Winning the Head Games: Climbing with Anxiety

“You’re an adrenaline junkie.” I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. Your aunt says it to you when you bring up your latest adventure. It is often said and, I believe, seldom true.

Deep water solo Mallorca Lauren Abernathy

Me downclimbing to the start of a route on my deep water solo trip to Mallorca, Spain.
Photo by Adam Pernikar.
Lauren Abernathy Backflip skiing

Me backflipping a rock booter after getting heartily amped up by friends and onlookers in Lake Louise, BC. Photo by Tim Spanagel.

I am not an Adrenaline Junkie

For me this label of “adrenaline junkie” is not quite right. Personally, I do not seek out an adrenaline rush, but it happens to be the byproduct of the activities I find most enjoyable. The truth is, for me at least, the fear and anxiety are not desirable at all. These are emotions that I deal with fairly regularly—on an almost daily basis, actually–and in situations that do not traditionally merit panic at all.

Lauren Abernathy Deep Water Solo Mallorca

Me fighting the head games as I progressed upwards on a deep water solo route in Mallorca, Spain. Photo by Adam Pernikar.

Like many individuals, I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Things that are categorized as mundane for others have sent me into panic attacks and have left me near-catatonic states. A particularly interesting incident of this occurred the night before a job interview a few years back.

Don’t Panic, it’s just a Parking Garage

The company had paid for a rental car and a nice hotel for me to stay in for my travels to the on site interview. I was so overcome with anxiety that I could not park the car. Sitting in the middle of the garage at midnight, I was bawling my eyes out and hyperventilating. I was too afraid to park the Jeep Grand Cherokee in one of the tiny parking spots available to me. Eventually, I was able to squeeze the car in somewhere, but between the interview anxiety and coming down from the panic attack, I barely slept at all that night.

For some people parking a rental car in a parking garage is hardly memorable. For me, it can mean an evening destroyed and a good night’s sleep ruined. It can be a terrible, shameful memory for years to come. This might sound pretty crazy, especially to someone without anxiety. I feel pretty nuts even describing this situation, but it is what it is.

Crazy Enough to Keep Climbing

So imagine this same individual who can barely handle parking a nice car in a parking garage and put them 10 feet above the bolt on the sharp end. Let’s put them one hundred feet up a rock face and see how they manage.

If a parking garage can cause me to have a panic attack, then it seems like I’ve picked a pretty ridiculous pastime, don’t you think?

I agree. It’s crazy, but climbing is a sport I’ve fallen in love with and I do not plan to let a bit of generalized anxiety disorder keep me from a good time. I want everyone to know that any fears of heights, falling, whatever it is, can be resolved. If you are afraid now, you can fix it. I have come a long way since I started climbing and you certainly can too.

Lauren Abernathy Rumney NH

Me getting introspective on a break from working a project in Rumney, NH. The crowds were really getting in my head that day.

The “Personal Cry Line”

Alpine environments have what is referred to as a tree line. This is a height at which trees are no longer able to grow. I used to have what I referred to as a “personal cry line” a height at which the tears would start flowing. No matter the style–top rope or sport or whatever, at about 80 feet off the deck you could almost guarantee that I was on the wall crying. It did not matter how hard the route, what the weather was like, or how safe I truly was. Once I was too high up, I was in a silent, tearful, private hell.

Why would you keep doing that to yourself? Do you enjoy emotional turmoil? Isn’t this supposed to be for fun?

Well yeah. But like I said before, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I just like a challenge. I think I kept climbing and pushing myself because this fear was something to concur. Also, I could see tons of people around me having a normal, fun time on the wall—taking whips and everything!

Me enjoying an upward whipper on a project in the Red this past season. Photo by Tim Spanagel.

It gets better

I wish I could say that now because of some intense meditation program I’m 100% better and I’m basically a monk now and climbing never gets scary anymore (see my face above), but that isn’t true. Climbing is fun, but it is still a scary sport.

I think I had a major breakthrough when I spent two weeks straight sport climbing in Rodellar, Spain. What really did it was just continually getting back on the horse. I had a few freak outs on that trip, but taking falls every day and continually being exposed to the kind of heights that I found so scary was critical to diminishing my fears.

Lauren Abernathy Rodellar Climbing
Me working my project on the last day of my trip to Spain. I fell so many times, but I bagged the send before I left. It was my second 11a ever.

It is definitely not easy, but I think any time you want to shy away from a route, or “just top rope it”, you actually need to go ahead and lead it. You have to face your fears and maybe some day the fears will go away, or at least become way more manageable.

Practical Tips to Help your Head Game

Here are a few specific things that I have done to help me get over my mental hump in climbing.

  1. Take warmup falls on lead in the gym. I take super small falls to get used to the sensation. Somtimes I make myself whip. I also made it a point to climb until failure in the gym sometimes—this isn’t really training advice as constantly redlining isn’t helpful, but the idea still stands. You need to get good at “going for it” in the gym and falling so that you can take this comfort outside with you.
  2. Practicing clipping on the ground. I noticed that whenever I didn’t quickly get the clip in, it would escalate my nervousness when climbing. If this is something you suffer with as well, practice clipping smoothly while hanging out at the crag (on the ground, of course). Being more efficient at clipping will help your climbing and your mental game too.
  3. Pre-climb mantras. Sometimes I pick a phase to repeat in my head to clear my thoughts before I start climbing. I’ll repeat phrases like “I trained for this and I can do it.” Or “You know what to do.” Or even simple things like “being above bolt is fun”. I’ve learned to consciously choose to relax and focus to avoid letting my head get carried away.
  4. If you can top rope it, you can lead it. So hop on the sharp end and start clipping.

Me enjoying my day out in Rumney, NH.
I took whips all day on my project this fall and didn’t panic or cry once.

You Can Win the Head Games Too

Over my time as a climber I have progressed from top rope panic attacks to taking surprise whips and laughing it off. Climbing with anxiety may take a little extra effort. Some people with anxiety may have an added challenge when taking the sharp end of the rope. But the confidence that comes with conquering fears on a cliff face are impactful. Now, when I’m faced with a parking garage I can remind myself “hey, you can do this. If you can whip 20 feet on lead and laugh about it, you can park this car too.”

2 Replies to “Winning the Head Games: Climbing with Anxiety”

    1. Hahahaha awesome!!!! Let me know when you do your first HLR! Isn’t the book so funny! It’s obviously informative, but it’s also hilarious.

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