WHAT HAPPENS TO US WHEN WE ARE AFRAID

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In the past, I've written several articles in cooperation e.g. with the UKC Magazine, addressing the topic of how to conquer the fear of falling in climbing. However, I have never really talked about the backround information – why are we afraid? What happens to us? How do we react to it and on which levels can you generally work to improve here? I'd like to roll up this topic from a theoretical sport psychological backround in this blog post. 

Being afraid – e.g. the fear of falling in sport climbing – is one of the biggest mental irritations that I bet nearly every one of us has already experienced in the past when sport climbing – no matter whether you’re a beginner, hobby climber or pro. If we specifically talk about the fear of falling, we can for sure say that some of us can naturally deal better with this fear, others have mentally trained for years to improve it. Being afraid of falling is a primal human instinct. Since the human race started existing, our brain has stored the information that an uncontrolled and insecure fall can lead to serious injuries or even death. It’s a safety mechanism to which our body reacts in different ways: stress hormones are distributed, our breathing becomes flat, our stomach and intestines tighten up or we start sweating. Some of us might even experience complete black-outs due to panic attacks. However, these biological reactions and mental boundaries save numerous mountaineers, hikers, or alpinists every year because our fear of falling is a natural safety mechanism.

But also for other types of fear – e.g. competition fear – we can say that some of us can naturally deal better with this fear, others have mentally trained for years to improve it. Fear is defined as a subjective experienced threat which in turn can endanger our self-confidence, physical ability and insecurity. 

What are the symptoms of fear?

When we are afraid we can show symptoms on three different levels: motorical, physical and behavioural. On a motorical level, the execution of our movements declines, movements become shorter and they look tense. Our rhythm and harmony in doing the movements deteriorates. The impact of fear on a physical level can be observed in shallow breathing, accelerated pulse, a pale or blushed face, poor appetite, dry mouth and stomach troubles or intestinal complaints. Symptoms of fear on a behavioural level involve aggression, self-accusation, increased helpfulness, bossiness, showing off and arrogance or retreat. Maybe you have experienced these symptoms yourself? If not due to fear of falling, maybe you have experienced them as a sign of subjectively experienced stress in competition? On which level do you show the most symptoms? 

Motorical symptoms of fear can not only be falsely interpreted as signs of exhaustion but also lead to irritation. It's a vicious circle – fear leads to a change in our movements which in turn irritates us even more. Our rhythm of movements becomes less accurate, tensed, jumpy and inhibited. In climbing, we can particularly observe the following consequences: the time we need to send a route increases, the number of explorative movements rises as well as the duration of time of when we hold on to a hold. 

Obviously, actions dominated by fear rarely lead to peak performances. Why? Because our coordination skills decrease, our perception is distorted, we inappropriately interpret a situation and in order we increase the risk of falling. However, we can train to deal with our fear.

What are established strategies to overcome fear?

First of all, we have to deal with our internal stimuli and potential reasons where the fear derives from. What kind of physical symptoms do we show? Why are we afraid? What are we particularly afraid of – is it the whole process, is it the consequences? Are we maybe afraid of the far run-out or the gap between the quickdraws? If you're not afraid of falling but afraid of e.g. losing in a competition or not being able to do your best, you can ask yourself the same questions – the symptoms of fear and the strategies to overcome your fear are the same. What are you exactly afraid of, the competition as a whole or parts of it? The consequences – and if yes, why? 

Once you've elaborated where your fear derives from and which symptoms you show, there are two different approaches: a physical-somatic and a cognitive one.

The physical-somatic approach: Physical-somatic approaches include exercise for improved body perception and sensitivity as well as relaxation techniques, such as e.g. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR, Jacobson) or breathing techniques.

While training your relaxation by doing PMR, you can also prepare for the fear-inducing situations by confronting yourself with this situation mentally. Being in a complete relaxed state of mind, facilitates the (mental) exposition to the stimulus. Later, you should of course train to directly expose yourself to the fear-inducing situation. The more often you confront yourself with the situation mentally before, the better you'll be able to handle your fear later.

The cognitive approach: On a cognitive level, positive self-talk, stop of negative thoughts and rational thinking as well as attentiveness regulation techniques are just three examples of established strategies to overcome fear.

Why do e.g. relaxation methods work?

Here are some reasons: they lead to a reduction of our muscle tone, the open our path to our unconscious mind, our energy supply improves, sleeplessness can be prevented, it intensifies the effect of mental training and positive affirmations. Our concentration and attention is positively influenced and emotional reaction, such as fear or anger, are not as easily triggered after having relaxed. Furthermore, we increased our body perception.

To sum it up, we can learn how to deal with our fear and overcome it. We can improve of how we handle stress. There are different methods which are proven to work – if we experience fear in a certain situation, we have to find out which strategies we like the most and fit us best. The next step is to apply these strategies regularly and well in our training and everyday life. 

This article is based on several scientific studies on this topic. The list of them can be found under Literature. If you want further information, don't hesitate to contact me.

I offer scientific evaluated sport psychological trainings to learn how to practically deal the fear of falling. For more information about upcoming trainings, have a look under Events.