A Climber Confronts Anxiety

By Erica Carlson.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room…. Anxiety. We’ve all had to deal with it, we’ve all felt it, but none of us seem comfortable talking about it. We don’t want others to know that we’re experiencing it or that it was part of what caused us to fall, miss a hold, second guess the movement.

First, what is anxiety? Anxiety is defined as an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior. It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over something unlikely to happen. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry and uneasiness, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing. It is often accompanied by restlessness, fatigue, problems in concentration and muscular tension.

Erica at the Canadian Nationals. Photo by Pam Eveleigh. Courtesy Fiveten.com
Erica at the Canadian Nationals. Photo by Pam Eveleigh. Courtesy Fiveten.com

I’m going to come right out and say I recently dealt with the worst case of anxiety I’ve ever had. At first, I literally thought I was having a heart attack. Right before getting on Problem #3 in qualifiers at Canadian Nationals, I had the oddest sensation. My heart started beating a million miles an hour, I couldn’t breathe and I was honestly convinced I wouldn’t be able to get out of my chair at the buzzer.

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It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this, I’ve got a few high stress situations going on in my personal life that have brought it on as well. It’s just the worst I’ve ever experienced. (Don’t worry, I plan on getting it checked to ensure it is something as simple as anxiety.) I also place a lot of stiff expectations on myself and don’t ever really allow myself to measure up. Once I hit whatever it is I’ve been measuring myself on, I move the measuring stick and suddenly that’s no longer good enough.

Photo by Jeff Walker. Courtesy Fiveten.com
Photo by Jeff Walker. Courtesy Fiveten.com

I’ve also never been good at separating my expectations of myself with what I perceive others expect of me. Based on my climbing in the first half of the year, I felt that others would expect me to excel in nationals. I was heartbreakingly close to winning twice but still ended up with two respectable second place finishes and a third place finish at another comp.

I also still feel like I have something to prove in the climbing community. Although I’ve been told time and again that others see me as a fierce competitor, I don’t believe it and as a result always feel I’m never quite reaching the top of the measuring stick. I shouldn’t care what others expectations of me are. I also shouldn’t care if others see me as a threat in competitions and only concern myself with how I feel I competed. Did I move well? Was I in a solid head space? Most importantly, did I have fun?

Erica (left) at the Boulder World Cup in Vail, CO. Courtesy Bonuel Photography/Fiveten.com
Erica (left) at the Bouldering World Cup in Vail, CO. Courtesy Bonuel Photography/Fiveten.com

To try and bring myself back to a decent place, I focused hard on trying to regulate my breathing. I hoped this would help bring my heart rate back to an almost normal rate. I wasn’t banking on any sort of miracle, I just wanted to feel as though my heart wasn’t about to jump out of my chest!

Luckily, I was able to get out of my chair and start climbing. I can’t say I’m proud of my climbing after that point, I’m fairly disappointed in my climbing as a whole that day, but I have to see it as a win that I was able to control things as best as I could.

I just squeaked into semis and was able to make a small turn around moving up 5 places to 13th place in the end. I got myself through to bonus on all four problems and was able to keep my nerves in check and enjoy the climbing. A major win in comparison to the day before where I’d gotten so frustrated with my climbing I wasn’t at all focused on enjoying the movement and the experience. I’m not proud of the result but am proud that I was able to turn things around at least a bit.

Clearly, dealing with anxiety is something I need to work on. I think I understand what caused my anxiety so now I need to work on how I’m going to cope with this.

Erica at the Canadian Nationals. Photo by Pam Eveleigh. Courtesy Fiveten.com
Erica at the Canadian Nationals. Photo by Pam Eveleigh. Courtesy Fiveten.com

My first step is to try and change my view of anxiety. I was shown this TED talk video by my Calgary Climbing Centre teammate Jelisa Dunbar and it’s what I’m going to use to start this change.

I’m not a psychologist and can’t claim to know the best steps to fix this problem (if I did, I wouldn’t be having the issue to start with!). I can however try to learn ways that work best for me to overcome this. Hopefully, at some point, I’ll be able to report back with positive review overcoming this!

Reblogged from Five Ten. More by Erica Carlson here.