King of the Mountain: How Climbing Changes your Mental Health for the Better
Climbing is all about physical fitness and stronger muscles, right? Wrong.
While those two attributes are definitely a huge part, they aren’t the complete picture. Climbing can help improve your mental health in profound ways. The effect is so strong that some therapists will even advise their clients to take up climbing as a part of their broader treatment for depression, anxiety or PTSD.
Curious how this works? Check out these incredible ways that climbing affects your mental health.
There’s something about dominating a rock face that gives you a tremendous confidence boost.
Imagine standing on the top of a cliff that you just scaled. The world is splayed out at your feet, maybe there’s a silver river down there or groves of green trees. And you’re standing above all of it — looking down.
But you don’t have to climb rugged rock faces in the middle of nowhere for this confidence boost. Especially in the beginning, scaling to the top of a rock wall at your local climbing gym still makes you feel pretty damn amazing. With your fellow climbers cheering you on, you’ve reached an amazing goal and are ready to move on to the next one.
Why is this so impactful? It isn’t just the sense of conquering the rock wall. It’s the reward that your brain gives you for your efforts. Experts call this promoting self-efficacy.
It means that every time you master a new skill or technique you get an incentive to keep going. In other words, you feel good about your accomplishments and are encouraged to master something else.
Why? Well, your brain gets a flood of dopamine, which makes you feel really good. This is a big part of your brain’s reward system, which is designed to encourage you to do things that are healthy for your body and mind.
Have you ever struggled to concentrate? Maybe you felt like your brain was in a fog or you had trouble remembering things.
Climbing regularly can help boost your concentration. You need to be able to focus on what you’re doing so that you don’t fall off the wall. You have to map out your route in your head and keep your next handholds and footholds in mind as you move.
Not paying attention can get you stuck in a corner or falling off the wall short of completing the route. And just as with other mental or physical qualities, practice makes them stronger.
Would you call yourself a coordinated person? Can you pat yourself on the head while rubbing your tummy in a circular motion? We’ll wait while you try it…
Not everyone can do this action. However, you can improve your coordination through certain activities like, you guessed it, rock climbing.
You might wonder why this seemingly physical attribute is on a list of mental benefits. Well, your physical coordination is controlled by your brain. Your mental health has a profound effect on your physical coordination and vice versa.
Climbers also call on problem-solving skills when on the wall. They have to figure out where to place their feet and hands to get from point A to point B. It isn’t always as simple as it might seem.
Again, practice makes perfect. Thus, regular climbing on a variety of walls whether in a gym or on a rock face helps hone those problem-solving skills.
Exercise as a therapy for trauma sufferers has already been used for years. Physical activity improves mental health by boosting the production of chemicals like serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These chemicals affect our mood and mental health so strongly they have been dubbed the “happy chemicals.”
Regular climbing is an excellent way to get physical exercise. As you’re scaling the wall, you’ll be stressing and stretching muscles you didn’t even know you had.
Climbing can be a harsh taskmaster. When exercising on the ground, you can always stop and take a break when you need. This isn’t so easy when you’re clinging to a rock wall with several feet between you and the floor.
Now mix this physical exercise aspect with some of the mental health benefits we’ve talked about. The combination soothes trauma and helps people recover faster and more healthily.
The technique has seen such success that, according to Katharina Luttenberger’s 2015 study, “therapeutic bouldering” may offer an effective treatment for depression. Think about it, wouldn’t it be hard to stay depressed when you just conquered a rock wall?
We don’t mean to say that depression will go away immediately when you start climbing. However, regular participation in the activity will certainly help!
Climbing can provoke a rush of strong emotions. These range from feeling elated because of reaching a goal to feeling fearful when you realize how high you are.
Regardless, you are exposed to strong emotions while climbing. This gives you practice in how to handle them. In fact, this 2019 study found that sport climbing has an overall positive effect psychologically over a period of 3 months.
A sudden fear rising because of how high you are can’t be ignored. You also can’t give in to it or you might fall off the rock wall. Instead, you have to take a deep breath, calm your mind and figure out your next move.
See what’s happening here? Not only are you practicing concentration and problem-solving skills but also practicing how to control a strong emotion.
This is extremely useful in many situations. It doesn’t matter whether you’re battling fear, anger, or sadness. Learn to control your emotions and they won’t control you.
Standing on Top of the World
Mental health is just as important as physical health, though we don’t always talk about it. It also might seem that treating mental health is more complicated.
In reality, the answer can be simple and it’s only hard to find because trying something new can be intimidating.
Want to learn more?
Join us here at Oso Climbing Gyms for a unique climbing experience. We aren’t just a climbing gym, we offer all sorts of resources to meet you where you are and improve your mental and physical health. Start your climbing journey today!