Rock climbing as therapy

MOUNTAIN HIGH: Climbers, from top, Nick Pope, Nick Accardo and Ty Collins enjoy bouldering — climbing less than about 20 feet above the ground without ropes on boulders or rock formations — on the north side of Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Carly Onnink

It’s twilight in Pisgah Forest, and I’m on the “nose” of Looking Glass Rock, climbing with friends as the sun softens into a relaxed, lemon-cream kind of light. I’m in the middle of a multipitch; my lead climber is above me, clipped into the anchor bolts in the granite. He’s belaying (taking up slack in the rope) as I puzzle my way up the rock face.

It’s methodical and meditative, a sort of mindless yet mindful state. The more focus I have, the more my mind surrenders and the more my feet think. Only the friction of my rubber-soled climbing shoes glues me to the “eyebrows” (eroded pockets) that litter the route, my palms flat on the rock face only for balance. I’m working in a silence punctuated by friends’ words of encouragement and the screaming calls of peregrine falcons.

I haven’t been tracking the time, but when I reach the crux — the most difficult section — the night is gray and moonlit.

It doesn’t feel idyllic. In fact, it feels uncomfortable. But climbing teaches me to tackle problems, comfortable or not. Scaling a boulder, I rarely feel ready or confident, and I’m not necessarily even sure I can do it. In fact, most of the time I fail.

Western North Carolina is a rock climbing mini-mecca, featuring faces such as Looking Glass, John Rock and Rumbling Bald. And for some, this fast-growing sport is a way of life. I believe climbing is also inherently therapeutic; together with traditional therapy, it’s played a key role in helping me climb out of depression.

Rock climbing integrates many components of a healthy and mindful lifestyle. One moment I’m teaching others and, in the next, my peers are teaching me. I’m constantly challenged, and I can push myself in a way that’s internally driven — I’m not climbing for a score or a grade or for anyone’s praise. It’s the process, not the goal, that consumes me.

Climbing is certainly good exercise, and the door to a supportive and fun social scene. But at a deeper level, the sport has shifted my relationship with failure to something positive, because it forces me to push through when I fall down. Hit after hit, I grit down and commit. It also constantly encourages me to be more present — a skill that carries over into all aspects of life.

Therapeutic tool

Psychologist Elizabeth Williams of Hendersonville Pediatrics also believes in climbing as a therapeutic tool. She says she’s known “many struggling people, both personally and professionally, who have found rock climbing to be a lifeline.”

Perhaps the most obvious factor, she says, is vigorous physical activity, which studies have shown can help fight depression. That’s not all, however.

Climbing is often done in nature, and simply being in the woods can lift your mood and foster a sense of well-being and connection with the world.

Beyond that, climbing with others provides a sense of community that can also help combat mental health struggles. Sharing a physical pursuit with friends can shield us from loneliness and isolation, notes Williams.

In addition, she continues, “We often get stuck in our heads, reliving the past or worrying about the future, and so become disconnected from the here and now. Climbing … invites us to be fully present and immersed in what we’re doing, which contributes to feelings of happiness.”

Williams cites yet another benefit: problem-solving. Understanding and following through a long top-rope route and a short bouldering problem requires critical thinking, planned risk-taking and strategizing.

Two recent studies concluded that bouldering can be an effective therapy for treating depression. Both Stelzer et al. in 2018 and Luttenberger et al. in 2015 found that after bouldering consistently for a certain length of time, subjects’ mood significantly improved, based on a questionnaire designed to gauge their depression.

Pushing through

On my own mental health journey, I’ve realized that I can’t control my thoughts and feelings, but I can take agency over my actions: a huge concept in climbing.

Bouldering, for example, involves more than just being positive or saying, “I can do this.” Before my depression I believed that my thoughts determined my outcomes. Now I realize that negative thoughts may exist in my mind — but that, in itself, is not a showstopper. I still have a say in whether those thoughts take root in me. I can still climb a tall boulder, still give a public talk, still take risks toward my goals, with or without depression, anxiety or negative thoughts telling me I shouldn’t bother.

Life can be very uncomfortable at times and moving forward can be really difficult — and that’s OK. Climbing often feels that way, but I get a great sense of reward every time I push through the doubt.

When I was climbing the north side of Looking Glass, my friend had unwittingly put me on a route that was three grades above my ability. Picture a smooth, vertical wall and then a jagged overhang with a narrow crack in the corner. It took him 30 minutes to scale the first pitch (beautifully, though with effort and with what I like to call “tennis grunting”). It took me a laborious, unglamorous hour and a half.

I stopped and reworked 5 feet of rock ad nauseam until I could stick the handhold I was lusting for. And then I did it again over the next 5 feet, feeling more exhausted with every attempt. At times I’d call up to my partner, saying I was spent and he should just pulley me up the route. He refused. This forced me to trust the rope and the cams placed in the crack. When I finally cleared that first pitch, it felt good, as my friend had known it would.

But he didn’t do this because he loved sitting perched on a ledge — he did it because someone had done the same for him when he climbed above his grade.

Many metaphors

Some local adventure- and outdoors-based therapeutic programs have picked up on the research and the experiential evidence and are now including climbing in their offerings.

Sarah Parlier is director of student development for Trails Momentum, which serves males and females ages 18-25 who are working to overcome anxiety, depression and other mental health diagnoses. Based near DuPont State Recreational Forest, the program includes individual and group therapy, mindfulness practices, yoga and exercise as well as adventure and wilderness experiences.

“I’m not a therapist, but I can tell you that students diagnosed with anxiety have found [climbing] to be a safe place to challenge themselves with support,” she reports. “Students on the autism spectrum are challenged to move beyond fixed and rigid thinking patterns in order to accomplish a goal. Students who have perfectionistic tendencies are forced to confront and move through failure.”

Once every two weeks, Trails Momentum students get the chance to test themselves indoors — on the walls at Rachael and Cameron Austin’s Brevard Rock Gym. The experiences their facility offers, says Rachael, “carry many metaphors applicable to life.”

But despite climbing’s genuine benefits, says Williams, starting any new activity can seem daunting at first, particularly for people struggling with depression. Accordingly, she recommends breaking something that could feel overwhelming into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Accordingly, Williams suggests calling a friend who might be interested in climbing with you or looking up your local climbing gym and checking out its website. And if it seems like something you’d like to try to support your mental health, she advises, “Find ways to build it into your regular routine.”

It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to scale El Capitan to get the benefits. As Cameron Austin puts it, “In climbing, progress is progress, no matter how small.”

Nonclimbers sometimes think of the sport as being really intense and intimidating, but here’s my advice: Don’t get tied into an identity if it gets in the way of becoming healthier. I mainly identified as a dancer, not a climber, but climbing is where I’ve found challenge and community, and where I now put my time, energy and effort. For me, climbing has become a habit, perhaps a passion, and definitely something I would recommend to anyone who’s struggling.



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One thought on “Rock climbing as therapy

  1. Susie-Danzen

    Great article. Long-time local climber Steve Longnecker can provide, at a very reasonable cost, a “no-mag” to any climber that doesn’t want to leave the chalk residue on the rock. This is a cloth that replaces the chalk bag.
    They might even have some no-mags at Black Dome.

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