Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 3

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In part 2 of Mind Games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing, I noticed there was a link between pressure and fear, delved into scientific studies that showed the brain can change through the use of mindfulness techniques, which bodes well for people whose fear expression is too much for the situation, and realised I needed to build trust in my feet by focusing on feeling them whilst climbing. Reviewing part 1 of this series brought me into contact again with Arno Ilgner’s statement from The Rock Warrior’s Way that seeking external approval causes suffering and the ultimate aim is to switch permanently from seeking external approval to using an inner guidance system of values, which increases personal power to respond1. I am going to work with this statement in part 3 to create the next experiment; then I will carry out the experiment and share the results.

I would like to feel comfortable at the climbing gym. I imagine myself walking in and I can feel my feet and I warm up feeling my feet and I walk to a route feeling my feet and I’m not looking at other people for approval because my attention is inside myself. I would like to try this out as Experiment 4.

Before thinking about this experiment I’d made some notes on Chapters 2 and 3 of The Rock Warrior’s Way and these may or may not be useful; they may be too advanced for me as my intention is to feel, rather than perform at my best. However, here they are:

In Chapter 2, Life is Subtle, Ilgner uses ideas about how speech can limit or create possibilities and he invites us to “speak deliberately”2 by:

  1. Using questions to invite thinking about what is possible rather than statements about what isn’t possible, i.e. “what is possible here?” or “how can I ….?”
  2. Using power words can help you create a plan. Ilgner demonstrates this by highlighting the difference between the words “problem”, “challenge”, and “opportunity”, stating the latter allows you to create a plan: “what is your biggest opportunity in improving your performance?”.
  3. Using direct, active phrases, like “stay in balance” or “keep moving” rather than limiting phrases.
  4. Using questions instead of statements, i.e. rather than “this fall is too dangerous”, use “how dangerous is this fall?” or “how can I make a fall safer?”3

In conjunction with this active, powerful self-talk, Ilgner advocates using correct posture4 and breathing5. This latter, which focuses on using abdominal muscles to breathe out more than usual (allowing the in breath to take care of itself), is great for reducing anxiety too. I experienced this one night whilst not being able to sleep and eventually, after focusing on breathing all the way out each time, I fell asleep.

Whilst I agree that questions pointing in the direction of where you want to go are useful, especially instead of limiting statements, I notice the “biggest opportunity” question makes me feel anxious; I think it creates an unnecessary pressure in me, so I’m going to take the “what is possible?”, “how can I…?” from section 1, when necessary, and leave the rest for now.

In Chapter 3, Accepting Responsiblity, Ilgner states improving the understanding of risk determines whether a phantom fear is real or not. To do this, you observe the route and give yourself an objective description of what you see, i.e. “the holds look flat, 4 fingers wide, and about finger-pad deep.”6 This is information that you can make a choice about. As Ilgner says, “taken as a whole, a climbing challenge can be overwhelming,”7 so we need to break it down by analysing:

  1. The route: read the route; state precisely and objectively what you see; identify what will challenge you.
  2. Fall consequence: state precisely what is likely to happen – “if I fall here I will…”
  3. Climber – identify the skills required; do you have them?8 [pp. 49-54]

I think this model is really useful for outdoor climbing and probably for bouldering indoors but it seems like a lot to do in conjunction with feeling my feet. It feels very heady. What I’m going to take from it is the middle part for when I get scared on a route – if I can remember to stop and state calmly to myself, “if I fall here I will …” it could help.

Experiment 4

In my next bouldering session at Boulder Brighton, to counteract looking for approval externally, I will focus on sensations in my feet as I walk, warm up, and climb; focusing on my feet whilst climbing might help me learn to trust my feet – I wonder how I can gauge this? In conjunction with this, if I feel stuck, I can ask myself, “how can I…?” or “what is possible?”, and if I feel scared, I can ask myself, “if I fall here I will…” and state objectively what could realistically happen.

The Results

Firstly, I’ve been noticing how it feels to feel sensations in my feet whilst walking in daily life; it feels better in that I feel like more of me is here. On my way to Boulder Brighton9 I felt some nerves. On arrival my senses were overwhelmed at first by the amount of people; there was a minibus load of school boys, plus a lot of adults waiting outside and the doors opened as I arrived to let them all in. After signing in, I wandered through to the climbing gym and pumping house music was playing loud through the speakers. I love house music but it somehow unnerved me. I’d received a text from my friend to say she would be at least half an hour late to meet me and everyone else seemed to know at least one other person.

As I took off my coat, a strange, familiar feeling arose in my stomach – nerves about uncertainty, not knowing whether I could trust my body to not have an accident, accompanied by a sort of resignation or eye rolling – “what am I going to do to myself this time?” I realise as I write this that those thoughts were really harsh and setting me up for the anxiety I felt later. I can see they relate to Ilgner’s ideas about ego and self-image in Chapter 1 Becoming Conscious10. At the time it didn’t occur to me to question the thoughts – they were transparent, like breathing, even though I wrote them down.

I climbed a traversing bee sting twice and 2 other bee stings. The last one felt shaky. I realised I didn’t trust myself – not surprising with that verbal beating up I’d given myself earlier. I remembered Ilgner’s possibility mindset and asked myself, “what if I did trust myself? What is it like to trust myself?” I carried on climbing. My anxiety levels grew. I stopped and wrote:

“there are unconscious processes going on. I don’t want to climb near groups of people who know each other. That’s a comparison – I’m not as good as them or as okay as them. They are happy and relaxed and ‘normal’ and I’m not. It’s not true. They look that way; who knows what’s going on underneath?”

After that debate with myself, I carried on. I watched a man climb a mint route with grace and elegance; he seemed so light that he almost danced up the overhang. It’s so nice to see people climb like that. I have a strong desire to be able to climb that way on routes that are really hard and out of my league; my mum used to say, “you want to run before you can walk!” I imagine that when I can climb like that I’ll be sorted and have no more internal pressures to be better than I am. But a friend recently pointed out that people climbing at elite levels also have internal pressures and that never goes away. I laughed aloud at the recognition of truth in what he was saying. I wonder what that realisation will do for me, but that’s another story for later, perhaps.

After wandering the climbing gym and looking for routes with few people around them and that I could do, and with the desire to climb better than I could and the thoughts that I was going to let myself down hanging around, I decided to stop, get a cup of tea, and write for a bit until my friend arrived. I wrote:

“I am not having a good time. It’s a similar feeling to when I used to go to raves; at first, before the drugs kicked in, I felt out of place and like I didn’t fit in – everyone else seemed ‘normal’. Lots of boys here. School boys. It’s cold. I’m tired. Hardly slept at all last night. My friend isn’t here. I think if I’m on my own it might be good to do endurance training. I feel overwhelmed by everything. I really enjoyed the traverse bee sting. I hung off my arms and it made it easier to match feet. The unease comes from some weird having to pretend I fit in. ‘We are like this. We do this.’ Why do I have to pretend to fit in? If I don’t they’ll kill me. Will they? No, of course not. That’s probably my mammalian brain. Oh. This is a cool place. I don’t feel cool. I feel awkward, uneasy and I have to work hard at fucking well everything. If there were no people here what would it be like? I wouldn’t have to be hyper-aware. What happened to “what if I…?” and “what’s possible?” How do I move into that state from this?”

At that point my friend arrived and we had a chat then did some climbing. Although it felt better to have someone I know and like very much with me, my anxiety levels were still high and I couldn’t manage some of the easy routes I knew I could do.


Feeling tired and cold increases my anxiety levels, as does feeling pressure to be better than I am; the realisation that that pressure will not go away no matter what level I climb at is somehow freeing. If feeling over-tired, there could be a question about whether to go climbing at all. I feel overwhelm when there are lots of people around so I could change my climbing times to quieter ones, like Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

In fairness, there were other things going on, like an over-busy schedule I’d set myself for work, which I think was increasing my anxiety levels generally. The over-busy schedule is a way of being harsh to myself, as was the eye-rolling negative accident-foreseeing comment at the beginning of the session. I think perhaps the seeds from Ilgner’s Becoming Conscious chapter that I read and posted about in part 1 may be sprouting and I’m beginning to see just how negatively I talk to myself. I think I was trying to take the ‘quick route’ to permanent internal approval and it was also the wrong route; it was avoiding the part of me that needs external approval rather than noticing it and letting it be there without acting on it.

Finally, my psychotherapist reckons I’m unusually sensitive, which is great for coaching and art, but not so good for trying to overcome fear in busy environments. In conjunction with that, all this sensing inside my body may have been triggering ‘feeling’ memories of trauma. So, whilst it’s great that I feel more as I walk, when I climb the fear can be extra-triggering. I guess the take-away is to go slowly and gently, with an open mind about myself, my environment and the stuff going on in both.

1The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.2

2The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.37.

3Ibid. pp.37-38.

4Ibid. pp.29-32.

5Ibid. pp.32-33.

6Ibid. p.49.


8Ibid. pp.49-54.

9Boulder Brighton’s website is here.

10The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, pp.16-20

3 thoughts on “Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 3”

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