Fear – The first steps to free your mind

March 24, 2014

Fear is like your dog: it will become your best friend or your boss depending on how you treat it. And just like with your dog, you have to understand its nature to make friends with it. 

fear management while rock climbing

I highly recommend Eric Hörst’s book: Maximum Climbing (http://amzn.to/1jtf3KN) if you are interested in learning how to manage the mental aspects of climbing. Many of the tools I’ll talk about I’ve adapted from his book and made my own.

I find it one of the most important questions to honestly answer for myself in life in general is: Do I let fear control my actions in a limiting way? And what do I do about it? I prefer writing it down, which makes a huge difference.

I think that living in an illusion that I one day will eliminate all fear has no place in a sport like climbing. First of all, it’s never going to happen, and second, if it did I would probably not be alive for very long. Our fear is meant to keep us out of dangerous situations. My goal is rather learning how to manage it, and enjoy the sense of aliveness it gives me. I want to consciously be able to use it in my own favor, to keep me safe and to help me make good decisions.

Making friends with my fear

My first step in fear management has been to understand the physical changes triggered by stressful situations.

Fast heart rate, sweaty palms, butterflies in my stomach, increased breathing or no breathing at all, dry mouth, wide pupils — these are all signs of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicking into action during stress. The SNS also benefits us by increasing the release of adrenalin, which works as a natural painkiller. It also boosts energy and muscle tension and make us focus better. It is designed to prepare us for a fight or flight action.  Luckily humans have the ability to evaluate fearful situations and act proactively. By consciously acknowledging and understanding the responses of the SNS, we can take counteraction to calm down and find the appropriate tension for whatever we’re doin. On some routes I find that I preform the best when I feel the butterflies as I step off the ground. On other routes that require lots of technique, this can certainly be an impediment, and can result in jittery foot movements and poor dynamic control. It’s a precarious balance.

Categorizing the fears

My next step is to categorize my fears — to identify how, and to what degree they affect me:

  • afraid of falling?
  • afraid of injury, pain or death?
  • afraid of failure?
  • afraid of embarrassment? (climbing in front of people that are better than you, or someone you look up to)
  • afraid of an unknown? (while onsighting, a fear of an unknown could be  fear oft trying your hardest when you don’t know the next holds or how a fall might turn out)

It’s hard but necessary to be completely honest.

My accident had an interesting effect on me: it washed all fear of failure or embarrassment off the table. I’ve never really been afraid of climbing in front of other people or showing other that I have to try hard. I remember thinking that if I ever got back into climbing, I was not going to become a person who needed to inform everybody at the crag that I was a better climber before, and that the reason for my failure was my accident.  I decided that the grade I would later climb would be good enough as long as I was trying my hardest and was having the most fun.

While still in the hospital bed I went through the accident over and over in my head. I woke up dripping in sweat from drams where I was falling into air. I was afraid that I would never be able to enjoy rock climbing again even If I would be physically able to. I started seeking out climbing movies with people taking big whippers. Chris Sharma became even more inspiring to me than ever.  I also went through the reason for why I fell. I’m 100% sure this made a huge impact on how I felt when I started climbing again. I had been visualizing myself taking safe, ‘big air’ falls a billion times.

For me, fear of pain is worse than the act of falling itself. It’s been challenging to deal with because it’s a legit fear, and I’ve had to be careful when leading because of the impact a fall could have on my ankles. Fear and pain walk hand in hand. On high pain days, it is hard to find the right headspace even on routes that are overhanging enough to not hit anything. To not dig myself into a hole where I’m using pain as an excuse for not facing my fears, I’ve had to find ways to manage.

I use selftalk, visualization, breathing technics, writing, yoga and meditation. In the next blog post I’ll be describing the different tools above!

“Life is to short to be taken serious!”

Free your mind Rannveig Aamodt