Afraid of Becoming Afraid
When I ask climbers what fear is holding them back, the answer is unexpected.
Many climbers are not actually afraid of hitting the ground or being injured in a fall.
Instead, they are afraid of becoming afraid. When these climbers imagine themselves on a challenging route, all that they think about is the moment when they will inevitably freeze and feel unable to do anything. Their mind will go blank. Their body will start to tremble. And panic will set in.
But what if we could uncouple fear from freezing?
Let’s start by exploring what freezing is.
The freeze response is our body’s natural protective response to stress. It typically happens when the nervous system believes that it is too dangerous to fight or run away. This can easily happen when we believe that we cannot make the next moves on a climb and when we don’t believe that retreat is an option.
When someone is in freeze, their body stops putting out unnecessary energy and loses much of its ability to think cognitively and rationally. It’s an amazing, life-saving process.
It can also be a little bit over-kill on the wall.
But we don’t have to be afraid of freezing.
Normalizing the Freeze Response
By normalizing the freeze response, supporting our nervous system during the freeze response, and remembering that freeze is a part of a natural cycle that will end, we can diminish the suffering that accompanies freeze when we are afraid of it.
When I used to freeze on the wall, my inner dialogue went straight to catastrophe. I often had thoughts like “well, now it’s all over” or “here it goes again.” Since I’ve learned more about freeze, though, I’ve started to engage with freeze with curiosity. “Wow, I feel really frozen,” I might say, and I remind myself gently that it must mean I’m in a lot of stress. This recognition actually decreases the stress that I’m in, which might decrease the overall sense of being paralyzed.
Next, I reorient to safety. When I’m frozen, I start to panic. If I can use my five senses to calm down, I’ll be able to weigh my options for getting out of freeze. I take a look around me, not fixating on the ground, but just noticing the rock or the sky. I might press my cheek into the rock to feel its cool surface or listen to a bird chirping. Anything that helps me stay grounded and feel a little safer.
Then, I remind myself that I have options. Maybe I can take a step down. Maybe I can shake out. Maybe I can place a piece. Maybe I need to move forward, but I can rest here and assess. As I weigh these options, I am reminding my body that I am safer than I thought I was, which also decreases stress and therefore decreases the sense of being frozen.
The best part is, we don’t have to wait until you are frozen to practice these skills!
As we practice these skills over time, we develop more confidence in our ability to return to baseline, which uncouples fear from freezing. This gives us the freedom to attempt more challenging routes, knowing that we have the skills to return from freeze to have an enjoyable day!
This Post Has 7 Comments
nice talk about a possible climbing and daily life growing up practice, something that maybe could replace more and more the fearless poses of the fearless machos of past times
Yes! It would be so awesome to see how implementing this could shift the culture of climbing.
Whoa, this is a new dimension to mental training. Thanks so much, I’m going to read this SEVERAL times.
Thank you Jesse! That means a lot 🙂 I’m glad that it’s helpful!
I love what you’ve been sharing in the “Lessons of the Week”. I’m so glad I get to continue learning from you. Your wealth of knowledge continues to amaze me. Thank you for all that you do for our community. It ripples outward from climbers to the people in their lives… and lessening the amount of fear in our society is so important right now.
P.s. I’ve started training people one-on-one, and it’s going really well. Thank you for your support and encouragement.
Thank you Kristin! That means so much to me 🙂
I’m also so excited for you!! You have so much to share with your community.
I’ve learned recently that procrastination is a form of freezing. Your insights are actionable for everyday life! Thank you for lessons that prove their value on and off the rock.