Psychology of Climbing – the Fear of Falling
Does the psychology of climbing, specifically the fear of falling get in the way of your climbing sometimes? Then please read on.
“Almost regardless of their absolute level of achievement, when climbers operate at their personal limit they experience an emotional intensity, both elation and despondency, that exceeds all but the most ecstatic and traumatic events in ordinary life. During a climb all mental noise, all distractions, are eliminated and the mind focuses solely on the flow of climbing. For a short period of time all of the cares and concerns of the world disappear and all that is left is the climber and the mountain. The experience so vivid and taut that ordinary life can feel grey and flaccid in comparison.”
Simon Thompson, Unjustifiable Risk? The story of British climbing – 2010
For me, this is definitely one of the reasons I’m attracted to climbing. I find it a very therapeutic process. But to get to that stage, fear gets in the way at times.
One of the main reasons people’s full climbing potential is not reached is because of the fear factor within climbing, whether this is fear of falling or the fear of failure. We may hesitate to make a move because we think we may fall off, hence we do not make the move and rest on the rope, or we make a lame attempt to go for a particular hold because our brain has already decided that we will fall off. Or we overgrip as we feel out of our comfort zone, and seem to tire very quickly, hence failure is inevitable.
Would it not be great to not have this fear, and to flow past these holds, because we know that we can make the move(s) really, or at least attempt them.
Let’s first talk about fear. So, what happens when we get scared?
- Fear starts with a trigger (marginal gear, above runner, unused to falling, etc…) – imagined threat or real
- A signal is sent to Amygdala (see pic)
- Amygdala is responsible for our prehistoric survival
- Neurotransmitters called glutamate send signal even deeper into brain – causes us to freeze, then fight or flight response
- Body floods with adrenaline (heart rate and blood pressure up)
- Blood pumped to muscles (body getting ready for fight or flight)
- Sometimes if anxiety is too much, leads to rapid fatigue, inability to evaluate correctly, and inability to climb efficiently
So, how do we deal with this? We can use visualization, breathing and positive self-talk to try and overcome the state of fear.
Visualisation—before we set off the ground, we try to visualise the moves, the hand holds, footholds, gear, clipping, etc… This mental rehearsal almost equates to having climbed the route, and can help with reducing the mental noise that happens during climbing.
Breathing—focus on breathing. How many of us have climbed the crux, or topped out feeling slightly light headed?? This is because sometimes we tend to hold our breath, especially when climbing on our limit, or through the ‘scary’ part of a climb. Breathing helps with energy conservation, slows down the heart rate, and relaxes the muscles.
Positive self-talk—this is an obvious topic that does not need much explanation. If the fear is irrational (i.e. you are safe if you fell off, not talking about potential ground falls or marginal gear), use positive self-talk to remain calm, and prevent the fear from taking over.
If you are interested in the psychology of climbing, or would like help with the fear of falling, please contact us. We run workshops/courses on the above: