Guest post by Dr Rebecca Williams of Smart Climbing:
Fear is a normal human emotion, with many functional benefits. Its role is to alert us to danger and activate helpful responses to get us out of danger – most typically fight, flight or freeze. This means that trying to get rid of fear is not only impossible, but is actually counter to millennia of evolving adaptive survival responses. This might not be a popular view among climbers, particularly those of us struggling with panic attacks on the lead, but the reality is, everyone feels scared from time to time, even elite climbers, but everyone has different tipping points and everyone varies in how well they manage fear. However, we very rarely see articles mentioning fear and many climbers use euphemisms (‘exciting’ or ‘interesting’) to describe climbs which they may have completed successfully but on which they really struggled with anxiety at various points.
So why is fear such a taboo?
When I put this question to followers of the Smart Climbing Facebook page, I got a number of varying responses. Some people said they thought it was to do with negative social evaluation – the need that we all have to look competent in front of our peers. Adults in particular have a hard time admitting to negative emotions. We also become accustomed to being competent and in control, and fear reminds us that we are fallible. A second reason is that many people try to deal with fear by avoiding it and avoiding talking about it is a way of trying to prevent it happening.
People vary in their ways of coping with difficult emotions and denial is one such coping response, one which I think in this instance is actually doing us a disservice. Many people claim that the best way of dealing with their fear is to be open about it with their climbing partner; taking some of the stress out of the situation is making them less likely to suffer debilitating anxiety on the route.
Similarly, if there was more open discussion about anxiety in climbing, we might find that fear of negative evaluation by our peers would start to decrease, and again take some of the stress out of the situation. Undoubtedly, there is a perception within the general public and the media that climbers are ‘ huge risk takers’, ‘sensation seekers’ and ‘brave’ (or perhaps even ‘stupid’!) – all conceptions which don’t really match the personality profiles of most climbers who tend to be more aligned to perfectionism, like to be in control and averse to taking large risks. And indeed with modern gear, much of the risk is much less than it was in days gone by. Perhaps its time we stopped trying to live up to joe public’s fantasy.
But if fear is functional, why can it be so debilitating? We need to think back to how and where we evolved from. For cave men it was useful to be very alert to dangers in the environment. Main responses were fight, flight (run away) or freeze (stay very still and hope the tiger doesn’t see you). We evolved an effective physiological response to deal with such threats. A big rush of adrenalin sends blood to the major muscles of the body and away from non essential parts (stomach, extremities), giving rise to all the signs we recognise as fear. The body’s quick response is depleting energy and muscle strength – it is designed for a rapid, short term action. You can see how this might be useful for running away from tigers, but not so useful for climbing.
Nowadays, dangers of life tend to be much less obvious and more constant – the chronic day to day hassles which we recognise as stress. Our systems can be in over drive much of the time, compounding our natural variations in how reactive our nervous systems are. Some of us are born more ‘laid back’ and some more reactive. Early childhood experiences also affect our baseline levels of anxiety and how good we are at coping with difficulties. Its not surprising therefore that we are all very different in how reactive we are to anxiety inducing climbs, and even how we can be very different on one day compared to the next. The crucial thing to remember with anxiety is that avoidance is the biggest factor which perpetuates fear, and tackling this avoidance in a gradual way is the best thing you can do to embrace this essential emotion and improve your climbing.
Dr Rebecca Williams BSc DClinPsy CPsychol
Rebecca qualified as a clinical psychologist in 2001 and currently works as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in the NHS trust. She is a qualified climbing instructor, and has had much success in helping people make better use of their minds and bodies to enhance their climbing.
Smart Climbing offer psychological skills teaching, advice and coaching to rock climbers who would like to develop their mental focus, overcome fears and anxieties, and improve their body awareness, visualisation skills and psychological tactics for climbing.
You can follow Smart Climbing and Rebecca on Twitter.