All humans are born with 2 fears, a fear of loud noises and a fear of falling. Apart from these 2 fears, all of our other fears have been learned and stored unconsciously.
Fears can be useful and instructive and being afraid can be thought of as a useful and welcome emotion. Every day fear can teach us to be cautious and it can also teach us to be ambitious. Phobias however are fears taken to an extreme level and ones that can create a significant reaction simply by using our imagination. Phobias are neither useful or rational and they can lead to unhelpful and even dangerous emotions or behaviours.
It surprises me how there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information out there regarding climbing and fears, and as a coach who works with phobias and fear, especially with climbers, I’m often curious about how a lack of vocabulary brings about a difficulty for people to understand and explore their own boundaries in climbing.
Climbers can have all manner of potential common factors regarding fears and phobias and I would like to share a list I have compiled so that I can provide you with some food for thought. If you experience panic in your climbing then perhaps this list will help you on your journey to explore and understand yourself and your climbing a little better.
It is important to note that our fears are created by our own unconscious mind and based on our own unique life experience, they are highly individualised, and any list, description or diagnoses may not perfectly fit what you experience. Sometimes a fear is triggered by many things and it is complex to navigate, at other times it may be triggered by one specific thing.
A phobia does not have to be a permanent condition. It has been created and stored unconsciously, and by working with the unconscious mind the phobia can be released and you can have more choice and freedom back into your life.
Acrophobia – A fear of being higher than ground level. Even when in safe or even low down situations such as looking out of a window or standing on a raised platform. Acrophobia is the true name for a fear of heights.
Ancraophobia – A fear of wind, this may be at all times, or in certain contexts such as when at the crag or on a climb.
Basophobia – A fear of falling. This is a natural response in all humans and many animals, and it is an important one for us to listen to whilst we climb. However an extreme or irrational fear or reaction of falling such as even when we are more than physically capable of remaining safe and in control is when a fear of falling can become a phobia.
Bathmophobia – A fear of slopes or stairs.
Bathophobia – A fear of depths, such as looking down into bodies of water or caves and not seeing the floor. A problem for those wanting to deep water solo or sea cliff climb.
Illyngophobia – The fear of experiencing the sensations of vertigo*.
Agoraphobia – A fear of being in open situations where escape might be difficult or help won’t be available. The agora was a central public space in ancient Greek towns. Agoraphobia is commonly known as a fear of open spaces, it is a more complex phobia as it can be linked with social fears and a variety of different contexts.
*A note on Vertigo. Vertigo is not a fear of heights, nor is it the surreal and uncomfortable desire to jump off from a height (see below). In its purest form it is a medical condition that gives the sensation of dizziness along with possible other sensations such as nausea and reduced motor control. People with vertigo can experience these sensations during their ordinary day to day lives, even whilst walking or standing still.
Climbers can experience sensations very similar to those of vertigo especially if they have a fear that is related to spatial awareness and motor control.
High Places Phenomenon – The sensation of wanting to jump when standing/climbing in a high place. https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/04/09/high-places-phenomenon/
Post Traumatic Stress (in the context of climbing) – Being in a situation so stressful or painful that it created a significant emotional event. The memory will be triggered from time to time at which point the person will experience the emotions and sensations as if they are reliving it. The trigger(s) may or may not be known. It is worth noting that the incident may not have necessarily have happened whilst rock climbing, for instance it may have come from having experienced or witnessed an accident where someone fell from height in an urban environment.
For more information on phobias how they are formed and how they can be changed take a look at my blog on a fear of spiders, Overcoming a traumatic climbing memory or my UKC article on Climbing and Social Fears.
Tom Powell is a coach and talking therapist who uses a range of techniques to help people move past their sticking points and to reach their goals. He specialises in working with phobias and working with climbers and has helped people with fears of spiders, heights, vertigo, needles, and more. He lives and works in Bristol and spends his free time going on adventures and enjoying the world.