Managing Fear: Where to Start

This is the first of a few posts I’ll be writing on the topic of fear and anxiety. Something that I, and many of us, have had a lot of dealings with. I am not an expert or professionally trained in any way, I’m just relating my experiences and the processes I’ve found that have helped me.

Managing fear in the Black Hills. With a crooked helmet.

Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with for a long time. I am very familiar with it and its tricky little games; always trying to take the fun out of everything and make me feel like a lunatic. One of the most tactile manifestations of anxiety is fear. Fear of everything from animals to flying to climbing.

I’ve learned a few ways to manage my fears, rather than have them rule my life. It wasn’t until I started climbing, though, that the process really made sense to me. Surprisingly, the climbing wall has turned out to be the greatest teacher of all.

Be aware of your thoughts

This is probably the single most important part of the process. Our thoughts create our reality.

For me those thoughts come in many forms. But usually what happens is a possible scenario floats through my head, and then it starts manifesting into something bigger, which triggers a physiological reaction (adrenaline and such), which confirms the thoughts, which creates more fear… and the cycle goes on.

In climbing it goes something like this: I imagine what a fall to the ground would be like. I take that thought seriously and keep dwelling on it. That creates a real, physiological reaction. I start to feel afraid. My palms get sweaty, my heart starts pumping harder. That physical response validates my thoughts of falling, and a spiral effect is created that’s hard to get out of once I’m in it.

So these thoughts… sometimes they are good to pay attention to. Fear is good, when it’s protecting you. We are afraid of heights for a reason. We are afraid of bears for a reason. But, sometimes the things we are reacting to are not based in reality. They’re based on irrational thinking. And that’s the trick: making that distinction between rational and irrational thought, perception and reality. Determine what’s real. That’s a much better place from which to act.

Ask yourself: Do my thoughts reflect reality?

Climbing, especially in a controlled environment such as the gym, is a great tool for recognizing the difference between our perceptions and reality, because there aren’t a lot of added variables to consider. Because of this, it’s an excellent environment in which to explore fear. Back to that scenario:

I’m part way up the climbing wall. I imagine what it would be like to fall to the ground. I feel afraid.


Question: is this fear based in reality? I am connected to my belayer via a harness, a rope, and a knot. These were all double-checked by both of us prior to me beginning my climb. The anchor is solid. I trust my belayer. I trust my equipment. So, what would happen if I fell? On top-rope, I would fall a foot or two at most. I would not fall to the ground. That is the reality.

So I’ve identified my thoughts which are causing the fear. And I’ve identified reality. The two do not match up. I’m still afraid… now what?

Act on it: Pause, breathe, and go just a bit further

Looking down from the top of a heady climb at Devils Lake

Your fear isn’t going to magically disappear. I like to think of it as a whiny little kid. That kid isn’t going to stop whining, and the more you pretend like he’s not there, the harder he will be to ignore. Accept that the whiny kid is there, but go make him sit in the corner so that you can continue on. Don’t waste energy trying to ignore the fear. Instead, just relegate it to the corner.

Back to our scenario: I’m on the wall. I imagine falling to the ground. I pause, take a deep breath, and identify my thoughts as well as reality, determining that they do not match up. I choose to believe reality instead of my thoughts. The key word there is *choose*. Once I see that there is an option, I get to choose which one I”m going to act on.

It’s important from this point to make another move up the wall. Otherwise, I’m reinforcing the fear and not the reality.

I pause, take a deep breath (or three), send my fear to go sit in the corner, and make one more move up the wall. That one extra move is an important step in moving through the fear. It proves to me that by continuing upward I’m not going to go falling to the ground. Positive reinforcement.

Working through my fears while climbing is an ongoing process. I used to be afraid on top-rope, and now I’m going through the same process in my lead climbing. It’s a slow process, but what’s important is that I’m always making progress. The best part is that the work I’m doing transfers to life outside of climbing. That same mental process works for many, many things. For me, a life that was once filled with irrational fears is much calmer now.

Your thoughts create your reality. Start by becoming aware of those thoughts. Are they based in reality? What *is* reality? This, in my opinion, is the single most important step in managing fear. Start here, and the rest will follow.

8 thoughts on “Managing Fear: Where to Start

  1. Maija

    This is great, Elizabeth. I have a stupid fear of top-roping STILL with rock climbing, even though I will lead on ice with no fear at all. It is irrational, I recognize that. I think it is because in ice climbing you learn to NEVER FALL WHILE LEADING and since I focused on leading so much I really took it to heart (and have had a yucky pendulum fall on rock TR). So, what I started doing is just falling on top rope. Yeah, it isn’t fun because I just don’t like that feeling, but I need to get used to it to progress in rock climbing.

    I struggle most to control this fear when I am on a climb that is at (or above) my limit and I am struggling to work through a crux section and don’t want to fall. I sometimes think I don’t want to fall more so because then I will have to re-climb the crux section, but if you have any advice on working through that fear while you are stressed physically, I would love to hear more! I tend to either have laser focus while stressed mentally & physically like that or none at all (which is when I have problems!)

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Maija, thanks for the comment. I’m working through something similar with my leading in the gym (and on rock) right now, where even if I know the fall will be safe, I have a hard time climbing at or above my limit because of the potential fall. I guess my first question is whether you trust your anchors/equipment/belayer? If you do, then I think it’s a matter of really being aware of your thoughts, figuring out what’s holding you back, and pushing through that little by little.

      For me, it’s not the fall itself, but the anticipation of the fall. Once again, it’s what my mind is creating that I deal with. I’m sure the falling that you’re doing is a good thing to do to fight that. I’ve been taking some falls on lead as well for the same reason.

      You make a good point in that the mental stuff is harder when we’re stressed physically. I’ve noticed that, too, and I’m guessing it’s because it takes quite a bit of energy to deal with working through the mental stuff, and if we’re maxed out physically, that’s where our energy is going. I would suggest working on that fear in less physically stressful situations to gain confidence and create good mental habits, and then working up to more taxing climbs from that point. For me, it seems to be about the balance of challenging myself mentally, but not overdoing it. Baby steps. That’ll be in an upcoming post. 🙂

  2. ClimbingBetty

    Excellent post! I appreciate seeing how you handle this because I experience the same thing. I will be in the middle of a climb and suddenly, I start picturing myself falling, hurdling through the air towards the ground and then my heart is racing and I’m completely freaked out. This even happens sometimes when I’m standing on a gigantic ledge, anchored into bolts and often on rappel. Sometimes I do a better job of handling it then others. If I’m tired, mentally or physically, I have a harder time effectively dealing with it. If I’m having a great time and feeling really positive about climbing, I do significantly better with it. Seeing this pattern lets me know that fear, for me, is often more about my mental state then any real objective hazard. If I can recognize this, I can deal with fear better. However, when I’m really tired mentally or physically, it’s harder to recognize this and deal with it effectively.

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      I definitely have good days and bad days as well. Some days I can handle the mental stuff and some days I’m just not feeling as strong. The nice thing to recognize, though, is the general upward trend in your ability to manage fear, or even in the things that freak you out. The things I’m doing now were *way* out of my comfort level when I started, and I’m generally pretty good with the things that used to be really hard for me. So it’s good to be aware of that. Forest through the trees and such.

  3. Katie

    Great post and topic! I’ve dealt with anxiety my whole life and rock climbing has been the next best thing to talk therapy for learning how to manage it. (I’ve had a couple mid-climb breakdowns at the Lake with tears and all – and I don’t cry that easily.) I too have learned to go through the same self-talk steps of reality vs fear when it crops up. I also add a dose of actual risk vs my risk tolerance level, which helps me remember that I can always stop.

    Interestingly enough, the above photo of a Devil’s Lake route looks quite a bit like the traverse leading to the crux of Berkeley. As many times as I tried, I couldn’t send it this summer all because of fear. The foot holds were all just too small for my brain to believe they’d work at the time.

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Katie! I like the actual risk vs risk tolerance piece. That’s an important piece to manage, as well. Pushing too far past that line isn’t good, either. I find that my risk tolerance fluctuates on a daily basis, and changes, as well, as I gain more experience and confidence in my skills and climbing.

  4. 1girlontherocks

    Hey Elizabeth,

    I think you are on the right track for tackling your fears! You are right to recognize that it’s a process–a never ending journey. This is liberating in a way… it is okay to turn around and walk in different directions for a while, even to go backwards. A setback is not a disappointment or a failure, but rather, an opportunity to learn something that might help you move the direction you want to. The experience is what is important, not the destination!

    On a more practical note, three things that always help me climb well technique-wise when I’m afraid are:
    1) Reset my feet to find a good body position. Fear can often make you climb into an awkward position. Find a more comfy place where you can think for a sec.
    2) Consciously weight my feet. This helps buy me time to relax and see the moves ahead, by taking a load off my arms
    3) Breathe deep, don’t overgrip, and go for it! The next hold is always a jug. Or the next next hold. 😉

    Good luck!

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Great tips! I often find myself climbing way more awkwardly when I’m afraid or uncomfortable mentally. My technique regresses quite a bit! I’m going to try the consciously weighting my feet trick, too. I bet that helps a lot.

      Thanks for reading!

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