I got stuck about ten meters above the ground and couldn’t go any further. One progress belay below me was a poorly placed wedge about four meters down. I tried to grope with my hands for the holds, but I couldn’t see over the small overhang, and with each successive attempt, I got more drained. I could feel cold sweat running down my forehead. The longer I stayed in the place, the more spasmodic my grip became.
I got seized with sheer terror. My fingers turned white as I dug my nails into the rock, unable to move. I remained frozen for several tens of seconds, maybe even a minute, but it felt like an eternity. I knew that if I didn’t do something, I would fall. But at that moment, it wasn’t possible; the fear was so great that I remained rooted to the spot, unable to move.
What is fear?
Fear is a natural human reaction to imminent danger. Almost all of us have it, but some people may gradually get used to a stimulus. Therefore, what creates fear in one person may leave another entirely at ease. But even these apparent fearless people experience fear in other situations. There is one exception; some people cannot have fear because of a physical or psychological disorder. An example of this is the so-called Urbach-Wiethe disease: a skin disorder that affects the nervous system, among other things, and causes fear to disappear completely.
In general, there are two types of fear. The first, adaptive fear, is a typical response to a possible threat. It triggers a reaction known as “fight” or “flight.” Experiencing adaptive fear forces us to narrow all energy on overcoming obstacles or avoiding danger. It allows us to become focused on coping with challenging situations. This kind of fear protects us, helping us to emerge unscathed from the threat
Then there’s the second, unhealthy fear, sometimes called maladaptive. Maladaptive fear produces a similar reaction to adaptive fear. The difference is in the intensity. While adaptive fear helps us fear, this second type tends to hurt us. Instead of dealing with the situation, we freeze in place and are suddenly unable to do anything useful. This unhealthy fear is often due to a bad previous experience, trauma, or psychological disorder. Well, it was this debilitating fear that came over me years ago. How do we get out of it?
How to overcome fear?
There are several psychological guidelines to alleviate fear. I devised one on my own that day on the rock without knowing the theory. When it looked like I was almost certainly going to fall, I started screaming and swearing loudly at myself. This helped me relieve the tension, mobilized my energy, and I eventually reached the next progression belay without falling. But let’s take a more systematic look at ways of overcoming fear.
Any situation that causes fear should be handled gradually. Runners who sign up for a challenging mountain ultra-run but so far have been running in the lowlands will quickly encounter difficulties. Mentally, they will cope much better if they gradually get a feel for the mountain environment. They should train in the Jizera Mountains a few times; then, they can run somewhere in the Giant Mountains and try a race or two in the Tatras or the Alps to get used to the mountain environment. They should also try a night run or two; only then can they set off to the high mountains. The fear they will experience during the race will undoubtedly be less than without prior preparation.
The visualization is very similar to the previous approach, except there is no need to go to the mountains. It is enough if the runner repeatedly imagines himself facing challenging mountain situations. Just imagining yourself in a critical condition has a similar effect on the mind as if you were there in person. Of course, this process is more straightforward under the guidance of a psychologist who knows what stimuli to present to the athlete and when to move from one imagery (visualization) to another.
Deep, controlled breathing has a calming effect and helps to overcome fear. Once, during a mountain run, I had to stop to calm down and breathe before continuing. Admittedly, at the time, I only dealt with the fear in retrospect after having the challenging situation successfully behind. Breathing techniques for overcoming fear worked well for me back then. Breathing techniques work best if you learn them before the event and in a calm, peaceful environment.
Breaking habitual patterns
Fear differs from anxiety in that fear always has an external trigger. For example, I walk a narrow path at the cliff edge, encounter a wild animal on the trail, or lightning strikes a short distance away. Anxiety arises without an external stimulus. But what these states have in common, they both can be very much influenced by our thoughts. If, in a dangerous situation, you think that you’re going to slip and fall, it’s more likely something terrible will happen than if you keep telling yourself that this is what you’ve been training for all year. You must realize what’s happening in your mind and change it if needed. Again, under the guidance of an experienced psychologist, you will accomplish this more easily.
That’s what I figured out on the rock the other day. By talking to myself, I was able to spur myself into action. I just approached it from the wrong end: positive self-talk works far better than swearing and cursing. If you keep repeating to yourself, “I’m ready,” “I’m up to it,” and “I can do it,” you’ll handle fear much better. Just be careful; everyone has to find the correct formulas for themselves. The wording might work differently for each of us, and while one runner may be comfortable with these formulas, another will find them too mechanical and not believe them.
Here and now
Fear always concerns the future. You’re afraid you’ll fall and kill yourself. Of breaking your leg. Of rolling down the slope into the valley. And that paralyzes you. But between that future and the present, there are many other steps in between. And if you focus on them and start to deal with just the action you’re accomplishing right now, you’re not likely to get anywhere near that fatal situation. Try focusing only on what is happening now: “I’m going to jump over this boulder,” “I’m going to grab the rope with both hands,” or “I’m going to turn to the wall so I can’t see down.” Being in the here and now can be learned through relaxation techniques, yoga, or mindfulness exercises. Again, a psychologist can provide you with a lot of guidance.
If you have quality gear, it’s another asset for maintaining your mental well-being: Shoes with anti-slippery soles, good quality clothing, thermal insulation, poles, climbing rope, or even a knife. You realize, for example, that with poles, you can rely on two more support points on icy surfaces or that you won’t slip on wet rocks with Vibram soles. If that doesn’t remove your fear altogether, it will certainly alleviate it.
Of course, it’s best not to put yourself in a situation that causes fear in the first place. Before you set out on your adventure, assess the potential risks and make a plan to deal with them. This is, of course, a larger topic. So instead of expanding on it now, I’ll refer you to a great article by Kilian Jornet in which the famous mountain runner discusses the risks and suggests a course of action to evaluate and eliminate them.
👉 Do you want to take your sport to the next level? Try it with a sports psychologist.