Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 5


Top roping is more fun
photo credit: creative commons -https://hiveminer.com/User/TexasRockGym/Timeline

In part 4 I came to the conclusion that a loud, busy environment is not conducive to learning well and quickly for me, especially when going there alone; therefore going to climbing gyms with people I know and trust makes for a better experience. In addition, I found out that teaching climbing skills to beginners is fun and makes me forget about my own stuff. If I do go to the climbing gym by myself, and even if I don’t, having a training plan gets me out of my way to a degree. Finally, if I don’t listen to my needs I disassociate when I begin to feel overwhelmed, so it would be good to tune into my needs regularly. In this post I’ll focus on 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.

How breathing helps overcome fear and freezing

I went with Christine, founder of Vertigirls1, to High Sports2 for a spot of top rope climbing3. The first thing we did was a grade 4 climb to warm up. Christine climbed up and down (rather than be lowered off on the rope from the top) twice. I climbed up and at the top decided to climb down too. I immediately felt afraid at the top of the wall and couldn’t move my foot. I breathed all the way out, using my abdominal muscles to push the breath, paused and then immediately saw where I could move my foot to. Off I went. My fear kicked in twice more at different points on the climb down and again I focused on breathing all the way out and then a solution appeared and I moved. I found myself naturally employing this technique, but I believe it’s because it was lodged in my subconscious from reading Arno Ilgner’s The Rock Warrior’s Way4.

In Chapter 2 of The Rock Warrior’s Way, Ilgner talks about the habit of tensing up, which causes shallow breathing whilst stressed. A way to encourage the body to reduce stress and allow helpful solution-seeking thoughts to flow is to focus on “breathing continuously”5, which Ilgner labels “deliberate breathing”; he states forcing each breath out with the abdominal muscles allows the inhalation to occur automatically. A scientific study found practising deep breathing “could improve sustained attention, affect, and cortisol levels”6, and this could explain why I was able to re-focus and move after I breathed all the way out. However, I didn’t focus on my breath during the whole climb, just when I got scared and froze, so it’s unnecessary to do deliberate breathing the whole time. It might be good practice, though.

How after-climb analysis helps zone in on personal learning style

After the warm up climb, Christine and I moved on to climbing routes graded 5. Christine nailed the first one and I attempted it twice but got stuck about four metres up (“bouldering wall height”, Christine noticed) so decided to move on to the next route. Christine nailed the next one and I got stuck just before the overhang and requested to be lowered down. Christine responded positively to that immediately, which I really appreciate – it sucks to be high up and wanting to come down and having to argue with your belayer because they doubt your decision (which can be triggering for someone who had early relational trauma). At the bottom I looked up and realised immediately what I could do differently next time and discussed it with Christine. Up I went again, tried a different move just before the overhang, then nailed the route. Next, Christine nailed a grade 6 route and then I tried the one I’d got stuck on before and nailed that too.

We chatted about the routes we’d climbed and I realised that I like to climb as far as I can and, if I get stuck, come down immediately. I can either then give it another go or do something else and come back to it. I don’t like taking rests in the air and then getting back on the route at the same stuck point. I think this might have something to do with confidence building; I build up to the stuck point with moves I can already do and then I can tweak what I do at the stuck point to get a different, hopefully better, result. Also, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and need to just come down off the route and then give it another go after belaying someone else. This realisation was really helpful because it means that I can request belay partners to lower me down as soon as I request it rather than argue with me and stress me out unnecessarily. It also means I know that my brain will work on the problem subconsciously whilst I’m busy belaying someone else.

Finally, what my method tells me is this is about learning, not completing a climb. It doesn’t matter to me whether I complete it first time. It does feel good when I complete a route – my ego gets really involved then, I can feel it! I think it’s important to counter the ego feeling by climbing the route again, maybe more than once, to see what I might do differently and what else I can learn about myself on that route.

How practising falling eliminates terror

Our final climb at High Sports was a purple 5. Christine went first, got to the top, and I lowered her down. This section of the wall is arranged in a way that if you come off the wall, you swing out into space. I used to find this terrifying. I climbed up to the overhang, which is about twelve metres. I decided to stop and yelled, “I’m ready to come down!” “Okay,” Christine readied herself with the rope. I let go, swung out into space and shouted, “woo hoo!” It was such a different response to the last time I had climbed at that part of the wall, when I’d screamed in terror after letting go. I believe this is because of a couple of factors.

The change in attitude could have something to do with the training Christine and I did a couple of months ago when I’d wanted to practise falling to get my brain used to it. I climbed to an overhang and let go four times. The first and second times I screamed – Christine said that had scared the little children who were waiting nearby for their lesson. The third time I’d breathed out through my mouth but no scream, and the fourth time not even a change in breathing occurred. So that may have helped. Another thing that may have helped is Christine told me you’re not really falling when you’re on a top rope; it’s more like being in a baby dangler-thing and I think the idea of being a big baby dangling in space is quite a funny one.

How asking a graceful climber how he feels whilst climbing can help lessen internal pressure

Whilst at Boulder Brighton the next day, I watched a man climb a hard route with easy grace. When he climbed down, using every hold he’d used to climb up (mostly people seem to jump off at the top of hard boulder problems) I asked him how he was feeling as he climbed. He said, “for me it was like a walk. It’s just normal.” I asked him if he felt any fear during that climb and he said, “indoors, no, but sometimes outside on the rock, yes.” He’s been climbing for fifteen years and told me he felt afraid at first but it’s a matter of retraining your brain and it’s a slow process. What he said confirms my conclusions in previous posts in this series7 and it was really nice to hear; you can retrain your brain to feel relaxed in the knowledge that you are capable, rather than freaking out at the ‘traumatic’ climb situation! The bit that helped ease the pressure was: it took him fifteen years of climbing a lot to get to his position; I’ve only been climbing a year and I certainly don’t climb every day (it varies between 0 and 3 times a week) so it’s going to take a long time to settle this fear. His final words were that climbing helps you know yourself and part of that is not climbing when you feel it would not be good for you. I thanked him and moved on.

In summary, focusing on breathing all the way out seems to be a really helpful thing to do in any situation when feeling fear or anxiety because it de-stresses me enough to be able to take action. In conjunction with that, one way of lessening stress at the climbing gym is know my learning style so I can share it with others who are partnering with me; if they’re up for it, they might even do post-climb analysis with me, which helps me learn even faster and I’m very willing to do that for my climbing partners too. Self-awareness rocks! Practising falling is useful brain-training and can even make it fun, but even more fun is imagining myself as a big baby dangling in space. Finally, watching people who have mastered a skill and then asking them about their experience can be really helpful in receiving acknowledgement that where I am now is okay, and that I can get better with training, which will take time. Also, it’s just nice to watch people climb beautifully.

What helps you relieve stress and move when you need to? What is your learning style? Do you like post-climb analysis? How do you feel about ‘falling’? These could be metaphors for any area of life! Feel free to comment on this or any of the points I’ve raised!

1Vertigirls is a climbing club in Brighton for all women, and especially those with additional needs. The Vertigirls’ website is here.

2High Sports, Brighton, website is here.

3This website has a really good description and diagram of top rope climbing.

4The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne.

5Ibid., p.33.

6The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults, Ma X., Yue Z., Gong Z., Zhang H., Duan N., Shi Y., Wei G., Li Y., published in Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 874.

7The possibility of ‘re-wiring’ the brain in relation to fear expression and extinction is discussed in Part 2 of Mind games

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

  1. I love the Rock Warrior’s Way – it made me understand that I wasn’t alone in having to tackle the very real mental component of climbing. Breathing sure does help like you said! I’m actively trying to work through all of his suggestions because they are so helpful! Great post!


  2. I remember being told that ‘the leader never falls’ – baggage that I have retained (if not clung to) for 20 odd years of (sporadic) climbing. I have recently decided that it is time to get to grips with leading (trad) – and this is definitely a limiting belief and one I think it will take to some time to overturn. It is probably only in the last 5 years that I have come to trust the rope when I am seconding and, essentially, I don’t fall off. A couple of weeks ago I actually did fall off (while seconding) and it was ok – I realise that it’s a long way off a leader fall, but at least I am now aware of the hang-up and can slowly start letting go of it. I too love the Rock Warrior’s Way (although his stuff about falling does raise my heart rate somewhat!!)


    1. Hi Lorna,
      Yes, it’s much easier on the brain to fall off while seconding or top roping than leading. You’d have to really trust your gear and not get complacent whilst placing it :). I think practising lead falling whilst indoors might be a good preparatory thing to do…


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