How Climbing's Mental Game Can Help Relieve Anxiety

Via Abolencia climbs Psycho Wall.  Photo courtesy of Adam Karp

Via Abolencia climbs Psycho Wall. Photo courtesy of Adam Karp

There is something about holding on to the side of a mountain by your fingertips that instinctively forces you to focus. As someone with a mind that races constantly due to anxiety, I use the mental techniques I’ve learned through climbing to manage my mindset.

I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a child. I came out at 12 to a conservative community, and was bullied throughout my elementary and high school years for being queer, gender nonconforming, asian and for my weight.

The ongoing stress from these experiences resulted in my brain being wired in a way that always anticipated the worst.

While my anxiety was manageable for a while, I realized that it wouldn’t be for much longer. I took a part-time job with an outdoor gear retailer, which gave me the time and space I needed for myself, while also finding a community of people that spent most of their free time outside.    

My first time on the wall was not pretty. I forced moves, worried about what others might think of me, and would imagine the worst possible ways I could fall.

But climbing is not the type of sport where you will get better if you overthink. Climbing is a sport that forces you to live in the moment and exist in a meditative state.

I quickly learned that I couldn’t improve my climbing unless I learned how to calm my anxiety and accept situations that might feel uncertain. It was a process, but there are lessons I learned on the wall that help me manage my anxiety in everyday life.

COUNTING BREATHS

Whenever I feel stressed or anxious, my body freezes and I hold my breath. I noticed my physical reaction to stress was the same while climbing.

Now, whenever I start to feel stressed on a climb and my mind starts to lean towards the negative, I start counting my breaths. This keeps my brain and muscles oxygenated, releases the tension I’m holding in my body and lets me focus on counting more than I focus on fear or discomfort.

When I reach a really difficult move, I take in as much oxygen as I can and keep it flowing. As someone who relied heavily on upper body strength during climbing, it was typical for me to forcefully breathe out whenever I exerted my muscles, but instead, I did the opposite and breathed in.

The air expanded my abdominals, which kept my core strong and helped me maintain balance during the climb.

It was amazing how something as simple as paying attention to my breathing changed the way I climbed. Sections on routes that had stumped me for days now felt easy, and I was less in my head.

When you are anxious, notice your breathing. Are you holding your breath? If so, relax your brow, unclench your jaw and let your shoulders drop. Take deep breaths in and deep breaths out.

one Minute breathing exercise scrappymind dot com.png

THE TEN SECOND RULE

My anxious mind talks me out of doing lots of things. If I let my mind go unchecked for too long, I find myself making disempowering decisions out of fear.

Many folks who suffer from anxiety describe feelings of “overthinking” or “analysis paralysis”. This usually comes from having a negative association with having to make a decision, which results in the mind searching for alternatives to avoid that decision.  

The downside is if that overthinking goes on for too long it can lead to no decision being made at all, or complete avoidance of the situation.

During my first 5.10a at the gym, I encountered something similar. I needed to commit to doing a hard move. It required me to stretch out in order to grab a tiny crimp while my feet were on chips, and the moves leading up to it were uncomfortable so it didn’t make sense to rest on them.

It was the endurance section of the route. If I waited too long on an uncomfortable spot on the climb, my muscles would fatigue and I would fall.

After paying attention to my body, I learned that I could only grip an uncomfortable hold for an average of ten seconds before I fatigued. Before that time, I would need to either make my decision to go for the move or fall.

As Arno Ilgner says in “The Rock Warrior’s Way”,

Via Abolencia, the author, climbs Slot Machine in Peterskill, NY on Lenape and Haudenosauneega (Longhouse Confederacy) ancestral land.  Photo courtesy of William Cohen

Via Abolencia, the author, climbs Slot Machine in Peterskill, NY on Lenape and Haudenosauneega (Longhouse Confederacy) ancestral land. Photo courtesy of William Cohen

“If you’re focused on moving and staying in balance, there is little mental space for worrying about falling or actually falling. Your attention is on doing something empowering, not on avoiding something limiting.”

Having this physical reminder that my muscles had a time limit before getting too pumped motivated me to commit to a choice, which really improved my climbing. There was a real physical limitation that made it so there was no mental space to dwell in the negative.

Miraculously, once I committed to the move, I didn’t fall. There was more power in the tips of my fingers and toes than I had in any of the thoughts I had that said I couldn’t do it.

If you are anxious it can be difficult to not overthink, but if you give yourself parameters to commit to, like a countdown to 10 seconds, it can simplify your decisions by cutting down the time spent overanalyzing.

TREAT THE BRAIN LIKE A MUSCLE

The truth about mastering your mental game is that there is no quick fix.

Just like climbing, managing anxiety takes conscious practice and persistence. You have to treat your brain like a muscle that you exercise.

You have to actively question, challenge and rewire every self-limiting anxious thought that you can.

In managing my anxiety, I’ve learned that therapy, meditation, journaling and even climbing were not answers to stopping my anxiety, but that they are tools to help me change my own anxiety pattern.

Our brains are very good at sticking to routine thought patterns, so the more your thoughts follow a pattern towards negativity or anxiety, the stronger that wiring in your brain becomes and the more your thoughts default towards that way of thinking.

But these brain patterns are just like the moves you make on a climbing route. If you are working on a climb but keep falling at a certain section because you are making the same moves and holding the same positions over and over again and keep falling in the same place, isn’t it time to do something different?

The point on the climb where you fall is similar to the point in your thought pattern where your anxiety peaks. The same way you would take some time to read the route and change your approach to the climb, you can assess your thought patterns and make changes to keep your anxiety from escalating.

Here are some simple questions to improve your mental game, in climbing and in life. I call it, The Summit of Empowerment.

The crux of the matter is, whether in anxiety or in climbing, you need to figure out the pattern you are following that isn’t leading to the result you want and make different choices until you find a pattern that does. To “summit” means to make an empowering choice.

You need to lean towards the empowering decision, over and over again. Do this, and you can learn how to overcome your mind as an obstacle, and see just how far you can go.

Via Abolencia writes at ScrappyMind, a self-development website for people who want to push through self-doubt. Subscribe to the newsletter at ScrappyMind.com. Want to strengthen your mental game? Download the 1 minute breathing exercise that helps you rewire your negative self-talk: https://mailchi.mp/b59ebbc0544c/scrappybreathe.