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.

6 thoughts on “Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 6”

  1. Hah, I hate autobelayers – but then based on my comments to your last article about not falling I guess that is hardly surprising. I think that maybe I am also (a bit of?) a control freak – falling and autobelays definitely not in control. More food for thought. Thanks Julia


    1. You hate them? I love them. I was extremely nervous of them at first but now it feels a bit like flying. I love the letting go – that moment of free fall before the auto belay cord catches you. You’re welcome, Lorna 🙂


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