If you’re afraid of heights or exposure in the mountains, you’re not alone. Fear of falling came in first in our recent survey of fears over at the Facebook Group. (Yes, it beat out avalanches, lightning, bears, and even failure.) So I think it’s time for a post on how to conquer fear of falling.
Now. Lest you think I have all the answers on this one, I too get sketched out be exposure.
In fact, just a few days ago, I sat down on a spooky ridge scramble and refused to go further. (A nice friend talked me into carrying on. More on the power of positive people below.)
But because I’m not one of those crazy aliens who eats exposure for breakfast, I think I can speak with some empathy about the subject.
In addition to working on my own fears, I also have a counseling degree and practiced for six years. So I can tell you a little about what brain research says about fear and how to overcome it.
So here are my best tips for overcoming your fear of exposure during rock climbing, snow climbing, or scrambling. Many of these also work for other for anxiety in other areas of life (flying, public speaking, Tinder rejection, etc.)
Enjoy, and be sure to add your own tips in the comments.
Photos: Keller Mountain, Colorado
1. Crash into your fear
OK, so let’s start with some good/bad news.
According to brain research, the fastest, most effective way to get over a fear is to do the thing that terrifies you most.
The harder you crash into your fear, the faster it will lose its hold on you.
(In counseling, we call this flooding therapy, in case you want to read more about it.)
So the best way to get over fear of heights is to, well, get on exposed terrain as often as possible. Get out there and do some climbing and scrambling routes that scare you (so long as they’re appropriate for your experience and skill level).
Is this uncomfortable AF? You betcha. But if you’ve got the mental toughness to power through some major anxiety fast, you might find your fear soon goes away completely.
2. Plan a progression
If you’re not ready to crash headlong into your fear of falling (and that’s OK), start by climbing some routes with mild exposure and increase the difficulty gradually.
Often, surviving some minor exposure will build your confidence. This makes you able to tackle more serious terrain without freezing up or barfing on your climbing partner.
3. Find your zone of growth
When you’re working on your fears, it’s necessary to push yourself until you feel anxiety. But getting yourself too worked up can backfire and actually make you more afraid.
So when you’re standing on the ridge looking at a scrambling problem, rate your anxiety on a scale of 1–10. (With 1 being “not scary at all” and 10 being “no f*cking way.”)
- 1–3 is the zone of FUN. Climbing this stuff will be enjoyable, but won’t necessarily prepare you for harder stuff.
- 4–7 is the zone of GROWTH. This is the sweet spot where you’re facing your fear and stretching your possibilities, but you’re not so afraid that you’re traumatizing yourself. Hanging out in this zone will generally lessen your fear of exposure over time.
- 8–10 is the zone of PANIC. Operating in this zone could actually create bad experiences that torpedo your confidence, exacerbate your fear, and even cause you to give up altogether.
Use this scale to self-regulate from minute to minute when you’re out climbing. If you feel yourself slipping up past 8, it’s fine to stop. Or ask for a belay, if it’s safe and feasible in your situation.
4. Walk by faith, not by sight
Sometimes fear gets worse when we cling to control with all our might.
So if there’s something you want to do, and you just can’t get your arms and legs to cooperate, release control. (No, not your grip. Mental control.)
Give your fate up to god(dess), spirit, universe, or whatever your higher power is. Trust it to look out for you.
Sometimes when you can’t trust yourself, you can still trust something bigger.
Caveat: Only do this when you and your party have the technical skills to complete the challenge safely. Because god is obviously not going to top belay you or tie your figure-8 retrace for you.
5. Live vicariously
Humans are essentially social learners. When we watch others approaching “scary” situations playfully and with excitement, we tend to take on the same attitudes.
So try making a playlist of extreme sports YouTube videos that inspire you and give your courage.
This one of two guys jumping off the Burj Khalifa in squirrel suits always does it for me:
You can also practice vicarious learning in your real life. When you’re climbing a difficult route, take a friend who is playful and welcoming toward challenges — and who’s willing to go first. Follow their footsteps and their attitude.
Vicarious learning can be negative, too. If you’re getting ready for a scary climb, don’t discuss it with anyone who will freak out and increase your anxiety. You can tell the naysayers all about it when you get back. Neener.
6. Understand brain science
Your brain is an amazing product of evolution. It’s designed to keep you alive, safe, and secure.
Yes, it’s a bit like your parents who wanted you to become a doctor, even though you flunked calculus and faint at the sight of blood. (Because to both brains and parents, a medical career represents the ultimate security.)
Any time you consider doing something that’s “risky” or upsets the status quo, your brain sends out alarm signals. Sometimes these are useful (no, you probably shouldn’t cheat with the hot yoga instructor).
But it also panics when you’re contemplating positive change, like climbing a mountain or quitting your corporate job to start a business.
Basically, your brain dislikes awesomeness. If you listen to it, you will always be a sad, mediocre version of yourself. So feel free to ignore its alarm signals and pursue greatness.
7. Sit with your fear
Hat tip to the awesome Natalie Bacon for this one.
Fear doesn’t have to rule you. No feeling can rule you if you choose to stop reacting and get in the driver’s seat.
When you experience an emotion, you basically have four choices (use the acronym RARE to remember them):
The first two tend to intensify the feeling. You might be able to suppress fear for a while. But it will take a lot of energy, and it will keep coming back.
And of course, reacting out of emotion gets you nowhere fast. Have you ever said no to a fun climb with friends because there were aspects of it that scared you? Then you know what reacting to your fear cost you.
(This is, of course, different than saying no to trips that require fitness or technical skills you don’t have. Knowing your safety limits is smart.)
But when you feel fear, don’t push it away.
Sit with your fear and experience it. Feel its vibration in your body. Accept it without judgement or question.
When you discipline your mind to experience your emotions without reacting to them, you will truly be in control of your own life. And you will feel more powerful and less jerked around by your feelings.
Meditate on it
Are you the kind of person who gets frustrated with your own emotions? Yeah, now instead of scared, you’re mad and scared. Who needs that?
Sounds like you might be a great candidate for meditation.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are about developing nonjudgemental awareness of your thoughts and body sensations. Meditating before a climb is a good way to sit with and experience your fear so that it loses its hold over your behavior.
New to meditation? Check out the Headspace phone app. It even has a sports expansion pack for athletes.
8. Ask yourself the magic questions
Hat tip to the awesome Angie Lee for this one.
When it comes to facing a difficult situation, your perception is everything. So when you’re facing something difficult, ask yourself:
- What if this was easy?
- What if this was fun?
At first, your brain might be like, “Dude. There is nothing fun about this class 4 down climb, OK? It’s a f*cking death wish.”
But if you stay with those questions, you might realize that you’re making the situation a lot harder than it has to be.
The magic questions also come in handy when you’re packing for your goal climbing and stressing over the details. (Yes, this is happening to me today.)
9. Choose excitement over fear
Doing scary things is inherently exciting. It can even be fun.
Have you ever ridden a roller coaster and scream laughed the whole way with a smile on your face? That’s actually kind of an awesome feeling.
My favorite part of the Burj Khalifa video above is when Fred says, “We don’t do this to scare ourselves. We like to fly, you know? We like to have fun.”
Is jumping off the Burj Khalifa a little scary for those guys? Well, I’m guessing they don’t feel the same fear of exposure that we feel.
But I’m guessing deep down, there’s a little spark of fear. Because otherwise jumping off the Burj Khalifa in a squirrel suit wouldn’t be exciting. It wouldn’t be fun. It would be just like, Jump. Chute. Land. Meh.
Embrace the excitement and fun in scary situations, and you will be able to face them with more courage.
10. Understand the risk pyramid
If you’re a perfectionist by nature, you may be scared that you’re going to die the first time you make a mistake in the mountains.
But this is empirically unlikely. Consider some stats from everyone’s fav mountaineering Bible, Freedom of the Hills:
For every 1 fatality in the mountains there are:
- 20 major injuries
- 200 minor injuries
- 2,000 near misses
- 200,000 unsafe acts
Yup, 200,000. God really does smile on fools and children.
Now, could you be the unlucky person whose first ever unsafe act turns into a fatality or a major injury? Of course. That’s why it’s so important to keep your skills sharp, climb within your abilities, and follow good safety practices.
But if you’re grappling with fear and just need a little sumpin’ to get your ass over the crux, remember that the universe is an inherently forgiving place.
11. Relax your butthole
Yes, your butthole. Bear with me here.
Your body’s autonomic nervous system controls all the body functions that are outside your voluntary control (the beating of your heart, breathing, digestion, etc.)
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathic. Only one of these systems can be activated at a given moment.
So when you’re scrambling over a scary gendarme and your mouth is dry and your heart is pounding, your sympathetic nervous system is dominant. It’s the one that kicks on the fight-or-flight response. It tells your glands to release adrenaline that will give you a little extra juice to climb, but will also make you feel scared and panicky.
To feel better, you need to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the one that promotes relaxation and digestion. What’s more, it directly inhibits the fight or flight response.
So what does this have to do with your butthole?
Yes, I promised you butthole. And that’s because it’s anatomically impossible to by sympathetic dominant (in fight-or-flight) when your pelvic floor is relaxed.
With practice, you can learn to release your pelvic floor muscles whenever you want. Try it now. Draw your butthole up and in (toward your belly button), hold for a few seconds, and release. Do you feel more relaxed? Try it a few times and see what happens.
For extra credit, imagine your butthole expanding outward as it relaxes until it’s the size of your entire pelvis. Yes, it’s super weird, but it works.
Try these exercises next time you’re facing a spicy rappel start — or sitting in a stressful work meeting. Aw, that’s better! And thank god no one can read your mind right now.
So there you have them. The 11 ways I know to conquer fear of falling.
If you have additional suggestions or Jedi mind tricks, be sure to drop them in the comments. And if you’re preparing for a big climb and want to talk about fears, goals, and mindset, you should definitely join us over at the Facebook Group!
Originally published July 9, 2018.