Many first time visitors to climbing gyms claim they’re afraid of heights. It's a common assertion that is rarely questioned even after first-timers become life-long climbing addicts. If we assume that people know what they're afraid of, then we might come to the conclusion that rock climbing cures the fear of heights.
It turns out, however, that only an estimated 2% of the American population actually suffer from Acrophobia, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Acrophobia is the extreme, irrational fear of heights. It’s so powerful that it prevents some people from using step stools. So why would anyone so overwhelmingly terrified of heights visit a climbing gym?
The simple answer is that they don’t. The anxiety that most people feel when they start climbing isn’t fear of heights; it’s actually the fear of falling.
Basophobia is a natural anxiety, often confused with the fear of heights, that accompanies the sensation and possibly dangerous effects of falling. It’s an inherent instinct for self preservation found in most mammals, and it has helped our species avoid following in the footsteps of the infamous Dodo Birds...right off of a cliff.
While fear of falling is natural, it varies in degree and can be impacted by our experience. The unfortunate effects of a fall may increase our fear of falling again, even to an irrational degree. This is why fear of falling becomes more acute as we age and gain more experience.
While eliminating the fear of falling entirely would be unwise (see the example of the Dodo Birds), being able to distinguish between real danger and an irrational fear is what allows us to pursue our passion for rock climbing.
Unfortunately, telling the difference between irrational and rational fear is surprisingly difficult for most people. Professional guides and instructors like Arno Ilgner of the Desiderata Institute provide clinics to help teach climbers how to self evaluate and diminish their fear while increasing commitment. The Warrior’s Way clinics include step-by-step guidance on motivation analysis, information gathering, risk assessment, mental focus, and deliberate transition into action. Or more simply put, it’s a How-To guide on overcoming irrational fear.
If you’re looking for a quick fix for your fear of falling, sadly, there isn’t one. But here are some general tips to help get you started:
For climbers, a firm understanding of the safety systems and equipment in use, as well as the basics of climbing physics, is a great way to overcome fear. Blind trust is a hard sell when someone is twenty feet or more in the air, but understanding the mechanics of a belay device and dynamic rope go a long way. Learning how to identify and mitigate real risk with the use of safety protocols and top-notch equipment is the first step to overcoming fear.
While remembering to breath sounds like funny, pretty obvious advice, holding our breath when we’re under acute physical or mental stress is a common habit among climbers. The lack of oxygen to our brain can cause additional panic and muscle failure however, so learning to be aware of our breathing, and how to control it, is essential to climbing. The next time you start to feel gripped, consciously exhale deeply, then take at least three more long, slow breathes. The infusion of oxygen to your brain and muscles will help calm and restore you.
Like holding our breath, over gripping is a very common reaction to fear while climbing. Over-gripping is a waste of valuable strength and energy that can cause your muscles to begin feeling ‘pumped’ faster. If you’re already afraid of falling, this won’t help. Relaxing your grip can be done consciously in most positions, but it will be easier if you can find a rest stance and actually let go for a few moments. Remember to observe fundamental techniques like straight arms to reduce the stress on your muscles, and then find a good spot to spread your weight evenly on your feet and begin resting your arms one at a time. You can also find hands-free rests in many places, like dihedrals (inside corners) and slabs (less than vertical). For help and advice learning the various rest techniques, check with an instructor at your local gym.
Practice falls are a great way to get more comfortable with the actual sensation of falling, in small incremental steps. You can practice falling on top rope, lead, or on boulders. As you learn and get more experience taking falls without negative results, your fear of falling will gradually decrease to a reasonable level. For tips on how to perform practice falls with minimal risk, talk to the instructors at your local gym or hire a professional rock guide.
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