Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Put the Brakes on Your Panic

It’s funny to me how my work as a psychotherapist often intersects my climbing life. I recently took a class on working with victims of trauma and realized that many of the same concepts and interventions that a therapist may use with trauma victims could also apply to working with climbers who suffer from a high amount of anxiety while climbing.

Trauma victims (and more specifically, people who have PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) experience chronic anxiety that is often experienced in their body through shallow breathing, increased heart rate, increased sweating, overly tense muscles, shaking and a shut down sense of awareness that looks like tunnel vision. Sound familiar? When we as climbers get the shit scared out of us on a route it often looks and feels just like this. We may have difficulty finishing the climb and feel paralyzed to move forward. One significant difference is that people with PTSD experience this throughout their day in various environments while climbers probably only feel it on the rock. As soon as you get off the climb you usually feel a whole lot better. But how can you deal with and move through that kind of panic while on the route?

Arno Ilgner, the author of “The Rock Warrior’s Way” and “Espresso Lessons,” does a great job teaching climbers how to mentally prepare on the ground to avoid reaching this kind of panic. I highly recommend checking out his work for more tips on mental preparation. But what if you prepared and still panicked? Then you need to learn how to put the brakes on your panic so that you can finish the route.

The first step is to get out of your head and back into your body. If this is done on the route then hopefully you can do this while hanging at a bolt or gear placement so you can fully decompress. If you are in between placements then hopefully you can find a safe rest position. Next you need to bring awareness to your breathing. Slow it down and breathe deeply without hyperventilating. If you are panicked then your brain has turned on its shallow/rapid breathing in anticipation of coming stress but in order for you to actually handle the stress you need to make your brain go back to a more relaxed mode of breathing.

Next, bring attention to your body and scan it for areas that are unusually tense. If you are hanging, take a moment to stretch these areas out. They might be your forearms, your shoulders, your neck: wherever you are holding unnecessary tension.
Usually the above two things: breathing and stretching, will decrease your panic.

But if you are truly tunnel vision panicked then you need to shake your brain out of its fixation by paying attention to something else momentarily. Normally climbers train to focus and concentrate on nothing else but the climb. But in the case of true panic your focus has gone overboard and you need to reset it. In extreme panic you may need to recall information that has nothing to do with your climb: what day of the week is it, what’s the date, what is my phone number, etc. This distracts the panicked brain into taking a new circuit.

When your panic level begins to decrease then you can go back to problem solving the situation you got yourself in. You need to assess whether or not to keep going, whether or not you feel safe, whether or not you have the strength to continue. If you do continue to climb then you may consider dividing up your climb into mini-goals (i.e. from bolt to bolt) and reassess your panic level at each bolt. It would also be a good idea to periodically check back in with your body and assess your breathing and tension areas again. Panic is usually stress maintenance gone awry. If you can get back into your body, into a routine of assessing how you feel in the moment and making needed adjustments, then panic can be held at bay.

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