Addressing My Depression & Anxiety Through A Climbing Lifestyle

In the past several issues of Serve Daily we have discussed ice & mixed climbing and drytooling. Technical aspects of the sport were introduced to the readers so as to help us gain an understanding of what appears to be an overall healthy lifestyle. As previously mentioned, diet, exercise, flexibility, strength, self-reliance balanced with camaraderie and a strong sense of community were all identified as components that make up the climbing community. 

Most of the benefits of this healthy lifestyle appear as external markers or outwardly visual cues that persons who are regularly involved in the climbing community are generally living a healthy and fulfilled life. However, in the current times that we live in, depression, anxiety, isolation, suicide ideation and suicide itself are all afflicting people in all walks of life including the climbing community.  

As a father of 10 children, 4 of which are adopted, I have felt the pressures of life over the years as many of you have. Finances, home/auto repairs, job loss, daily family management, personal/family spiritual development, illness/injuries etc.have all been a part of my life. With a spouse who has worked full-time outside of our home we learned to divide up household duties and nurture our children to the best of our abilities despite our demanding work schedules.

Underlying this family “life” was climbing life. The motivation to carve out weekly agreed upon time for strength/technique workouts, mindfulness/visualization/meditation, daily stretching, healthful food preparation, continuing technical education, first aid training and, actually climbing, all gave me a direction and purpose to do better and be better in all aspects of “real life” as a citizen, husband, father, employee and business owner. 

Owing to some unknown issues in 2019, I was overwhelmed with life and spent weeks struggling to stay out of bed during the day, get adequate sleep at night, take care of my parenting/household duties and work on my business. A darkness that I couldn’t shake kept me looping depressive thoughts about perceived failures of my past and highly anxious thoughts about future plans and responsibilities. I was, however, able to fall back to the baseline of exercising 2-3 times a week, eating mostly healthful foods and stretching daily. I wasn’t able to climb, run or mountain bike due to my lethargic state of mind but the occasional thoughts of what it would be like to do those activities again kept me engaged, at least mentally, in the climbing lifestyle. 

This all came to a head one day with some new, low-level stressful family event that unleashed a tidal wave of loud incessant voices which had been growing in force. They reasoned that based on my past choices I was no longer fit to be here and that there was no purpose in continuing forward since I held no value to my spouse, family, community because I was only able to lay in bed and feel sad. I was overwhelmed and frightened by the suggestions to end my life but almost seemed powerless to disagree.

It was almost at the same moment I suddenly became angry and very aware of what had been happening for the past several dark months.

Climbing has always been for me a physical AND mental game and while climbing I am constantly monitoring the balance between the two. The subconscious mind recognizes the absurdity of climbing and tries to shut you down mentally with a constant stream of negative comments or thoughts about why you shouldn’t be doing it. Learning to separate fact from fiction in that moment as you dangle from the edge of a tricky sequence on the rock or ice is critical to success. Learning to find peace and flow-state while climbing is even better. This is accomplished through voluntary, graduated exposure to climbing techniques under non-stressful situations and then voluntarily practicing in more and more stressful or challenging situations. If left unchecked, at precisely the wrong moment while climbing at or near your limits, the subconscious mind will say almost anything to make you retreat and conserve calories. 

I recognized, as the anger washed over me, that the “voices” I had been listening to were not outside-of-me-voices, but my own subconscious voice trying to ‘shut down the system.”

 I had reached in my personal, family and professional life what is sometimes known as “The Terror Barrier.” A place or point where the subconscious mind decides it will not go voluntarily past in regards to changes in dropping old behaviors, taking needed self-improvement actions or forming new, positive habits, That same internal voice that I knew from climbing was outed as the culprit for my depression and anxiety over the past few months but at a much deeper level.

 As I reflected on this in the moment of anger, I was shown how there had been a definite uptick in 2019 to change my behaviors in a myriad of positive ways, not in just one or two areas of my life but spiritually, physically, financially, professionally and familially. It was too much, too fast and the primal calorie counting, self-preservation mechanism had reached its saturation point. It was as if I was dangling on the edge of a personal breakthrough, about to successfully complete a myriad of changes that were critical to the success of my marriage, my family, my businesses and unbeknownst to me at the time, helping others with struggles they would face associated with the CV-19 Pandemic a mere 6 months later.  

“The Voice” came back a few hours later and I listened to its looping fear stories and then told it to shut up. Numerous times over the next few days it came back but each time I forcefully shut it down. Each time I did so the darkness of the past several weeks began dissipating. I felt as if I was moving upward and forward. I went on a hike in the mountains and got a needed chemical infusion of Vitamin D in my brain. I went for a mountain bike ride and got positive endorphins released into my brain. I read the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear and learned how to create new habits without triggering the subconscious mind. I read the book “The 5 Second Rule” by Mel Robbins and learned how to train and work with the subconscious mind. I read the book, “This Is Your Brain on Food” by Uma Naldoo which helped me understand higher quality foods that helped regulate my wild brain/mood swings.  I lowered my caffeine usage and began studying “clean” sleep habits which eliminated most of my feelings of anxiety. I followed up on a climbing work opportunity and spent the rest of the summer working in Moab teaching climbing and mountain biking. 

When CV-19 started I was on the top of my game in a myriad of areas and had one of my best seasons ever ice and rock climbing. More importantly was the sharing of that positive energy and lessons I had learned in 2019 with family, friends and strangers who were now suffering from the mental stress and fatigue of a worldwide pandemic.

As a final note, please seek professional medical help and counseling for  challenges associated with depression, anxiety, suicide ideation or anger. Talk to people and tell them what is going on in your head. As a society we are doing much better at reaching out and talking about those feelings but we must do better. My success is due to divine intervention and a stubborn will that climbing has developed over the years that I have played the game. Your mileage may vary. I opted to change my sleep habits, clean up my eating, reduce caffeine, increase lifting of heavy objects and spend consistent time outside which have all created a much more mentally stable and peaceful me.

Submitted by Richard Harrison

Guest Contributor
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Articles from community members to share their viewpoints, or letter to the editor.

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