Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is rooted in one of our most fundamental sub-conscious neural responses, that of fight or flight. Anxiety results from fear and can be debilitating, preventing us from achieving what we set out to do. Rather than avoiding these emotions we should seek them out and try to understand them. Doing so can reveal incredible powers that enable us to break barriers and achieve incredible things.
We know this in the form of the old adage, “face your fears.” Psychiatrists use techniques such as exposure therapy to help people manage the debilitating effects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The scientific community is uncovering more about neural plasticity; the ability to re-wire our brain and the associated benefits. My personal experience supports this and I believe we can all benefit from consciously engaging with our fears, rather than avoiding them.
Society does not encourage us to engage in risk or with our fears and anxiety. Perhaps this is one of many factors leading to increased rates of mental health issues in our youth? Being constantly aware of the hazards around me; the weather, my fatigue, my partners fatigue and how I am able to minimise the risk is something I really love about climbing. It is almost a relief to be in an environment or situation where you are forced to engage with these things rather than being ignorant of them.
Fear and anxiety are constant companions of mine in the mountains and they have taught me much.
To explore this topic I want to use one of the more engaging experiences I have had in dealing with fear and anxiety. To do this I would request that the reader watches the following clip before reading on. The full length video can be found via the link at the end of the article.
That video was taken by myself as we walked across the final snow ridge on the northern side of the Weisshorn (4506m), in Switzerland. This ridge is so narrow that you walk it like a tight rope. One foot carefully placed in front of the other with no chance to turn around. It is incredibly exposed, dropping away near vertically uninhibited to the glacier more than seven hundred meters below. This means it is a definite ‘no fall zone’. The ice is so steep that your speed will increase exponentially rendering your ability to self-arrest to almost zero. One slip here means almost certain death.
So was I afraid?
Incredibly. I do not have a death wish and no climb is worth losing a toe or finger, let alone my life. I have too much to live for.
In the raw footage of that clip, you can hear my climbing partner and I having a casual conversation about life outside of climbing as if we were down at the local pub. So how did I go from being incredibly anxious about the very real possibility of death to being relaxed enough to have a conversation? Using my fear to focus my conscious mind and engage in the situation. Let me elaborate.
Before we walked out onto that ridge we had a very frank and open discussion. We had already been climbing for ten hours over technical terrain and gained more than 1,500m. So we discussed how we were both feeling in terms of fatigue both mentally and physically. Honesty is paramount here. Remember the situation we are talking about. Death consequences. Ego has no place in the mountains. Thankfully that day I was feeling strong and alert and so was my partner.
Next we talked about whether we should rope up or not. The only way to remotely protect us from a fall to our deaths was by remaining roped together, walking about a metre apart but with 2-3m of rope in our hand. If one person fell, the other would have to jump on the opposite side of the ridge immediately. The benefit of this? It gives you a small chance of arresting the fall. The downside? If the other person does not react quickly enough, you will be pulled from the mountain and both fall to your death.
We decided to remain roped up. This was my preference as although the technique is often talked about but seldom successful, it gave me some mental reassurance. Sometimes that can be the difference. On any other given day, I may have suggested we climb unroped.
Finally I mentally prepared myself. I knew I felt physically and mentally fit. I knew we had what little protection we could in place. The situation was as safe as it was ever going to be. I now had to focus my mind on the task of carefully and consciously placing one foot perfectly in front of the other and maintaining my balance. Once I was focused on this, all that was left to do was start.
All of this incurred in the space of about five minutes.
The message here is that I was afraid. Fear was present and my anxiety as a result was real. Rather than allowing the fear and anxiety to take hold of me and become debilitating, I consciously engaged with them to sharpen my mind, focus my perspective and maximise my safety.
Was a successful outcome guaranteed? No. Of course not. Nothing is guaranteed. However harnessing the power of my fear enabled me to bring the risk and my anxiety back to a manageable level. A level I could work with to achieve my goal.
You don’t have to be climbing to experience this. We all experience on a regular basis whether that be public speaking, applying for that job we always wanted or asking that cute girl or boy for their phone number. We all have moments in our daily life which make us feel anxious and vulnerable. Next time your heart rate increases and you get sweaty palms, I encourage you not to back away, not to avoid what is going on. I encourage you to engage with your emotions and seek to understand them.
Fear is one of life’s constants. It will always be there and we can’t avoid it. Fear can be debilitating. It can also be one of the greatest enablers in our life. Fear will be a constant companion of mine whilst I am on the Vertical Year and one that I welcome.
So the question remains - what role do you want fear to play in your life?
Youtube Link - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DJgIo7FlCk&t=554s
If this article has made you feel uneasy I encourage you to look on the ReachOut Australia website and seek out their resources on anxiety.
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