I spent a joyful and challenging weekend clambering around Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas. There was many a moment of clinging to the sides of tall rock walls, gumption asserted. With new friends I had only just met, I was simultaneously over the moon excited to be on a climbing trip and pee my pants terrified. I had a lingering fear that I’d be unable to actually climb anything without giving way to serious freeze.
Day one and with anticipation blossoming in the lower portion of my abdomen, I jumped at the chance to get on the wall after my climbing partners. After making it up a few fun routes, I noticed the absence of fear in my climbing. Wondering about technique, yes. Making sure my belay partner was holding me tightly, yes. Fear? Not so much. I didn’t mention it because I didn’t want to jinx myself as harder climbs were surely coming. But I noted it internally, and wondered where the fear I’d been expecting had gone.
It got me thinking about fear more broadly, and what happens when it shows up. How it can stop us in our tracks, make us rethink big decisions, and stay stuck for far too long in ‘safe’ scenarios.
Acknowledge it when fear shows up
Fast forward to a few climbs later, as I was trying to swing out over a ledge, and there it was. Fear. With trembling legs and shaky hands, I acknowledged it and resisted the urge to immediately insist I be lowered back down. I found it helpful to acknowledge it, calling down to my partners, “I’m afraid. I have fear” and waited to see if I could move through it.
I’ve been paralyzed in terror before, stuck to the side of a rock and clinging to a tiny tree on my way up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Angels Landing is a notoriously narrow strip of a trail characterized by thousand foot drops on either side, with only a tiny chain to hang onto. This experience of freeze and panic caught me quite off guard, and since that time I carry a tiny bit of questioning if this will happen to me again.
Yesterday, moments after resting with my head and torso splayed out against a rock, about a third of the way up a climb, I carefully made my way across a ledge to the begin the next portion. There it was again, fear. Leaving the safety of a ledge and heading back up a wall is freaking scary.
Can you be curious about it?
I announced my fear and noticed my body. I examined myself and this fear with some curiosity. In addition to noticing the fear driven sensations, I focused on solid reminders from below that I was safe on the rope. Skilled feedback from my new friends brought me back into the world of technique.
What else can you focus on?
Left hand here, right hand here, push up and grab the tiny hold above. Or so was the idea. I tried it a few times, missing the tiny hold once, twice, three times. Resting. Back to the narrow ledge. Again, dance along the edge, shimmy my fingertips along the now familiar ledge. Left hand here, right hand in the pocket. Now just push up and grab that tiny hold. I swung out into the air. Again. and then again a few more times. While I’d love to end this segment with a triumphant tale of actually grabbing that tiny little ledge and making my way victoriously to the top–I didn’t. I made it no higher on that route yesterday, but I stopped being afraid of getting off that ledge.
Fear. How quickly it comes and goes. What happens in our bodies before, during, and after is worth noting. Our brains are hard wired with a negative bias – we focus on what’s happening in the middle of the hard stuff. This limits our ability to identify the precursors and what happens next.
Notice what happens next
As any of my clients or students can tell you — “notice what happens next”, is a frequent invitation of mine. When we spend less time laser focused on the problem, difficulty, or fear – it opens us up to a richer experience of ourselves. When we spend more time noticing the pleasant or even neutral sensations in life, we build greater capacity with our systems.
Build greater capacity
What that translates to is that we have a greater ability to feel and linger in pleasant moments while being present in our bodies. It also means we get taken down less by the harder moments in life. We can move through the ebbs and flows of life with more ease and more trust in ourselves.
False Evidence Appearing Real?
Here’s the other thing about fear — and some will tell you it’s False Evidence Appearing Real or Forget Everything and Relax or Face Everything and Rise. But when our bodies are in a physiological response state of fear, that shit feels pretty damn real. And to our bodies and physiology in that moment, it is real. And that is ok — we don’t have to try and talk ourselves out of it or shun it or be embarrassed by it. We can simply feel it. AND (the and is important) we can also notice what else is happening.
Notice what else is happening
Let’s walk through my example on the ledge yesterday. I feel fear. My muscles are clenched, I want to cling to the wall and the safety of the ledge. The loudest part of my body is saying “do not leave this ledge and climb up the wall!”
I can also be aware of the safety of the rope and lean into the tightness and security of my harness. FEAR. It is loud in my physiology. My hands are sweaty, my breathing is ragged and short.
I can think about where my hands go, and that extra nubbiness on the grip that my left hand will find. I can think about my body position and angles. There is room for me to notice more than just the fear, this is what I am saying.
Unless we are in the grips of freeze and terror, we can typically ask ourselves (again) what else am I noticing? What ELSE is happening in my body and environment at this moment. Fear is a part of our human experience. It does not, however, have to be the whole of our experience.
Our leader on this climbing trip has over a decade of experience and wears climbing knowledge and skill like a second skin. He is art on the wall, and a patient and kind teacher. I asked him, after watching him lead routes with much less safety than being held by a top route, if he feels fear when climbing. His answer, “all the time” wasn’t quite what I expected. He further went on to explain that after he starts and makes a few moves, the nerves tended to dissipate.
Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is feeling fear and continuing anyway.
The next time you find yourself feeling fear, you can ask yourself — what sensations am I noticing in my body? When did I first start becoming aware of these sensations? What ELSE am I noticing right now? Is this tolerable?
It is also perfectly acceptable to say no to some relationships, activities, or people because the fear involved massively outweighs any pleasure your derive from the experience. This is your call! Knowing yourself and your boundaries goes a long way towards picking and choosing the right kind of doors to open for yourself. If you want to build self trust, check out my free training here with practical strategies to start living with deep self trust.
Remember that fear shows up in our lives and our physiology for a reason – primarily, to alert us to danger with the express purpose of keeping us safe. It is up to us to use our brains and the vast wisdom of our bodies to determine if we are in a position that is potentially dangerous. We can even thank fear for showing up, for our body’s internal and unyielding drive to keep us alive. And we can notice what else is there, and move forward.