go. I actually could do the lay back move. Again, the route had lots of moves that I needed to think about and I got to one move before the top, felt stuck and decided to come down. At the bottom, I told my partner I had no idea how to do the last move and she gave me advice for next time.

In summary, I’m not sure what the effect of climbing 3 times a week had on me; it could have helped normalise climbing as an activity. By the end of the week I had surpassed what I thought I was capable of and had enjoyed myself. Often, when I surpass myself a little bit, I stop in case I jinx it but I didn’t do that this time. I kept going. It felt good even when I was scared. The movement of my body felt good. Something happened for me when I questioned my beliefs in connection with others watching me. That is significant. The feelings I’d had that made me avoid taking action didn’t have verbal thoughts connected to them so the process of noticing the feeling then looking for the belief and questioning it was really helpful.

Does this resonate with you? What’s your ‘go to’ method of handling uncomfortable feelings? What could you do differently?

1High Sports, Brighton’s website is here.

2Vertigirls is a climbing club in Brighton that supports all women, especially those with additional needs, to learn and progress in rock climbing.

3This is not the article but it does describe how 3 different auto belay systems work.

4Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder, p.136.

5Ibid., p.135.

6Ibid., pp.124-126.

7I noticed an extreme example of the affect of the male gaze when I saw Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) recently. Despite her amazing intelligence (she co-created a patent for encoding wireless communication that we use today in our wireless technology, but did not receive payment at all, and only recently received recognition for it) she was praised for her beauty and, as she aged, and her looks were seen as less beautiful by a society that values youth, she had loads of plastic surgery and eventually became a recluse to avoid being looked at. If only she’d had access to sports psychology!

8Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder, p.141.

9Ibid., p.157.

10‘Rainbowing’ is using any colour holds to get up the wall.

Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 6

magnezja/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

In part 5 I looked at how breathing helps overcome fear and freezing, how after-climb analysis helps zone in on personal learning style, how practising falling eliminates terror, and how asking a graceful climber how he feels whilst climbing can help lessen internal pressure. In this post I’m going to discuss putting my learning style into practice, and whether a comfort zone is actually comforting.

Putting my learning style into practice

My learning style consists of climbing until I feel stuck, asking my belayer to lower me down, analysing the climb, then climbing again and doing something different at the stuck point. I do that as many times as I need to, learning something about myself each time. Knowing this means I can tell my belayer and ask that they let me down as soon as I ask them to, rather than doubt my decision. At my last climbing session at High Sports1  I told my climbing partner about my learning style and she agreed to lower me down without questioning my decision. With that sorted, we did various climbs.

One of the climbs was new to me and I got about two thirds of the way up, felt stuck, and requested to come down. We swapped places and my friend climbed it. I tried it again, moved past the previous stuck point, then requested to come down again. On my next go I went further and requested to come down about a metre or two from the top. On the next go, my friend told me, “you have to get to the top this time!” I turned away from the wall, “I probably won’t do it then with that pressure!” She’d inadvertently pressed one of my buttons and I felt annoyed that she didn’t understand this wasn’t about getting to the top. She laughed, “don’t do it then! Don’t bother!” With that I faced the wall and climbed to the top, incorporating everything I’d learned in my previous attempts.

I think my friend’s demand to get to the top is symptomatic of a society that values end result over process. I love this quote from Chapter 5 of Arno Ilgner’s The Rock Warrior’s Way: “if you assess a risk and choose not to take it, you do not flee. You disengage, consciously and in control, without panic.”2 This is how I am training my brain; I know myself well enough that if I push myself to do something because someone else thinks I should and could do it when I don’t feel ready, psychologically, it will actually slow down my learning. By listening to my psychological needs and responding to them (I am only realising this now as I write), I am actually healing myself from childhood relational trauma. Wow. So, even though the risk isn’t that risky (because I was on a top rope), the benefit I am receiving from listening to myself and acting on my needs is huge.

Are comfort zones actually comforting?

I love this quote from The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner:

Taking risks actually increases our safety and comfort… The safety, comfort, and security we crave… are subjective feelings that come through increasing our understanding of our world and our capabilities… We make ourselves uncomfortable and insecure for a short time in order to learn what we’re capable of.3

Thinking about this made me question my learning style, to a degree. Was I actually learning or was I using it as a coping mechanism under conditions that made me feel outside of my comfort zone before I’d begun to climb? I decided to research ‘comfort zone’. Eric J. Hörst, in Training for Climbing, states: “climbing onwards despite mental and physical discomfort”4 will stretch your comfort zone. Hörst goes further: “decide to push yourself a bit farther into the discomfort zone each time… soon your pain threshold will be redefined.”5

A therapeutic angle is given by Gass et al in Adventure Therapy6: adventurous environments allow us to leave our comfort zones in ways that are real and can allow us to experience feelings in the moment that we can relate to other experiences we’re dealing with and talk about them, if we have an empathetic person with us7. Reading that was like a breath of fresh air! It feels slightly different to the performance climbing books in that it’s all about transferring knowledge of yourself in stressful conditions on the wall to how you are in life; that feels, at least, healing, with the potential to unlock all sorts of exciting things in other areas, as well as progressing as a climber.

Bob Stremba discusses “expanding our comfort zones”8 in Teaching Adventure Education Theory: Best Practices. On the ground a “sense of safety and security exists”9 but when we start climbing there is “disequilibrium… because there is now a mismatch between old ways of thinking and new information.”10 On the ground we have the comfort zone and he labels the anxiety we feel when we leave the comfort zone the “groan zone or stretch zone”11. Overcoming the feelings of anxiety allows us to enter the growth zone, where we can experience feelings of success as the unfamiliar becomes familiar. If, however, we feel overwhelmed with fear, we have entered the “panic zone”, where learning cannot happen because we are in survival mode and we are likely to react, rather than respond.

The edge is where the boundaries of the comfort, groan, growth, and panic zones are. Uncertainty increases as one approaches the edge, which can create anxiety, fear and/or confusion; physiological changes can occur: sweating, heart racing, breathing faster, which is where focusing on pushing the out breath can help, as can slowing down, replacing negative self-talk with possibility talk, doing something slightly different to what you would usually do, and, if you think in pictures, asking what success would look like.12 These solutions all relate to the self awareness practices Arno Ilgner recommends in The Rock Warrior’s Way. As well as noticing any feelings of anxiety, Stremba uses these questions to help people gain awareness:

  • What is your tendency as you get closer to the edge?
  • What happens at the edge that pulls you back to comfort or propels you into the growth zone?
  • What helps you to move forward into the growth zone?
  • Where do you think your edge is? 13

What I’ve confirmed in my mind from reading these books is fear is normal in the ‘growth zone’. Normalise the fear feeling and what happens? Christine (we went climbing in Part 5) and I decided to go to High Sports, Brighton. My intention for the session was to notice when anxiety arose – what was I feeling and thinking? What physiological effects was I experiencing? – and to see if I could do something different. Christine said she might try that too. I began on something super easy (a 3-graded route) to gauge whether there was any anxiety. I climbed the route twice and noticed my heart was beating faster and my breath was faster, but it was akin to walking fast, rather than anxiety, so it was a good warm-up.

I moved onto a 4 that I’ve done before. I felt anxious about a metre or so off the ground; my heart was beating faster and I focused on breathing all the way out. Near the top of the climb there is a ledge and, because I felt slightly off balance, I stamped my foot on it, then moved quickly through to the top. I felt shaky at the bottom and decided to climb it again after Christine’s climb. As I climbed it again, my anxiety was still there but less. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to learn to tolerate the feelings, which, as a survivor of abuse, often feel intolerable, which is why I avoid them and ask to be lowered down. By the fourth time I climbed the route, I was looking for the trigger points of my anxious feelings, but there was no anxiety and I’d stopped using the ledge. I was slowing down at the points where I’d wanted to ‘get it over with’ before.

I moved onto a purple 4 route I hadn’t climbed before, at Christine’s suggestion. Before climbing, I noticed a nervous sensation that had self-talk like, “I don’t know if I can climb this,” associated with it. I focused on tying in – a little ritual I enjoy; feeding the rope through the figure of eight feels kind of comforting, perhaps because I know, with certainty, how to do it. I climbed the purple 4; it was easy and no anxiety.

During one of Christine’s climbs, there was a lot of foot matching12 going on and after I lowered her to the ground she said the climb felt ‘off’ because of that. I asked what she could do differently and she said she could look at the holds above before placing her feet; she said she finds it easier to read routes on actual rock, whereas in a climbing centre she’s aware of all the coloured holds she shouldn’t use because they’re not part of the route, so her mind is so busy with discounting the non-route holds that reading the route is not possible. Christine refocused her mind onto reading the route and climbed it again beautifully with more flow and no foot matching.

My next climb was a 4+, with an overhang on the crux. I climbed easily to the overhang, reached and grasped the first hold on the overhang, then felt confused. I twisted round to see if I could reach the next hold but that didn’t work and I felt at a loss. I was using up energy by hanging off the overhang so I asked to be lowered down. The next time I did something different and reached the next hold; the final hold was within reach but I clung to my known position for a few seconds. I needed to let go with my right hand to reach for the final hold but that would mean a precarious moment. I told myself, “if you don’t go for it now you’ll run out of energy and fall off anyway so go for it!” I did and reached the final hold.

In between climbs we shared how we were feeling and analysed the climbs and what we might do differently. There was empathy and a sense of acceptance and curiosity. My tendency as I get closer to the edge is to avoid the fear feeling; I don’t like it. Discussing it and then doing the same climb over and over actually dissipated it. I realised that I can stretch my comfort zone by doing this. I’m wondering about how often I need to do this to make it normal. Thinking back to a previous post where I asked an expert climber what it was like for him, and he told me he climbed every day at first and it took about six months before climbing became ‘normal’, I wonder what the minimum effective dose is. If I can’t get a climbing partner, I’ll need to go alone and use the auto-belayers, which adds another layer of ‘scary’! Something else to normalise, I guess. As I approach the edge of committing to going climbing a number of times a week, I feel nervous :). Okay, so I’m committing to climbing 3 times a week for the next two weeks and I’ll make notes after each session and review my anxiety levels at the end of each week to see if there’s a difference.


Allowing myself to come down off routes when feeling overwhelm is healing and lets me learn at my own rate. Questioning my learning style in light of reading about stretching comfort zones unexpectedly resulted in me taking my climbing down a level: I didn’t climb anything higher than a 4+, but I felt like I learned a lot and experienced my feelings without judging them some of the time – this is progress! And Christine learned stuff too! Climbing with someone who understands that I have mental issues that I’m addressing is really important, because that allows for a non-judgemental, learning space. Finally, I have a challenge: to go climbing three times a week, with or without partners, which means I’m committed to using the auto-belayers at some point – eek!

When did you last stretch your comfort zone? Did you move into the growth zone or return to the comfort zone? Feel free to comment!


1High Sports, Brighton, website is here.

2The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.85.

3Ibid. pp.70-71.

4Training for Climbing The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Climbing Performance, Horst, E.J., 2003, First Edition/Sixth Printing, Morris Book Publishing, LLC, Guilford, p.25.

5Ibid. p.31.

6Adventure Therapy was lent to me by Alex Hardman, Manager of the Adur Activity Centre, when I went to visit him to discuss holding my Mind Games mental training for women at Adur Activity Centre.

7Adventure Therapy Theory, Research, and Practice, Gass, M.A., Gillis, H.L., Russell, K.C., 2012, Routledge, New York and Hove, p.80.

8Teaching Adventure Education Theory: Best Practices, Stremba, B., Bisson, C.A., 2009, Human Kinetics, Champaign, p.334.




11Ibid. pp.335-336.

11Ibid. pp.341-342.

12This article explains what foot matching is.