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.
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
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.