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I am wondering if anyone else has experienced fear/panic that gets in the way of bouldering, and what their tips are for dealing with this. (There is a prior question on fear in lead climbing, but my issue is specific to bouldering. I climb indoors.)

Basically, I am a relatively new (1.5yrs) climber with a mental hang-up about bouldering. I am specifically scared of taking a fall off a boulder problem and hurting my foot. The essence of the problem is the fear of an uncontrolled fall. When a move at any height feels anything less than 100% sure to stick, I panic. The higher I am, the more certain I have to be the next move is completely safe. The top two moves or so of any problem are always really challenging because I panic even if they are straight up jugs. When this happens I get tunnel vision, rapid breathing, intense feelings of fear etc, and have to downclimb and/or take a controlled jump. The problem has just been getting worse and worse lately. Because of this issue, I have not just stopped advancing, I have actually regressed in bouldering ability. It has become bad enough that I just don't want to boulder anymore - I get anxiety just thinking about going on the wall, and would much rather spend all my time top roping (I don't lead climb yet).

I know where this originates: just a few months into climbing, I hurt my ankle when taking a fall off a simple boulder problem at an unfortunate angle. It didn't completely heal on its own, so after a few months I saw a physical therapist, with whom I worked for another few months. Now it has been over a year since the fall, and the ankle is finally getting up above 90% of what it used to be (though I still can't go running). I am completely mentally hung up on this happening again. I love going on top-rope walls, because even if I fall, I am not worried about landing wrong. I can top-rope 5.9s but the same moves feel impossible on a boulder wall. Lately, I have been unable to even top out v0 (on good days, when the panic doesn't visit, I can top v2). Even on good days, this issue prevents me from actually improving as a climber on the boulder wall. It's not clear to me why the fear is getting more intense as more time passes from the injury.

Things that don't work (for me): pushing through the panic (trying to defy it just seems like adding fuel to the fire). And taking more controlled falls has not been super helpful: the real issue is getting myself to take a risk at an uncontrolled fall, and it's like my body refuses to even attempt those moves.

Anyone had similar issues? What did you do?

Edit: Also, any general ideas on what I could try to overcome this?

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    It sounds like you just don't enjoy climbing unprotected, so why not switch to roped climbing instead? – Ben Crowell Oct 31 '15 at 18:52
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    I posted the lead climbing question - and I also have a similar thing about the last move on bouldering problems (though not as intense). The answers on the lead question help for this too. Specifically, wait (if you can) until the fear subsides (deep breathing, focus on peripheral vision etc), then make the move. I also find if there is something am really stuck on it helps to get the initial moves of the problem really slick, then just give it a break and come back to it an hour or two later. – aucuparia Nov 2 '15 at 10:40
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    Can you practice falling? – endolith Jul 17 '17 at 2:02
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Generally speaking fear is an appropriate and healthy response to many of the situations you will find yourself in while rock climbing. Learning how to control, overcome, and even benefit from that fear is a key mental skill in life and climbing. Furthermore, learning to be comfortable on the rock will improve your climbing by allowing you to figure out sequences easier, give you increased endurance because you aren't wasting energy over-gripping, etc.

The best antidote, in my opinion, to paralyzing fear is confidence in your ability to handle the situation. So I believe your question boils down to: "How can I increase my confidence."

Here are some ways you can increase your confidence on rock:

  1. Improve your strength.
    • A less physically taxing problem is a less intimidating problem. When you're stronger all problems are less physically taxing.
    • You can stop below the crux to throughly analyze it, and more comfortably.
    • You have the physical reserves retreat/reset when you recognize your approach to the problem is flawed.
    • You can compensate (partially) for poor technique. While not ideal I've seen this happen.
    • You can reach further to bypass marginal intermediate holds and/or be more selective in the holds you use.
  2. Improve your technique.
    • Improving your technique means that you don't have to rely on strength. That means you gain all or most of the benefits of strength without becoming stronger.
    • Better technique offers new ways to approach a problem that you hadn't considered before. In ice climbing they use a technique called a figure-4. I've never used it on rock but it demonstrates a novel solution to a problem.
    • Improved ability to position your body intentionally so you can be efficient on the rock, and mitigate hazards (like making sure you won't fall on the spiky rock).
  3. Rehearse the climb.
    • If you have the climb "wired" on top rope then you will be more confident on that route on lead.
    • Often you can practice sections of a climb independently. That will build your confidence in those individual sections so you only need to be concerned about linking up the climb.
  4. Climb similar routes. This is really just a mashup of points 2 and 3.
    • If you know climb X involves lots of off-width crack climbing you can gain confidence on shorter/easier climbs with off-width crack climbing before you try climb X.
  5. Climb with people of better and worse skill/ability than yourself.
    • Being mentored by a better climber allows you to feed off of their confidence, and learn new approaches to a problem.
    • Mentoring junior climbers allows you to feed off the confidence that the junior climbers have in you. It also forces you to analyze why you do X when you're in situation Y when the junior climbers ask for tips.
    • You clearly see the mistakes the climbers you're mentoring and/or your peers are making. This allows you to reflect on whether you're making the same mistakes.
  6. Spend time climbing.
    • The more time you're exposed to something the more natural it feels. I remember when I first drove a car over 50 mph I was very nervous. Now I regularly drive 70+ without any major concerns.
    • Being a Yank and a childhood fan of Louis L'amour I feel a cowboy reference is appropriate here. There is an old adage that if you're bucked out of the saddle the best thing to do is climb back on as soon as possible. The idea is that fear grows when you feed it. By facing your fears you often learn that the thing you feared isn't as bad as you imagined.
  • +1 Good advice for any activity, except for the bit about regularly driving at 70+ mph. I hope this is just on straight roads with dividers. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Feb 17 at 21:49
  • @ab2 regularly was a bit hyperbolic but the freeway speed limit goes from 65 to 75 just outside of my town, so anytime I leave town on the freeway I'm driving 75 mph. – Erik Feb 18 at 16:08
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Anyone had similar issues?

Several years ago I sprained my ankle. I was lead-climbing a route that was a bit over my technical skills. I was in an overhanging segment above and sideways to my last bolt. I fell, swung, got tangled with the belay rope, started spinning, and hit my foot against the rock.

I stopped climbing and started recovery. At this point I became careful about all my physical activities.

A month later I embarrassingly fell on even floor in a supermarket and hurt my ankle further. At this point I became a bit fearful.

Six months later while trekking I stepped on a loose rock, fell, and hurt myself even further. At this point I became panicked and maybe close to depressed.

What did you do?

I relied on being well informed to overcome my fear. Specifically, I did my best to understand what physical therapy could do for me.

A good therapy will:

  • Heal the damaged tissue.
  • Strengthen the muscles.
  • Gain back flexibility.

The first one is pretty obvious, but the other two deserve a few words.

Once the first healing phase is over, what you're trying to accomplish with therapy is to avoid the injury if you happen to have another accident. Strength and flexibility play a huge role in being able to sustain another fall without injuring yourself.

And here's the rub: Your ankle may be stronger and more flexible than before you had your accident. You may be less susceptible to injury.

I have since had a couple of episodes where the stress to my ankle have been bigger than the time I got sprained. I'm not a therapist, so I can only assume that YMMV. But for me, knowing that my ankles are more resilient than before helped me overcome my fear.

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