Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fear and the Psychology of Rock Climbing.

Fear controls us. Our thoughts, actions, and emotions are driven by - among other things - billions of years of evolutionary adaptations. Fear is a survival mechanism; a trait that, whether you believe it to be learned or genetic, is directly responsible for our very existence. One of the reasons we exist today is that our ancestors used their fear to help them survive long enough to procreate. If our genetic predecessors hadn't been afraid, we would've gotten eaten by a saber-tooth tiger or something. Your genes would've been killed off in the Triassic period and you wouldn't be reading this. Let's take a moment to thank fear.

Confronting her fear. Lover's Leap, CA
When I first tell someone that I'm a serious rock climber, I usually get some variation of the same response: "I could never do that; I'm afraid of heights!" People assume that since I put myself in dangerous situations, I am either immune to fear or naïve about the dangers I face. This is false.

Rock climbers, alpinists, hikers, outdoor adventurers, and extreme sportsmen don't ignore fear. In fact, we have a stronger relationship with fear than the average Joe. Think about someone living an average suburban lifestyle. They are not exposed to fear regularly. Unless they have had some unusual circumstances in their life, it is unlikely they have ever been in direct mortal danger.

This isn't an indictment of American society; quite the opposite. The Industrial Revolution, the germ theory of disease, and other relatively recent advancements have made our society as safe as any has ever been. Our society is so advanced that we have eliminated all of humanity's natural predators. The evolutionary irony of the relative safety of advanced nations is that contemporary health and safety issues are results of inactivity (cholesterol, high blood pressure, stress, anxiety disorders, diabetes, obesity, etc) rather than activity (violence, accidents, becoming prey, etc). Over billions of years, our ancestors adapted to be able to avoid "active" threats. This is why we are fast, strong, clever, patient, social, and have a strong fear response. We have not yet adapted to the passive threats of the 21st Century.

We have collectively forgotten what fear is. When I tell people I free climb, they don't want to imagine what that might be like. They mention their fear reverentially, "I couldn't handle that!" They are so unaccustomed to this primal instinct that they think I'm crazy for willingly subjecting myself to it. People are afraid of fear itself.

As a climber, it's hard to explain our relationship with fear. We think about fear all the time - it's an ongoing conversation with no conclusion. Whether you're free climbing or free soloing, there comes a point where you are out of sight and earshot of any other people. Nothing is more alienating than being exposed, cold, and faced with certain death if you make a mistake. No one can hear you, see you, or help you -- this is an entirely personal journey. You must find a way forward, mentally and physically.

You come to terms with fear at the end of your wits. There's no audience. There are no cowards or heroes 500 feet up a granite wall. It's a liberating feeling; knowing that your struggle is totally off the record. You have to make an honest assessment of your abilities. Maybe there's a difficult move that requires full commitment and you know that a half-hearted effort would result in your death. Can you execute? Can you? When the stakes are that high, the psych-out factor is huge. You think about your life, your family, your spouse crying at your funeral. You're still young. Dying is not on the agenda for the next few decades. Thoughts like that flood your mind, but they don't change your predicament. You move on.

There is a moment of silent intensity. You encounter an ancient ferocity that our society has forgotten. Your heart chugs wildly and you shake and quiver and scream.

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer" - Albert Camus

Your genetic ancestors fought their way across the millennia by surviving moments like these. The adrenaline-fueled instances last only seconds, but they imbue you with a sense of spatial agency that lasts a lifetime. In my life, I occasionally struggle to find confidence. I fear failure, abandonment, alienation and disapproval. I will always fear those things, and I will always fear heights, falling, and death. Rock climbing doesn't change that.

Rock climbing reminds me that I am capable of facing these fears when it matters most. It forces me to quickly differentiate between a real fear and an insecurity. Through struggle, it humbles me. Through success, it empowers me.

Be safe.

By Ariel Castro
Rugged Innovations

For additional reading, check out the following:
Nicros - Improving Concentration
The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers

1 comment: