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By Meghan S. Supervisor, Hub Climbing

By Meghan S. Supervisor, Hub Climbing

How rock climbing helps my mental health

Trying something new

“I just don’t feel like it’s my thing,” I said. It was my dad’s 59th birthday and he wanted me to go indoor rock climbing with him. He’d been climbing for about a year, and was obsessed with it. Understandably, he wanted me to join him at the gym to celebrate this birthday milestone. I don’t know where I got the idea that climbing wouldn’t be my thing, but looking back, I think it was probably just the fear of trying something new and being bad at it, or looking silly – as it often is. But it was my dad’s birthday, so I went climbing. Surprisingly, I actually had a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say it was love at first hold, but it was pretty close. Fueled with this new found passion, I committed to a one month membership a few short weeks later. In another week, I bought my own climbing shoes and harness. I noticed I was really improving and consistently climbing higher grades. Originally, it was just supposed to be for fun – I never expected the overwhelmingly positive impact rock climbing would have on my life. There’s a lot of different stories I could tell you about how rock climbing has changed my life, but right now I want to talk about what is probably the most significant one: the impact it has had on my mental health.

My brain is “always on”

See, since I was very young, I have suffered from anxiety, depression, and OCD. My brain is always on – overthinking things, obsessing about tiny events, worrying, stressing – honestly, it’s almost constant. Social anxiety has always had a huge effect on me as well – I was very shy as a kid and found it hard to make friends. Growing up, I hated playing team sports and games that involved teamwork because I just got too anxious, knowing everyone on my team was counting on me. It didn’t help that I was also really hard on myself when I lost, hating the feeling of letting the team down. Recently I tried playing soccer again, and although I played for a few years, that feeling hasn’t really gone away. I still got anxious and felt extremely pressured – what many think of as a fun sport, wasn’t so fun for me. I wanted an escape from my anxieties, and being physically active definitely helped, but I just knew team sports wasn’t for me. For a long time I didn’t know what other option there was, I had almost exhausted every sport I could think of but nothing was the right fit. I just lived with the constant noise in my head, and thought it would be like that forever.

Complete focus on the now

And then, on my dad’s birthday, out of nowhere, rock climbing came along – something I never would have even considered doing before – and (without sounding too cheesy) it changed my life. Turns out, climbing quieted my brain. It gave me relief. I found that when I was climbing, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I wasn’t worrying about the next day or stressing over something that happened the day before, I was completely focused on what I was doing. If I didn’t focus, the consequence was simple, I fell. Naturally, one’s body and brain do not want to fall. To climb you have to be in the moment, both mentally and physically. And as the routes increase in difficulty, the more focus they require. Another thing I loved? It was just me up there. No one was counting on me, and one else’s hopes and aspirations were pinned on whether or not I made it up that route successfully. The only person invested in my success was myself and whether or not I made it to the top was entirely up to me. Knowing that all my successes and all my potential failings were my own, it brought me peace that I had not found anywhere else in my life.

The gift of the present

In the summer of 2018, I left my small climbing gym and bought a one month membership at Hub Climbing in Markham. It marked a turning point for me – climbing went from being a casual hobby to something that I couldn’t live without. As I climbed more often, harder grades, and really improving, I started feeling that peace more and more often. It was like the outside world, and my everyday life, just shut off while I was at the climbing gym. As soon as I touched that first hold and stepped off the ground, I was focused on the moment. Living in that exact moment, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow, the next ten minutes, or even the next two minutes. Completely present – nothing mattered except the next hold and how I was going to get to it.

Mindfulness, both on and off the climbing walls

With anxiety, depression, and OCD, I am always either living in the past, or worried about the future. The fact that climbing forces me to focus on the moment and be present is invaluable. For the past 2 years I have been climbing at least 3-4 times a week. Amazingly, my brain has started to adapt, and learned to stay more present all the time, not just when I’m at the climbing gym. I feel like my emotions are more balanced now, I can control them better. Most of the time, I am a calmer person. Rock climbing did that for me. I’m not going to say it fixed everything, because that’s honestly not true. Mental illness is not a switch that can be turned off and on, and it’s definitely not something that can just be eliminated by starting a new sport. Realistically, I still have bad days, and sometimes bad weeks. But climbing helps. It gives me relief. It’s my therapy.

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