‘My head was completely free’: the rise of climbing as therapy

Supporters of climbing therapy say it can help people focus on the here and now and provide relief from the whirlwind of modern life

Whenever he’s stressed out, physicist Forrest Sheldon likes to defy the laws of gravity. He ditches his equations and enters a vertical world. A junior fellow at the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, he credits climbing with getting him out of his head. “I go to the climbing gym,” he says with a smile, “and everything melts away.”

Sheldon climbs three times a week, each session clocking in at a strenuous three hours. The practice has become essential to his well-being. As he puts it: “No matter what happened today, I’ll go climbing and I’ll have fun. And I’ll feel better after.”

Sheldon calls climbing his “therapy.” He’s not alone. Lor Sabourin, a professional climber based in Flagstaff, Arizona, recently wrote an op-ed in Climbing Magazine titled Can Climbing Be a Form of Therapy?

Sabourin stars in the Patagonia documentary They/Them, which recounts their journey as a trans athlete and captures their ascent of the formidable Cousin of Death route in Arizona’s Sedona canyons. They are a mental trainer and are studying for an MS in counseling.

According to Sabourin, climbing has “a really unique way of teaching you the skills that you need to deal with stress.” It comes down to the nature of the sport itself. “What we’re doing in climbing,” they tell the Guardian, “is specifically looking for something that’s too hard for us.”

The goal is always at the limits of the climber’s skill level, the summit always arduous to reach. This naturally triggers stress hormones. “We have to change ourselves to be able to deal with that stress,” says Sabourin, because it’s impossible to change the rock face.

“The mountain,” to quote a t-shirt worn by climbers, “doesn’t care.” It scoffs at our caprices. Scale it or leave it is the deal. Climbing, then, forces us to confront what lies within our control: our negative emotions but also our negative thoughts.

“When you’re in a climbing situation,” says Sabourin, “you learn really quickly that those thoughts limit performance. Whereas we know this outside of climbing, but it’s not as tangible.” This realization can positively impact our life. “Experiencing it in a really explicit way on the wall can force you to say, ‘I can tell that these thoughts are keeping me from doing the thing I love.’”

Climbing instills emotional resilience and the ability not to be swayed by our every whim. This explains why some therapists are swapping the couch for the climbing wall.

Julia Hufnagl is a psychotherapist in Vienna, Austria, and a pioneer of “climbing therapy.” Hufnagl, a former climbing instructor, meets her clients in the gym, where she leads them in bouldering sessions, before debriefings in her office. “The wall with its handles is so inviting that hardly anyone can resist trying it,” she reveals.

Therapy, which can be demanding, turns into a game. “Clients want to do it and enjoy it,” explains Hufnagl, “even those who suffer from depression.”

But – by climbing – they’re doing more than simply having fun: they’re exteriorizing their problems and coming to grips with them. In a sense, the experience of climbing becomes a simulation of life itself.

Similarly, Sabourin draws a parallel between the sport and the art of living. “We all have inspiring goals,” they say. “And on the way to those goals, we’re going to experience more stress and more challenges than we think we are when we’re at the bottom.” But that’s to be relished. “If we can learn to flow with that and be gentle in our approach,” Sabourin continues, “it makes the whole journey up to that goal really fulfilling.”

Summarizing the appeal of climbing therapy, Hufnagl says it makes “important psychotherapeutic insights easy to experience.” Her conclusion echoes the latest scientific research.

Anika Frühauf is a sports scientist at Innsbruck University in the Austrian Alps, specializing in adventure sports. “Climbing therapy,” she says, “was shown to reduce depression and anxiety as well as enhance self-efficacy.”

Frühauf points to recent studies in Germany, which found climbing therapy is as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating depression. That’s striking: CBT is one of the most popular forms of talk therapy in the world. Frühauf says that health experts not only recognize the psychological and physiological properties of climbing therapy, they also testify to its “decisive effect” in the “social domain.”

When you climb, Frühauf explains, “you have to communicate with your partner” and “let go of the control that you can handle everything.” This helps with cooperation and overcoming trust issues. For example, Hufnagl has clients who are children in foster care. Climbing gives them a chance to learn how to “bond” with others, especially adults.

Along with researcher Carina Bichler, Frühauf is now conducting a qualitative survey of patients who underwent climbing therapy. Some highlights: A 69-year-old woman found it “a better therapy option than just CBT” because “it shouldn’t always be just about talking.” Climbing, by contrast, taught her “to act.” Another woman said it was better than antidepressants and she felt “happy” on the wall.

Alain Robert climbs the Agbar Tower in Barcelona
Alain Robert climbs the Agbar Tower in Barcelona. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

But you don’t have to be unwell to benefit from climbing. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the sport is how it engenders mindfulness. No one knows this more than Alain Robert, who ranks among the greatest climbers in history.

Nicknamed the “French Spiderman,” Robert has been scaling rock faces and skyscrapers for more than four decades. Like the Marvel superhero, he climbs without a rope. But unlike him, he doesn’t have the Avengers as back-up should he make a mistake. “In my game,” Robert tells the Guardian, “there’s life on one side, death on the other.” The choice is simple: “It’s either fear or focus.”

Robert’s superpower isn’t his climbing prowess though, it’s his laser focus. “Before a climb, I’m afraid,” he admits. But as soon as his fingers touch the first hold, fear evaporates. “I become a different fella” and “enter another world.” Suddenly, the here and now is all there is.

“It’s really the best,” says Robert. The experience is so vivid he can recall ascents he did 30 years ago as though they’d happened yesterday. Others tap into the same Zen-like state.

Sabourin, who climbs with a rope, radiates bliss when describing their best climbs. “It’s magical,” they enthuse. “You’re so in your body. Sometimes I’ll just be giggling. When you’re climbing the hardest sections, you’re just focused. You’re not thinking about whether you’re going to do it or not, you’re just rock climbing and that feels amazing.”

They add: “I’ll notice that my attention will expand out. I’ll start to notice the sounds around me, I’ll feel what the rock feels like. It feels really humbling honestly, you feel connected to something bigger than yourself.”

Hufnagl reports her clients’ first reaction after a climb is usually “how pleasant it was not to be plagued by thoughts and worries.” As she puts it, “being present simply happens when climbing.” That insight perhaps explains why the sport is ultimately so therapeutic.

Our minds are wired to wander. Scientists estimate that almost 50% of our thoughts have no connection to what we’re doing. Add to that our smartphones – those weapons of mass distraction – and we spend most of our waking hours in a whirlwind of our own making, never quite finding fulfillment in the here and now. Climbing disperses the whirlwind.

Two millennia ago, the Buddha instructed his disciples that “there is only one moment for you to be alive, and that is the present moment. Go back to the present moment and live this moment deeply.”

If so, the Buddha promised, “you’ll be free.” One woman who underwent climbing therapy described the effects simply: “My head was completely free.”

Theo Zenou

The GuardianTramp

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