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What's the right dose of fear for climbing
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By Don McGrath
From fort collins, CO
Mar 5, 2013
Jeff Elison and I have been researching fear as it relates to climbing and we recently wrote an article about the tradeoff of having the right amount of fear (or arousal) for rock climbing. You can read the whole article at the link below.

masterrockclimber.com/the-righ...

I hope you get something from it.

Don

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By Ben Brotelho
From Albany, NY
Mar 5, 2013
Epic free solo with a pack on
Quite an interesting little read. One issue I have, or maybe just a question: how do you reconcile this highly organized and fairly rational way of looking at how fear affects climbing performance with a situation where fear is EXTREME, yet you do what you have to do to survive?

Stories and thoughts about this seem to be contrary to the conclusions you have made regarding fear and performance in any physical activity, including climbing. For instance, hypothetical situation time:

You are following a pitch. You are anchored to a big ass cedar, you trust your belayer, and the climb is just about your leading ability. Suddenly, the rope breaks visibly; right in front of your eyes the rope snaps. The reason for the rope breaking is unimportant. Your fear might be immense, without a doubt, but you will probably finish the pitch because your life depends on it. Despite your intense fear, you climb the pitch because you have to.

Maybe this goes back to your point about how your perception of fear alters the curve quite a bit, and that you're forced to perceive the very intense fear of such a situation as marginal, or there is not "enough room" in your headspace to perceive the fear?

I really like the article, just wondering what you think about things like this. Can also relate to driving and having a tractor trailer wipe out directly in front of you, walking down the road and getting mugged and fighting the thug off, and the entire fight-or-flight response. Fear, as all emotions are, is very odd, such that it is hard to accurately quantify its effects in a visual representation.

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By Mort
Mar 5, 2013
Hi Ben,

Don asked me to reply. I'm glad you enjoyed what you read.

Like you said, these are hypothetical situations you describe. I would expect some people to choke and die. Others would keep it together. You were correct in identifying perception as part of the answer. If you tell yourself: "This is scary as hell, but I CAN pull this off," it would help you manage fear and move you back left on the curve. I think this actually falls under the broader category of coping. In our book, we talk about coping, mostly in response to fear of failure and self-conscious emotions. But it relates to other portions of the chapter Don sampled. We have neurons that project from fear areas (amygdala) to cortical areas like the PFC. They may improve or interfere with thinking and reasoning. One reason the curve looks the way it does. However, we also have neurons that project the other way. So, the PFC can help us cope/manage fear. We can distract ourselves, lie to ourselves, and calm down in a variety of ways. Some people are better at this than others.

In your example, I might be using my PFC to tell myself: "Don't panic, don't look down, don't think about the fall, focus ALL my attention on the moves ahead of me" . . . or I might wet myself and die.

A classic fMRI (brain scan) study showed that activity in the PFC was strongly and negatively correlated with people's self-reported emotional pain in reaction to social exclusion. In other words, they were using their PFC's to cope, employing strategies like rationalizing why it happened or distraction to reduce the emotional pain. And it worked.

Hope this helps,
Jeff

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By Nate Reno
From Highlands Ranch, CO
Mar 5, 2013
Ellingwood Point Summit, Little Bear in the backgr...
Nice article, describes what I like to call the negative feedback loop / downward spiral that I've experienced.
You feel your forearms getting a bit tired before some hard moves, the seed of doubt has been planted. You grip a little harder, your arms get a bit more tired because of that, you get a bit more worried about how much longer you hold on because you feel your arms tiring, the cycle repeats and before you know it you're panting, borderline panicked, and maybe barely get to the next stance where you can relax, or have popped off by that point.

I'll be interested in seeing what ideas you guys have for coping with the situation and staying on the left side of the curve.
Coming from a sport climbing background, tactics such as taking practice falls come to mind. The more falls you take, the more comfortable you get with the fact that they are (usually/situationally) perfectly safe and benign, and not a big deal, and just part of a day out climbing. Much like when first starting out, falling onto a toprope was a bit un-nerving, but quickly get very used to it and its no longer even a factor. I haven't quite gotten to that point for lead falls, but definitely much better than at first.

I suspect that climbing, being quite a cognitive activity, the point at which fear degrades performance may come sooner than other activities requiring less thinking/fine motor skills.

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By Ben Brotelho
From Albany, NY
Mar 5, 2013
Epic free solo with a pack on
Thanks for the response Mort. I'd be interested in reading the book, is it for sale?

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By Mort
Mar 5, 2013
We hope it will be out very soon!

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By Mort
Mar 5, 2013
Nate,
You are right on the mark. We both used the term "spiral" because it captures the feedback loop and the third direction: either increase in fear or decrease in performance depending on how you view it.

Practice falls are a great approach, one that we discuss, among others.

Finally, your comment is correct about thinking and fine motor skills. That's what I was referring to when I wrote "task difficulty." Precision tasks, complex tasks, and fine motor skills affected more strongly by over-arousal. I tried to capture that with my precision move vs. the big dyno.

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By The Stoned Master
Administrator
From Pennsylvania
Mar 5, 2013
Day Lily.
Mort and Don,

You've posted several times about intangible, inner workings/ways. I've enjoyed your work, your insight.

I am curious: what, if any, are your practices (meditation, etc)? Maybe you don't take time to meditate but turn your focus inwards with everything you do (that's me, sitting for 45 minutes + is doable but "not my style"). Climbing is my dynamic meditation these days. How much of your work has been taken from YOUR experience? Is what you write about authentic, from experience, or from textbooks,other academic readings?

I'm not asking out of doubt but out of simple curiousity. I enjoy when others turn their inquiries, gossips, focus inwards and try/understand the vast universe that is within.

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By Don McGrath
From fort collins, CO
Mar 5, 2013
Stoned Master,
Our writing is based on a combination of academic research, reviewing various other books and training, as well as our personal experiences.

I'm glad you like some of what we do. Stay tuned for our book that will be out soon!

Don

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By Mort
Mar 6, 2013
Hi Stoned Master,

I'm with you when it comes to meditation. I prefer dynamic meditation in the form of climbing. We discuss a whole host of tips in our book. Many of them revolve around retraining your brain by re-writing scripts. Don had another post about all of that. The approach comes from Cognitive Science.

Speaking of which, you asked about textbooks and academic readings. We draw on those and our personal experience. We both have been climbing for a long time, over 35 years for me. However, I AM a psychology prof and love science. It fascinates me to see the theories in action at the crag. I also find that I am more influenced by training advice when I understand the science behind it. That's why I like Goddard and Neumann's "Performance Rock Climbing." We try to take a similar approach, but we are more focused on mental training.

Jeff

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By The Stoned Master
Administrator
From Pennsylvania
Mar 6, 2013
Day Lily.
I appreciate both of your responses. I enjoy the subjects you are studying/speak of and I've enjoyed your work thus far. Meditation, science and climbing together! My three favorite subjects all together. I love it! I will look for your book.

P.s. "performance rock climbing" is an amazing book. I found it used years ago and have been blown away since. Fantastic read, wonderful insight. Enjoy!

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By Mort
Aug 14, 2014
Our book (Vertical Mind) has been out for almost 6 months. You can find it at sharpendbooks.com, verticalmindbook.com, Amazon, or chesslerbooks.com

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