Amanda Vestergaard shares her story of climbing with anxiety and explains how getting out into the mountains - an environment 'often hailed as a miracle cure' - isn't a catch-all mental health prescription for everyone. TW: anxiety, mental health.
Last year, my friends and I climbed the Old Man of Hoy. Ever since moving to Scotland three years prior, the stack had been a dream personal objective. We had a perfect day: sunshine, happy ledge belays and hilarious encounters with the on-route fulmar chicks. What photos from this trip won't show you is that two days earlier, I was curled up in my bed, physically ill with anxiety about the trip ahead.
In the climbing community, we talk a lot about the mental benefits of being in the mountains. We talk about the inner peace delivered by a weekend away in the hills, or the quiet ability of climbs to refocus a frazzled and chaotic mind. In recent years, Scottish doctors have even begun prescribing time outdoors as mental health treatment. With this in mind, it is seldom acknowledged how mental illnesses like anxiety can become entangled with and spurred on by climbing and mountaineering. What happens when mental health is more than yoga mats and sunshine? What happens when anxiety is triggered by, and keeps us from doing the sport we love?
This year marks a decade since I started climbing. It also marks the year that I am finally seeking treatment for a struggle with anxiety that has lasted almost as long. In a community where mountains are most often hailed as the cure, I would like to share my story of slowly learning how to navigate the sport while struggling with anxiety.
It started at the comps… then followed me into the mountains
My anxiety started at competitions. I began competing at the age of 11, and by the age of 15, I was competing at Danish national level, as well as in larger events such as the Nordic championships. As time went on, however, I developed a double-edged relationship with the sport, and especially with competitions. While I loved the feeling of climbing and the community that surrounds it, I started feeling overwhelmingly anxious whenever it was my turn to get on the wall. I began feeling physically ill before weekend competitions, and frequently experienced anxiety-induced migraines before larger events. It got to the point where I even dreaded going to my training sessions. The climbing gym, rather than acting as a relaxing place to have fun with friends and push myself, became associated with belly aches, and the feeling of never being good enough.
In the competition climbing community, performance anxiety is a well-recognised phenomenon. When I moved to Scotland to start university in 2017, my decision to stop competing was largely based on the idea that my anxiety surrounding climbing was solely linked to competing. I was convinced that by spending more time climbing outdoors, enjoying the mountains and the company of fellow climbers without the added pressure of competitions, my confidence and love for the sport would be rekindled.
This, however, was not the case: while my love for climbing has undoubtedly grown with my love for the Scottish mountains, the mountains did not automatically cure my anxiety. I found myself constantly making excuses for why I could not join my friends up north on weekends, and, if I happened to get myself along on a trip, I would spend most of it counting down the days until I got back home.
In the mountains, I continued to struggle with panic attacks that caused me to suddenly freeze up on relatively straightforward scrambles, and anxious episodes so bad they forced me to return home earlier than planned. On trad routes, I developed an almost superhuman ability to downclimb cruxes, back towards the safe vicinity of my last piece of gear. As I discovered that my anxiety surrounding climbing went beyond typical tendencies linked to performance anxiety, it was hard not to feel demoralised. How was I to fix my increasingly troubled relationship with climbing, if even mountains couldn't fix me?
Four years later, I still don't have all the answers. What I do know, however, is that anxiety linked to our sport does exist outside the comp climbing scene. If this becomes something that is more actively discussed, explored and acknowledged within our community, perhaps it is also something that can be addressed, and ultimately accommodated for.
More than a fear of falling
Everyone's anxiety is different. When it comes to climbing and mountaineering, there are so many different ways that anxiety might manifest itself. For me, the most apparent manifestation of my anxiety lies in an inability to just pack the car and go. In Scotland, the weather is fickle, and often plans need to change at the drop of a hat. For me, however, rushing out the door on a Friday afternoon with half an hour's notice because a friend says the weather "is looking mint in the Cuillins this weekend" is not always an option. I need a plan, a safety net, and maybe a day or two to mull things over and prepare myself. Otherwise, I find it very easy to make excuses to stay home, within my comfort zone, only to regret missing out shortly after everyone else has left: an endless cycle of anxiety, defeat, and regret.
When I mentioned this article to a friend of mine facing similar struggles, he replied that for him, the struggle manifests itself more in the social aspect of mountaineering. Going away with a group of people for an extended period of time is difficult, especially if these people do not know about the underlying mental battle going on. My friend explained that because he finds it very hard talking about his anxiety in groups, the very close-knit friendship groups that typically form through climbing and mountaineering can make him feel lonely, and like there is a part of him that never really gets to join in with the general sharing, caring and inside jokes that develop through going into the hills together.
And then, of course, there is the mental battle most often discussed in our community: the fear of falling. But, as I have already suggested, anxiety is so much more than that. On a high-anxiety day, no amount of practice falls will ease the underlying mental and physical symptoms that getting on a climb might trigger. For me, this is what leads to the fact that while I might be leading E1 multi-pitches one day, I can struggle to top-rope a 5+ route indoors the next.
The truth is, if you are spending a lot of time battling generalised anxiety, maintaining a strong head game while climbing can be just as exhausting as battling a forearm pump, or making sure your core keeps your feet on the wall through an overhang. Look at it this way: if you had just spent three days on the Moon board, you wouldn't immediately jump on that 7b sport climb you've been eyeing up for months. You would take a rest day. Often, I find that my anxiety follows much the same principle. If I have had a high-anxiety week, chances are I won't have the mental strength or capacity to tackle the mental aspects necessary for climbing. I need a rest day.
Control, Coping Mechanisms and Solutions
There is no magic cure for dealing with anxiety. No pill, therapy or coping mechanism will make it go away overnight. This said, there do exist ways to make handling anxiety-induced mental barriers while climbing and mountaineering a great deal easier. These are of course highly individualised.
Personally, the thing I find to be most helpful is talking to the team I am with. Whether I am with a single climbing partner or in a group, it helps to let someone know what is going on, possible scenarios that might be a problem for me, and how to deal with them. A simple chat saying "When I do this, it is because I'm feeling this. This is the best way to help me…" often reassures both me and the person that I am with that we are prepared for scenarios in which my anxiety might be triggered. If you are on any medication, it can also be helpful to mention if there are any side effects that might impact your performance in the mountains. Some anti-anxiety medications, for example, suppress your heart rate, or alter your ability to produce adrenaline.
That said, talking is often easier said than done, especially if you are out in the hills with a larger group of people. It is important that you find a place and time that you feel comfortable with. A friend, for example, once told me that the way he got to talk to his climbing partner individually before their climb was by emptying both their Nalgenes, and saying "Come, we're gonna go fill up water and have a chat". Meanwhile, it is important to remember that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses like anxiety is changing. Chances are your partner won't perceive it any differently than if you had let him know you have a bad knee, or are recovering from a finger injury.
Another way in which I am slowly building confidence surrounding my anxiety in the mountains is through learning how to pick my battles. When dealing with a mental illness, some days are good, and others are not so good. Sometimes, I wake up on the day of a trip and realise that that day is one of the bad ones. I am slowly learning that it is, at times, OK to accept that.
Altering your plans to suit your mental state is not weak, and staying home is not giving up. You can continue your battle tomorrow, the mountains will still be there. Most importantly, it should always be remembered that you are stronger than your illness lets you think. Ultimately, only you can judge your own abilities in the mountains.
When a mental illness is in play, that can become difficult: how do you know when your worries are anxiety related, rather than legitimate concerns about the seriousness of a route? How do you judge your climbing strength when it so frequently fluctuates with your mental state? Still, don't let the bad days make you doubt your physical strength or competence. While it is easy to feel defeated when anxiety has gotten the best of us, it helps to remember that we are stronger than our anxiety lets us think. The fact that you had to retreat off a route because of a panic attack doesn't make you any less capable. If anything, those experiences teach us how to listen to each other, our brains and our bodies, helping us become more attentive climbers and climbing partners.
Climbing: is it all worth it?
Over the years, I have often asked myself if I should just stop climbing. All the panic attacks, tears and defeat… are they really worth it? Would it not just be easier to find something else to do with my time? I have been climbing since the age of 11, and the truth is, I do not know who I am without it. Letting my anxiety take that part of me away would be the greatest defeat of all.
Ultimately, climbing is not the cause of my anxiety. Climbing is my reason to keep battling it. I want to fight to get better so that I can go climbing. When I decided to go back on citalopram last month after having spent a year without medication, I was highly aware that my main motivation for getting better was the hope of spending more time in the mountains. Battling anxiety takes so much motivation and determination: determination to tackle the endless bureaucracy in order to get through to the overstretched NHS mental health services; to stick with treatments through years of trial and error; to face the almost inevitable prospect of falling back into the dark place you fought so hard to drag yourself out of.
For me, that strength and determination comes from climbing. It comes from the peaceful summer evenings up north climbing with friends, from the exhilarating feeling of topping out a long multi-pitch route I had to fight hard for, and from running along a ridgeline with the Scottish hills stretching out in every direction below me. For those moments, battling the mental barriers and everything that comes along with them is worth it. Every time.