Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 2


In part 1 I outlined and carried out an experiment for overcoming my irrational fear of climbing up whilst bouldering, based on psychological theories in two books: The Rock Warrior’s Way1 and Vertical Mind2. In this article I’m going to discuss a further experiment’s results, explore how the physiology of the brain affects ability to overcome irrational fear and what can be done about it, and set a new experiment and discuss the results.

At the end of part 1, I successfully climbed up all the routes in two circuits (green and bee stings) at Boulder Brighton3. Although I found it hard to notice my self-talk generally, I was able to notice it and delay acting on it whilst scared at the top of a bouldering problem, thus completing the problem. In order to practice noticing and delaying my self-talk and reactions, I set myself a new experiment: to climb all of the bee sting routes mindfully and notice/delay self-talk, makes notes, and then to climb all of the seagull routes (the next harder level up) mindfully and notice/delay self-talk.

The Results

At the climbing centre I did all the bee stings except for the one I got stuck on (but managed to overcome my fear on) in the last experiment. I felt too exposed; there were people sitting around watching. I gave myself permission to not complete it. I tried a few seagulls, got scared, delayed my reactions but still acted on them and climbed back down. I tried a pink tiger (the next harder level up from the seagulls), which starts as an overhang and, after three moves, had gotten much further than I thought I would, felt shock and pleasure and then couldn’t work out the next move so jumped off. I hadn’t read the route because I didn’t think I would get that far. Why did I attempt it then? Perhaps the idea that I won’t make it to the end takes the pressure off so I can enjoy playing with the route without expecting to complete it. I tried the route a few more times and got further, got scared and reacted by jumping down. I’m wondering if there’s a link between completing it, thereby surpassing my expectations, and creating additional pressure to climb at that level and above. The pressure could be creating the fear reaction.

Scientific Research into Fear Expression and Extinction

If your hippocampus is unusually small (as it is for those who suffer complex PTSD symptoms4, for example) then the amydala, which is implicated in fear expression, is not inhibited by the hippocampus, which means the fear is often out of proportion for the situation. Scientists don’t fully understand the relationships between causality and fear expression and extinction in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amydala but studies5 show these areas of the brain are where fear expression and extinction happen. Reading these studies made me wonder whether these areas can be changed and, if so, how?

I attended a Trauma Releasing Exercises workshop6; we were informed the hippocampus can be enlarged through mindfulness exercises, which are aimed at sensing, without judgement, what it is like inside the body – for example, focusing on the hips or the feet. A scientific study found an increase in “gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus”7 in people undertaking an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, but stated the need for further research to work out if the causality is mindfulness. These results are interesting when combined with other studies8 that found an increase in volume of the hippocampus in relation to aerobic exercise.

All the studies suggest an approach to climbing (and aerobic exercise) that is based in ’embodied mindfulness’ to reduce irrational fear, and for good general health. I think Ilgner’s Becoming Conscious9 (see part 1 for an explanation) is a great tool for when fear grabs you, but there needs to be some sort of practice before working with fear in that way – a mindful, embodied, fun practice to build up the bits of brain that need to work with other bits to produce a more realistic response than overwhelming fear. Pressure, whether it comes in the form of others’ expectations, or internally, in the form of my own expectations, can feel okay or not okay. Okay is when I feel inspired to take action; not okay is when it feels heavy, oppressive, overwhelming. The Vertical Mind model for changing beliefs, and therefore behaviour, includes an example where pressure is the forerunner of limiting beliefs:

  1. Self pressure to climb to the top THIS time.
  2. Unconscious belief forms: “if I don’t grip this hold, I’ll fall.”
  3. A fall occurs. Why? Pumped. Why? Over-gripping.
  4. Question belief and realise more likely to fall if gripping.
  5. Relaxed light grip and “success”.10

I’m not convinced working at the belief level with this model is the way to go. Surely, if there is pressure to ‘complete the climb this time’, that could be looked at and altered. Why is that pressure there? It doesn’t need to be. What if we focus on, as Ilgner might say, learning instead of completing the climb? Whilst designing my last experiment, I felt I should move up to the seagulls circuit once I’d completed the bee stings circuit. That’s what we do, right? Onwards and upwards! Push through! Climb harder! Both The Rock Warrior’s Way and Vertical Mind use that last phrase. I think it’s a transparent expectation in climbing: progression. Do we need to climb higher grades to progress? What other kinds of progression are there?

What if I climb at a level that is not overwhelming me with fear, so that I can practice embodied mindfulness? As I climb a bee sting route, where is my attention? What am I noticing as I climb? Are there sensations in my feet, my legs, my torso? Perhaps I can do one climb with my attention on feeling sensations in my feet, another with my attention on feeling sensations in my legs and so on. My next experiment will be:

  1. Pick a bee sting route and climb with my attention on feeling sensations in my feet.
  2. Make notes.
  3. Same route: focus on legs.
  4. Make notes.
  5. Same route: focus on bum and pelvis.
  6. Make notes.
  7. Same route: focus on abs and lower back.
  8. Make notes.
  9. Same route: focus on chest/upper back.
  10. Make notes.
  11. Same route: focus on shoulders/neck.
  12. Make notes.
  13. Same route: focus on hands/arms.
  14. Make notes.
  15. Climb pink tiger – what is it like?
  16. Make notes.
  17. Climb whatever I fancy.

The Results

On the train on the way to Boulder Brighton I realised this experiment, which I felt excited and curious about (no nerves at all this time!), had something to do with building trust in my body. As a survivor of sexual violence, this is a key realisation; if I can build trust in my body then… well, I don’t know what that will be like but I might be less afraid or, rather, I might have more ‘normal’ levels of fear that don’t get in the way of me climbing routes I am physically capable of climbing.

At Boulder Brighton, after warming up, I traversed to begin with; I completed a bee sting, a seagull and a pink tiger, all with the intention of feeling sensations in my feet. It took a while to notice sensations but I began to notice them on climbing up a bee sting. I did the climb four times, focusing on my feet and then my legs. I moved to another bee sting and climbed it three times. I tried to notice my abs but I got scared at the top and the fear took control of my attention until I noticed my shoulders felt hunched up and my hands were over-gripping. As soon as I noticed this, I relaxed. A worry that my feet might lose traction on the small footholds near the top was the culprit for inducing fear (this is why my shoulders hunched and I over-gripped with my hands – so the Vertical Mind model mentioned above must have subconsciously helped in some way).

During the next part of the session, I noticed someone I know near the route I was about to attempt. I felt like I might be scrutinised (whether I was is irrelevant) and I felt a pressure to perform. I noticed more fear than I’ve experienced on that route before and I forgot to focus on my feet; my intent was on getting up the route without doing anything stupid. There is a bit at the top where the foothold is small and you have to step through so all your weight is on the small foothold momentarily. Fear went off in my head and made me want to miss out the small foothold and take a larger step onto a flat surface to top out. In reality the larger step is less safe. It was a really quick decision to stick with the small foothold, and I took my time to place my foot precisely before putting my weight on it; thoughts of being watched were now absent.

What I’m realising is I need to learn to trust my feet, but first I need to be aware of my feet. I’ve fallen off two different problems at Boulder Brighton in the past because I didn’t know what my feet were doing. Noticing my fear when it comes to using small footholds is really useful for connecting my fear with my lack of feeling in my feet (unless something really hurts). The more I focus on feeling sensations in my feet, the more aware I am of them. Every time I use my feet now is an opportunity to notice sensations; hopefully this will prime them for noticing them whilst climbing. This focusing without judgment on sensations in the body links to Ilgner’s nonjudgmental noticing of negative self-talk.

As well as learning Trauma Releasing Exercises, I’ve been doing a skill swap with someone who is applying Trauma Sensitive Yoga11 principles to awareness in movement, using Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique movements. The key principles are choice (I am invited to do a movement but I don’t feel I have to) and nonjudgmental sensation awareness (I am invited to feel what it’s like inside my body as I move it; whatever I can feel or not feel is okay). This combination of body awareness practices means I’m starting to feel like I’m in my body. At first it was really scary, but it’s becoming more and more okay. In fact, through this work I’m only now realising how little I was aware of my body before. I think this awareness work is important for everyone, not just trauma survivors – how often are you aware of sensations in your feet?

In part 3, I’m going to devise a new experiment that really focuses on feeling my feet whilst climbing, combined with useful stuff I’ve picked out of two more chapters from The Rock Warrior’s WayLife is Subtle12 and Accepting Responsibility13. I’m also going to think about what is actually going on with the fear of people watching.

Feel free to ask questions and make comments. 🙂

1The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne.

2Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder.

3Boulder Brighton’s website is here.

4The effects of complex PTSD: “affect dysregulation; dissociation; somatic disturbance; negative or distorted self-image; impaired capacity to initiate, navigate, or sustain human relationships; and rupture of one’s fundamental beliefs and systems of meaning” – taken from Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga Reclaiming Your Body (2011), Emerson, .D & Hopper, E., North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, p. 16.

5Dissociable Roles of Prelimbic and Infralimbic Cortices, Ventral Hippocampus, and Basolateral Amydala in the Expression and Extinction of Conditioned Fear, Sierra-Mercado, D., Padilla-Coreano, N., Quirk, G.J., in Neuropsychopharmacology, volume 36, pp. 529–538 (2011); Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Amydala, Koenigs, M. & Grafman, J., in The Neuroscientist, Volume 15 Number 5, October 2009, pp. 540-548.

6TRE Workshop factilitated by Deborah Brown; here’s a link.

7Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density, Holzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., Lazar, S.W., in Psychiatry Res., 2011 Jan 30; 191(1), pp. 36–43.

8Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Firth, J., Stubbs, B., Vancampfort, D., Schuch, F., Lagopoulos, J. Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P.B., in NeuroImage,
Volume 166, 1 February 2018, pp. 230-238.

9The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, pp. 1-24.

10Vertical Mind Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing, McGrath, D. & Elison, J., 2014, Sharp End Publishing, LLC, Boulder, pp. 28-31.

11Trauma Centre’s website is here. Their principles are: “the emphasis is not on the external expression or appearance (i.e. doing it”right”), or receiving the approval of an external authority. Rather, the focus is on the internal experience of the participant”.

12The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, pp. 25-40.

13Ibid. pp. 41-59.

5 thoughts on “Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 2”

  1. What other kinds of progression are there? Maybe climb easier routes but concentrate on improving technique? Maybe just go with the aim of enjoying yourself and climb routes that appeal to you – as many times as you like and only as far up as you enjoy? You might find you enjoy want to climb more difficult routes after a while and enjoy them; you might not. Should it matter? Does it matter?

    Loving reading these. Thank you for writing them.


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