Seven steps to dealing with fear

My most frightening incident occurred at 5,000 m in Spain, at the seven-hour mark of an exhausting flight, when I was in danger of being sucked up into clouds. I was on a new wing, and when it went into a parachutal stall after an incorrectly exited B-line, it didn’t respond in the same way as my previous wing. The result was a long cascade of G-force and terror-inducing events and thoughts about promises made about coming home safely.

These are not my words.  They are the words of Heike Hamann, a paraglider, a student of psychology, and from what I can gather, a pretty awesome human being.

To be honest, I didn’t understand most of those words when I first heard them.

I was thinking, wow, 7 hours is long time to be in the air.  5,000m is pretty damn high. What is cloud suck anyway? Or parachutal stall? Or an incorrectly exited B-line?

These new words were coming out of the car stereo.  The car was pointed towards the Blue Mountains, ready for another weekend of rock climbing at the Bell SuperCrag. I was listening to a paragliding podcast hosted by Judith Mole.

During the podcast, Heike explained what she called ‘The seven steps to dealing with fear in paragliding’. She’d had a few scary paragliding experiences and looked quite deeply into how to overcome her own fears and enjoy flying again.

I’ve never been paragliding.  But a lot of the things that Heike said about flying, really struck a chord with me.  A lot of the things she said seemed to apply to rock climbing pretty well.  She said a lot of sensible things about overcoming fear, that applied just as sensibly to fear that you might feel when you’re thousands of feet in the air, halfway up a cliff or just sitting at your desk at work stressing yourself out.

So… here they are, the seven steps… slightly modified for fear at much lower altitudes.

Step 1: Notice you are afraid

Your legs are shaking.

Your breathing gets fast and shallow. Then you forget to breathe.

Your knuckles are white because you’re gripping the rock so tightly.  You haven’t moved in a while.  You’re frozen.

You might have done something like this:

Backclipping because I was too scared to clip properly… then reclipping over the top, because I was too scared to unclip and try again.

It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone around you that you’re freaking out.

But it can be hard to notice it in yourself, at the time.

Heike’s first step is simply to notice that you’re afraid. The sooner you notice it, the better your chances of either overcoming your fear, or getting yourself out of a dodgy situation.

Step 2: Breathe deeply

A big deep breath tells your body that you’re ok.  Even if that feels like a big fat lie.  You immediately feel a little better.

Step 3: Ask yourself what you are afraid of

My initial response to this question, is that I am afraid of falling.

It’s the obvious answer.  Evolution has bred into us a healthy fear of heights and a fear of falling down from high places to gory death.

If I think about it for a bit longer, if I actually have to name what I’m afraid of, I realise that “falling” is not quite the right answer.

I’ve taken some pretty big falls while climbing outdoors.  My trusty old rope has caught me every single time. The system works.  I’m still in once piece.

Part of me knows that falling is usually fine.

Sometimes, what actually scares me is failure.

Sometimes, I’m worried that I’m holding up the party below me on the wall.   Or that the weather will turn bad while I’m still on the rock and I will have put my team into a dangerous situation.

Other times, the thing that actually scares me is the risk that my rope might get cut.  Or that I will fall onto a ledge and break an ankle, or that my last piece of gear might pop out of the rock and clock me in the forehead.

Actually naming the thing that scares you can help you with step 4.

Step 4: Are you in danger?

I admit that I have been in a few sketchy situations when climbing, but not as often as non-climbers seem to think.

Once you have named the terrifying-scary thing, you can ask whether that’s a rational fear.  Could that thing actually hurt you?

4.1 If the answer is no…

Failure to reach the top of a particular climb might hurt my ego, but failure of that kind is not actually dangerous.

Falling off a steep overhanging sports route is actually quite safe.  You just peel off the wall and swing around on the end of your rope for a little while. It’s actually kind of fun.

Something that has really helped my climbing is to practice safe falls.

I climb above a bolt and let my belayer know that I’m going to jump off.

It’s really hard to  let go, but if you do it over and over, your body learns that the world is not going to end. Your catches you, and you get to climb up and do it all over again. You can turn it into a game.

If I catch my fear early enough, the simple action of recognizing that I’m not actually in danger, can be enough to get me moving again.

4.2 If the answer is ‘I don’t know’

Sometimes, it’s really hard to know how whether a situation is dangerous or not.

I did a mountaineering course in New Zealand a few years ago.

In the first few days everything was so new.  I didn’t know how to read the weather.  I didn’t know how to navigate crevasses.  I didn’t know if I could trust my crampons. I didn’t have the skills to keep myself safe in that kind of terrain, so I found some mountain guides who helped me develop those skills. They guided me through situations that were scary and new to me, but easy to manage safely if you are a professional guide.

Into the unknown

As my climbing abilities, rescue skills and route finding skills have developed, I’ve been able to expand the list of scenarios where I feel safe and in control.

I still have moments where I’m not sure, and I have to decide whether to treat the situation as dangerous or not.

This would be incredibly dangerous for me… but Niranda has this under control.

4.3 If the answer is ‘Yep, this is pretty dangerous!’

I said earlier that falling off a rock climb is usually ok.

But, falling all the way to the ground is not OK.  Smashing back into the cliff at the end of your fall is not great either.  Getting stuck in a thunderstorm halfway up a long climb is… sub-optimal.

If you decide that you are actually in danger, you’ve got to decide what to do next.

Step 5: What are you going to do now?

At this point, Heike introduces 7 steps that you can use once you have realised that you’re in a crappy situation.

(1)  Look around

When I’m scared, my field of vision narrows massively.  I’m too scared to move, even though there might be a great place to rest just inches away.   I grip onto my crappy holds for dear life.  My eyelashes are almost touching the wall. I can’t see my feet.

If I force myself to look around, I can generally find better holds, a more comfortable position, or a way to climb back down to my last piece of gear.

(2) Breathe

Because you’ve got to breathe, if you want to live.

Big, slow breaths have physiological impacts that help switch you out of panic mode and back into a rational place where you can start solving problems.

(3) Set yourself a mini-goal

I find that just challenging myself to find one new hold, make one more move, place once more piece of gear or reach the next ledge, can help to get me out of the fear-paralysis.

If you achieve your mini-goal, you gain a sense of accomplishment and control over the situation. It might give you just enough fuel for the next tiny step towards safety.

(4) Use your anchors

Heike describes anchors as ‘words, sounds, songs, movements or specific physical touches that are associated to a certain, positive state in your body.’

I played a lot of field hockey when I was growing up.  If there was something in particular I wanted to concentrate on during a game, I would write a word or draw a picture on a piece of strapping tape, and wrap it around my stick during the game. Each time I saw it, I would remember my goal and re-focus.

Heike’s anchors are kind of similar.  The aim is not to remind you of you’re one specific goal during the hockey game, but rather to remind you what it feels like to be climbing confidently and enjoying yourself.

Sometimes when I climb now, I draw a little bell on the back of my hand.

It reminds me how I felt when I was in the zone, climbing a route called Jingle Bells, at the Bell supercrag in the Blue Mountains. It was the first time I reached a kind of confident, flow state while climbing. Just thinking about it makes me happy.  Seeing it on my hand reminds me that I’m capable of persisting, and climbing hard.

(5) Visualise

The next step is to visualise yourself getting out of the situation safely.

You might picture yourself clipping the anchors at the top of the climb, or calmly and efficiently setting up bomber anchor to abseil down from.

(6) Talk to people about your fear

If you’re on a short sports route, you can tell your belayer, or the climbers around you that you’re feeling a bit of fear.

If there is no one around you when the fear rises up, make a mental note to talk to someone about it later.  You could even talk out loud if you want!

Talk about your fears with more experienced climbs. Try to soak up their stories, skills and experiences around a campfire somewhere.  Ask for other people’s ideas about how they would deal with similar scary scenarios. Everyone is different, but you can always pick and choose the things that work for you.

(7) Be kind to yourself

Remind yourself that climbing is going to take you outside your comfort zone.

Instead of beating yourself up for being scared, try to recognise that you’re challenging yourself and breaking new ground.

Step 6: Back on the ground

Once you’re back on the ground, take some time to run through the scenario again in your head. Acknowledge that you were scared and do another assessment of whether you were actually in danger. Tell someone you trust about it.  Take a moment to think about whether fear stopped you from having a more enjoyable climbing experience.  If so, decide whether there is anything you can do to help make sure that fear does not play as big a role in your next climbing adventure.

Step 7: Other strategies

Read a book on self-rescue. Do a training course on multi-pitch climbing. Learn how to prussik. Practice tying knots.  Now practice with your eyes closed.  Practice clipping draws over and over so you get it right every time. Train hard so you’re stronger and those scary climbs get easier. Use better or more comfortable equipment.

Find something that helps you feel more in control and work at it when you’re off the rock.

And… that’s it!

Have fun.  Stay safe.  Be brave!




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