Mind games: overcoming irrational fear in climbing – part 4

Flickr Creative Commons, Reno Tahoe , Photo by Alan Wong

In part 3 I became aware of just how negative my self-talk is and came to the conclusion that I must “go slowly and gently, with an open mind about myself, my environment and the stuff going on in both.” In conjunction with this, if there’s a lot going on outside of climbing that I’m feeling anxious about, I’m probably not going to climb well and feeling alone at the climbing gym could exacerbate anxiety. In this post I’m going to share how it felt to teach beginners to boulder, share some facts about disassociation and how it’s not helpful for climbing, and dissect a climbing session where there was barely any anxiety – what?! How?! After all that suffering? Let’s find out!

Teaching beginners to boulder

I went to Boulder Brighton1 with two friends who were staying with me for the weekend and met more friends at the climbing gym. Two people hadn’t climbed before so I was ‘showing them the ropes’ (or not, given that we were bouldering). I went through warming up, which part of the feet to use, precise placing of the feet, keeping your hips close to the wall, using your skeletal (rather than muscle) strength, and a silent feet game. I encouraged them to traverse, using any colour holds at first, and then we did some climbs on the bee stings, with me going first to model the climbing for them. I selected the easiest climbs first to build confidence and then after about six climbs they went off by themselves. During the session one of them voiced some limiting thoughts and I suggested alternative thoughts: “what’s possible?” “what could I do here?”, which Arno Ilgner, in The Rock Warrior’s Way, suggests to counter limiting statements2. It felt really satisfying to be able to offer tips that I would have found helpful as a beginner. They enjoyed the session too. I had very low levels of anxiety during this session and even started climbing seagull routes (higher level than bee sting).


Disassociation is something the brain does to help you not feel when something is overwhelming. It can happen during traumatic events, which is really helpful for your survival. However, it can become a habit, which kicks in at the slightest sense of an unwelcome feeling, during non-threatening, every day life, or, as this series of blog posts discusses, whilst climbing. Disassociation causes a foggy-headed feeling and numbness in the body, which can result in clumsiness and accidents. It is, therefore, completely unhelpful whilst climbing. Steve Haines, who wrote Trauma is Really Strange, states, “the key skill is slowly learning to stay grounded in the face of intense sensations associated with your body’s fear responses expressed in your body.”3

At my next session at Boulder Brighton, where I went alone, I noticed I was disassociating when I started banging bits of me on holds. I was at an overhang wall; I started a bee sting and bashed the knuckle of my finger. It really hurt so I hung off a hold with my other hand and shook it out, then climbed down slowly and carefully. I felt flat. I rubbed my knuckle and held it for a while, then tried the bee sting again ultra carefully. I climbed back down and looked at a seagull route, working it out. I tried it, got stuck, climbed down. I decided to have another go. As I approached the route, the voices of the people nearby seemed louder (and threatening to my brain) and I questioned whether it was okay for me to do this route now, when I was feeling partly distracted by the people near me. I decided to go with it and bashed my elbow on a hold. I climbed down carefully and rubbed my elbow. It was time to go. I traversed a bee sting as my last route, then stretched and left. I listened to what was going on in my body and responded to that, rather than make myself do it and possibly have an accident.

My intention for the session was to go with no expectations; I was there to see what it was like and how I felt. I climbed my favourite bee stings, the seagull overhang I did last time and was sitting, thinking about the pink tiger overhang I was stuck on. The music was loud and pumping. I wondered what it would be like to climb in a gym that doesn’t play music, but plays sounds of nature instead or something else that is soothing? What if some of the holds were not brightly coloured but resembled rock? What if there were trees and green plants nearby? What if the environment was calming instead of overwhelming? I’m pretty sure the environment has a lot of influence in how I’m feeling. I feel better at Boulder Brighton if I go with people I know, rather than go on my own, but it’s hard to find suitable times to go with people I know.

Whilst thinking about the music I wondered whether wearing ear plugs might make it easier on my senses next time. I could write myself a training plan – sometimes having a plan is a good thing, even if I don’t stick to it. It could be: 2 x 4 bee stings, 2 x 3 seagulls, 1 pink tiger (x 2 if I can do it), 3 seagulls, 4 bee stings. So, a plan was formed and it leads nicely into the next section.

A training plan helps relieve anxiety

I went with a friend to my next session at Boulder Brighton. After warming up, I climbed my four bee stings twice, then set about finding three seagulls to climb twice. This took some time because I kept getting stuck on some of them but eventually I found three and climbed them twice. Next I looked for a pink tiger. I tried a few but got stuck. I went back to the overhang one that I knew I was stuck on but asked myself what was possible and spent a lot of time trying out different things. Eventually I got through to the next move and jumped off, happy with the progression. I climbed one more bee sting then stretched out.

I didn’t do the 3 seagulls and 4 bee stings to finish because I was pretty pumped from trying the seagulls and tiger over and over again. I felt satisfied with what I’d done. I think there’s something about a training plan that gives the part of my brain that thinks its in control and likes to tick boxes something to do. If it has a plan to execute then its too busy to feel overly anxious about stuff that could get in the way, like less than optimal environment. Tim Galwey talks about this in The Inner Game of Tennis4, where he labels parts of the brain (non-scientifically) Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the verbal bit that behaves as if its in control and Self 2 is the quiet bit that learns quickly when Self 1 is busy with something else.

I’m going to use this training plan the next time I go to Boulder Brighton, in conjunction with the next chapter, Giving, from The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner. The bit that really resonates with me builds on asking what is possible and really shows how the brain will find solutions if you ask questions rather than state limiting beliefs. Ilgner illustrates this with a story of when he kept falling off a climb whilst stating he couldn’t see where to place gear or he couldn’t climb the crux. He suddenly became aware of how he was talking to himself and switched mindsets; he asked himself, “if there is a possibility for pro, where would it be?”5 (“pro” = protection, which is shorthand for placing gear in trad climbing6) and immediately saw a possible place he could use. He followed up that question with another and noticed what he could do to climb the route and carried it out7. Our brains will subconsciously, and quickly, find solutions if we ask them to and if there is a solution. It’s all about where we place focus and attention.

In summary, teaching beginners to boulder was really fun and I enjoyed being in a position to pass on stuff I know that helps; it allowed me to relax and focus on their needs, rather than worry about my own. Perhaps becoming aware of my needs earlier would have precluded disassociation from happening, but I did listen when I was aware and acted on it. I wonder how I might hear my needs earlier in future (my brain will provide an answer, I’m sure). Disassociation didn’t occur whilst with friends, so there’s something about having people I know in the gym environment that makes me feel safer somehow, or less alienated (I think those feelings are linked). Finally, having a plan for a session really helps, even if I only partially stick to it.

I’m really looking forward to writing the next blog post, in which I go top rope climbing with my friend, Christine, founder of Vertigirls8, an all female climbing club in Brighton. Stay tuned!

What do you think? Have you had experiences like mine or Ilgner’s? What was the outcome? I’d love to receive your comment or question (partly because it makes me feel less alone!). 🙂

1Boulder Brighton’s website is here.

2The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.37.

3Trauma is Really Strange, Haines, S., 2016, Singing Dragon, London and Philadelphia, p.26.

4The Inner Game of Tennis, Galway, T., 1982, Bantam Books.

5The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.66.

6This website describes what trad (traditional) climbing is and the differences between it and sport climbing.

7The Rock Warrior’s Way Mental Training for Climbers, Ilgner, A., 2006, Second Edition; Third Printing, Desiderata Institute, La Vergne, p.67.

8Vertigirls website is here.

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