Overcoming the Progression of Fear in Climbing

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We read and write blog posts, articles, books, emails, even post-it notes (perhaps that's just me) about fear in climbing. I've read countless stories about how others deal with the progression of our body and mind's reaction to panic on the wall. It starts with small butterflies in your stomach, escalates, all your muscles tighten, you over-grip, begin to lose your balance, and then either slowly or suddenly, your extremities peel from the wall and down you go.

Suggested techniques for managing fear I've tried include positive self-talk, checking in with myself when I start to feel afraid, using a mantra to distract myself, and poking my inner competitive chick in the ribs to get her to motivate me to push through it. I've tried taking practice falls, tried climbing routes that were much too hard for me, and tried reasoning with my fear out loud while resting mid-climb. But I still get scared.

I've watched The Sharp End, specifically Steph Davis's free solo of the Diamond, a dozen times, and there's one quote of hers that really resonated with me. She mentioned free soloing requiring a "strong engagement with fear," and I'm not sure why that's stuck with me, but it's something I think about a lot. We've got to engage the fear, respond to it, not ignore it or try to pretend it isn't there. "Engagement" is an extremely powerful word.

I had a s
mall "a-ha!" moment last night while climbing at Go Vertical, and although it'll likely only send ripples through the ocean that is my psyche, I definitely felt it was worth noting and reflecting on. I climbed well last night. Nothing special, no huge feats accomplished, although I did finally send a boulder problem I'd been cranking on for weeks, I just climbed well. I was relaxed, happy, and didn't fight the wall. I wasn't nearly as anxious or afraid as I'd been in the past couple of weeks. My mind was quiet and I focused on completing each route as smoothly as possible.

Last week, h
owever, was a different story. 5.8 climbs I'd normally warm up on felt impossible, and it was all I could do to finish them. It wasn't pretty. The "A-ha!" moment came last night when I was able to understand what it felt to climb with a mostly sunny, rather than foggy and cloudy, head. My head might've immediately clouded up if I'd tried leading - even though I know the gym is the safest place to lead, the thought of the fall still scares me - but we stuck to TRing and bouldering, and my head stayed clear.

Now, the next step is to figure out how to move from cloudy to mostly sunny, rather than being a function of my overall stress level, how life is going, etc. But it felt so amazing to climb the entire night without doubt or anxiety. Perhaps that feeling will be a proverbial Pavlov's bell - I'll feel fear, remember what it was like to feel relaxed, and find a way to get my head back to sunny again. 


Do you have any tried and true ways of managing fear while climbing?

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