Can I Rock Climb if I Have a Fear of Heights?

Do you have a fear of heights? Are you wondering if that means you can't go rock climbing? Read on to find out.

Acrophobia, the fear of heights, proves so much more than its cliched, oversimplified definition.

A visceral experience, it quakes through every cell in your body, gripping you in a vice of paralysis and raw adrenaline. Shaking and reverberating through every limb of your body, acrophobia causes sweaty palms, nausea, blurry vision, and sheer panic.

Yet, a surprising number of rock climbers--including the 5.14 climber Ali Rainey-- use the sport to help them confront and move through their fear of heights. While acrophobia remains an ever-present part of their climbing experience, they've learned how to harness the fear through exposure therapy and systematic desensitization.

Here's how you can confront your phobia of heights on the climbing wall, too.

Fear of Heights 101

The first step in overcoming acrophobia remains understanding how it grips our bodies.

Psychologists who've studied trauma and stress for decades distinguish between three stages of trauma and how our body reacts. Knowing your body and what to expect from it will help you master the moments when you feel most out of control, whether you're four feet off the ground or at the top of the wall.

All traumatic situations begin with an event. This represents something that triggers your terror. It could prove as simple as looking down or visualizing the consequences of slipping while crossing a log.

Second, this event triggers a sense of shock that snakes up through your entire body. Within seconds, you may go from calm and easy to wracked by intense anxiety. Third, your body reflexively responds to this shock.

Fight or Flight?

Over the millennia, our bodies learned to respond automatically to a traumatic trigger and the shock that it produced. These three ways were biologically tailored to give us the best odds of survival: 1) fight, 2) flight, or 3) freeze. But, nowadays, they often get in our way.

In the case of the first two responses, the mere act of facing off against a perceived threat or running from it lets you naturally discharge the adrenaline rush that hits your system. When confronting a mortal enemy--whether human or animal--this response allowed our ancestors to stand a fighting chance, whether they chose to make a stand or flee.

Of course, neither fight nor flight helps when you're hanging 20 feet from the ground by your fingertips and toes to a sheer cliff face. Obviously, you've got nobody to fight and nowhere to go. So, what happens then?

The Freeze

Climbers end up in the grip of the body's third response to trauma and shock, freezing. With adrenaline coursing through the body, this can rapidly develop into a full-body, debilitating paralysis. Of course, this doesn't suppress the adrenaline flooding your system. But your energy release options prove limited.

Your body must release the excess adrenaline coursing through your system, or you won't be able to move. Ever.

But how? Through shaking.

Of course, full body shakes make you feel completely out of control and exposed. But truth be told, it's the only option your body has for releasing the pent-up adrenaline in your system. You're literally shaking out the fear, although it feels more like coming apart at the hinges.

But it represents a stage in dealing with shock and trauma. It will pass, and that's when you can come up with a plan of action to deal with the event that initially triggered shock.

The Mind Game of Climbing

That said, the huge doses of adrenaline in your system don't just stop at physical shaking. You'll also reflexively tense your muscles and experience a sense of hyper-awareness.

This hyper-awareness of impending doom represents a double-edged sword, especially when you misread your body's other responses, freezing and shaking.

These physical manifestations can cloud your reason and impair your response to the actual problem at hand. What's more, they lead to more terror and anxiety, a vicious cycle unless you can regain equanimity of mind and control of your body.

After all, a climber's best friends remain a Zen mindset, physical strength, and technique. The more you rely on this skillset, the more confidence you build in yourself. With greater faith in your ability to remain calm, strong, and skilled, you'll rise above your fears and take control of the situation through practice and experience--no matter what event or shock you face.

Whether you're baby-stepping it at the climbing wall or working your way up to exposed rock faces. Besides the many physical benefits of rock climbing, it can help you face your fear of heights once and for all.

Having a Security Blanket

Underlying the fear of heights lurks the dread of falling. For somebody with acrophobia, heights elicit uncontrollable images of falling. They may even feel the physical sensation of the drop rooted in every part of their body.

But addressing the foundational terror of falling can help. The best way to do this remains understanding your climbing safety system and how it works to protect you from a life-threatening descent. From knowing how to check knots to finding the right climbing shoes, incorporate "safety blankets" into your routine.

Once you better understand what these "safety blankets" are, the impending doom of a fall will loom less large in your mind. Create a mental checklist of precautions to make you feel safer and more secure. These should include double-checking:

  • Your tie-in knot

  • Your top-rope anchor

  • Your belayer

Make this a regular routine, like a mini-mediation, to clear your mind and cultivate a sense of security. But what if you still dread the idea of falling, even with all these protections? Remember that our greatest fears stem from the unknown.

Remove this "unknown" variable by testing your safety equipment. A few feet above the ground, tie in. Then, let go and feel the physical security provided by your belayer, rope, and harness.

When nasty thoughts of falling creep into your mind, visualize the security and safety provided by your harness. Remember the feeling of being safely held by your equipment.

Building Faith through Experience

You need unshakable faith in your physical strength and technique. This confidence doesn't spring up overnight; it gets built through experience. So, start with baby steps, learning your capabilities and surmounting your fear of heights.

Build your tolerance for heights by climbing higher, little by little. Visualize your successes and achievements and use these to cultivate an iron-willed mindset. You'll be amazed by the heights you achieve, both figuratively and literally.

Interested in finding rock climbing near me? Or, maybe you have more questions about overcoming acrophobia? Follow our blog to learn more about the amazing mental and physical benefits of rock climbing.

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