/ Climbing and mental health

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upupup - on 17 Aug 2017
Hopefully, this long post will spark some insightful discussion, if not apologies for wasting your time.

I’ve been climbing for around five years now. During the last two years, I’ve started to develop anxiety. The intensity of this anxiety varies from being severe enough to stop me wanting to go to the shops, to being practically non-existent.

Since developing anxiety I’ve noticed how much I depend on climbing to help with this problem when it flares up. I usually climb two or three times a week and go climbing outdoors as much as often. I operate around E1/E2 and even at this modest level, I still feel that climbing makes up a significant proportion of my life.

If I’m feeling anxious after a day's work I’ll go climbing and do some circuits. The absorbing nature of flowing from one hold to the next really helps to take my mind of what I’ve been worrying about. I’ll finish a good indoor training session tired and buzzing. Apart from the possibility of picking up an injury and having to stop climbing for a while, this method of coping with anxiety seems pretty foolproof and healthy.

When I go climbing outside, my emphasis moves from just getting in the flow and trying some nice boulder problems, to trying more dangerous trad routes. I try to stick to safe routes, and by a lot of people's standards, the routes I climb aren’t dangerous at all, but quite often if I were to fall, it would result in some severe injuries. I like to climb routes that scare me but aren’t objectively dangerous.

When I’m focused on a trad route, nothing else seems to matter, I escape the mundanity of everyday life and the size of my world diminishes to what is right in front of me. I like to struggle on trad routes and can think of few things in life that beat the feeling of getting to the top of a trad route that I found particularly difficult.

The feeling of, “that was so cool”, “I almost fell a very long way” and “I bet my mates would find that hard” lasts for days after hard climbs and sometimes helps to put everything else in my life into perspective. The feeling on the sharp end that nothing but the present moment matters has been compared to what many people achieve through meditation. I’ve never managed to achieve this feeling through meditation, but find it relatively easy to obtain when pushing my grade when climbing.

Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly angsty, I’ll seek out this method of escape and go and climb something that I know is particularly bold or hard for that familiar buzz. This is the part of my relationship with climbing that I feel may not be particularly healthy. Sure, nothing bad has happened so far, but it would just take one little slip for a catastrophic fall to occur. I often think to myself that it would be good if I could get the buzz from climbing that I so often desire without the risk, only to realize that the two are intertwined.

I’ve noticed that a greater proportion of my friends who climb than my friends who don’t climb suffer from some kind of mental illness. This could just be a random occurrence specific to my friendship groups, or it could be the fact that I’m closer to my climbing friends than my non-climbing friends and therefore feel more able to talk to them about these issues. Anyway, the fact that a significant minority of my climbing friends suffer from some kind of mental illness got me thinking about the possibility that climbing for many people is used as a way of dealing with mental health issues and that many people are attracted to climbing for this reason.

I depend more than I would like to admit on the relief from everyday problems that climbing provides. I realize that of course climbing is not a completely safe pastime and that at some point things could go seriously wrong. This leads to an internal conflict, with part of me not wanting to worry too much about the danger involved and the other part of me taking a more realistic view of the hazards involved in this inherently risky pastime.

I’d be interested to see what other people think about these issues; How do you justify the risks involved in climbing? Have you noticed others use climbing to help with mental health issues? Have you used climbing to help with mental health issues?
Albachoss - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:

Great post and thanks for sharing. Regarding your observations about climbing as an activity for managing mental health, definitely! I agree wholeheartedly and I imagine I speak for many others too, it's an amazing way of spending time and has an endless number of benefits.

I wouldn't say climbing is unique as an activity which brings those benefits though, people can enter a flow-state, enjoy the focus and the resulting positive effects by doing almost anything. Think of common hobbies and interests like running, cycling, flying to name only a few. Also other non-physical activities like building or creating something, fixing a car, cooking a meal or even washing the dishes. I think one of the most common reasons for being passionate about an activity is for the benefits to a person's well-being.

On the other hand, often these activities can be used for escapism and a distraction from thoughts and issues which aren't being dealt with. Being able to take your mind of things is great if you struggle otherwise, finding an activity which does that for you is often the hardest bit. But it can easily be problematic when issues like dependency, risk taking, compulsiveness rear their ugly head.

Your stance on risk taking is healthy and normal, and it's easy to think that less risky climbing styles won't give you the same buzz. Do you do much sport climbing? There is a lot to be said for pulling moves and sequences at your limit safely on sport climbs and boulder problems. Trad climbing tends to be less at-the-limit and more conservative with difficulty. But there are so many safe trad routes which can push you to that limit which gives you a huge mental workout and brings many if not all and more of the same mental benefits the bold climbing does for you now.

Just my 2c...

In reply to upupup:

Hi, great post. You might enjoy this piece we did a while back.
Lornajkelly - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:

I've tried to use climbing and in the past I've been able to but with my anxiety comes a fear of heights/falling, and with depression comes guilt that I can't do things I used to find much easier, and the feel that I'm making a fool of myself on easy routes.

There have been studies looking at this but what might be confounding the issue is that, rather than climbing having a protective effect in most cases, it might be partly that people with mental health problems are less able to push themselves to try something new and difficult.

It does help though - a lot of people have seen benefits. If you're someone who gets this benefit then great. To those who aren't, like me, there are other ways of helping yourself and climbing will still be there when you're stronger.

That's an interesting point, though, about the dependence. I guess you need to make sure you're operating safely then you can push yourself with confidence. Is it the physical challenge, or is it the thrill of the risk?
trouserburp - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to Lornajkelly:
Good post and it seems to come up in lots of climbers' articles and biographies that they're escaping from something. What are you doing Menlove? "Climbing, climbing up the back of my mind looking for a way out"
I get the comments about pushing yourself safely and you cannot advise otherwise but the ultimate moment of flow for me is when I absolutely cannot fall (that doesn't have to mean a fatal height but you won't walk away) and so you have blocked all thoughts about falling out of your mind to give you the best chance of not falling. I also find the sense of achievement from pushing a psychological barrier 10x that of pushing a strength/stamina barrier

Feel great for a week afterwards and also a renewed more objective perspective on life

But yes if you do that every day you'll end up in hospital sooner or later
womblingfree on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:

I only got into bouldering (2-3 times a week) for about 13 months on and off and in that time I was less stressed, happier, fitter.

I then had a serious spike in anxiety levels, proper debilitating, on meds etc. Climbing no longer helped as the increased adrenaline floating around in my system just made me feel worse, struggling afterwards to stave off a full on melt down

It's something I'd like to get back into again but after loosing all strength and a lot of fitness it would have to be at the right wall. Sadly my local bouldering wall is a one room wonder little bigger than the average living room. Much preferred the other place I used to go, which had 3 rooms and loads of problems across all grades. I find with the smaller set ups unless your at a certain level you quickly run out of stuff to do, and then feel a bit shit/self conscious/anxious abiut it
Misha - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:
Can't speak from experience about mental health issues but I can see where you're coming from. Just bear in mind that risking a serious physical injury is not a helpful way of dealing with a mental health issue, especially as being out of climbing for a while due to injury could only make things worse. So why not go for routes which are hard but relatively safe - something which has enough gear and is steep enough that you shouldn't hit anything if you pop off but you still get a buzz - either from just about pulling through or from falling off. It will improve your climbing as well!

Also you can go climbing in exciting places like big sea cliffs - that always adds atmosphere and intimidation and blocks our thoughts of anything else!

It's always worth seeing a medical professional as well to see if there are other forms of therapy which could go alongside climbing.
Post edited at 18:14
webbo - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:
Climbing may be a worthwhile therapeutic activity for some, but would you be better trying to find the root cause of your anxiety. As the danger with just treating the symptoms you may need bigger and bigger doses of treatment, which if you are using risk based activities as the treatment. It might just end in tears
PMG on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:
One cannot predict how things develop from this point. One possibility is that the problems may go away by themselves. But you may also develop a dependence on risk-taking, upping the stakes over time. The cure will become a problem itself even if you do not physically harm yourself.

Participation in high-risk sports is not a remedy to mental problems. If you suffer from clinical depression the best approach is to seek medical help. Use your rational self to assess the situation.
Post edited at 19:21
Michael Gordon - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to PMG:

Re upping the stakes, Kev Shields has written some interesting stuff about the mental state required for some of his hard solos and the addictiveness of risky soloing, which chimed a few bells in my head regarding this thread. Well worth the OP checking out.
upupup - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to Albachoss:

Thanks for your reply. I guess using days out climbing as an opportunity to take a closer look at the underlying issues surrounding my anxiety in a place where I won't get overwhelmed by negative thoughts would be a good idea! I try to sport climb as much as possible, but the trad in the peaks is just so good!
upupup - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to Lornajkelly:

I think it's the physical challenge, the thrill, the risk and just getting outdoors with my mates.
upupup - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to womblingfree:

I had to make do with a small bouldering wall a couple of years ago. The luxury of being a student meant I could go during the middle of the day during the week when the wall was deserted. I'd make up circuits once I'd tried all the routes from that set. Perhaps you could do this to continue climbing. Hopefully, low-level traversing wouldn't increase your adrenaline levels.
Dave Cundy - on 17 Aug 2017
In reply to upupup:

I must admit that climbing is addictive and maybe it appeals to people who need the buzz and want more control of their own lives. I've found it a great comfort after a crap day in the office, caused by others. I think it has had a really positive effect on my life and my character, being able to make better 'value' judgements on certain decisions. Just be aware of any addictive desire to push it further and further. As i look back on 30 odd years of climbing, I'm so gratefull that i have not curtailed the experience by pushing it too far. The body and the mind are fragile, look after them.

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