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How I use climbing to improve my mental wellbeing

How I use climbing to improve my mental wellbeing

HoldBreaker Team |

Growing up, I was laughably clumsy. I struggled with depression and never felt present in my own body, which caused me a great deal of insecurity when experimenting with team sports. Climbing eventually entered my life and acted as a therapeutic approach to treatment for my depressive symptoms. When my mind was constantly trying to escape my body, climbing forced me to return to the present. This inadvertent mindfulness practice shifted my negative symptoms into something productive and fulfilling.


After many failed hobbies, climbing was the only one that stuck. I tried cycling, playing the banjo, glass blowing, and soccer, but every time I would reach a plateau, I’d just throw in the towel. Climbing seemed to have everything that was missing from my former pastimes: a social scene, exercise that didn’t feel like a chore, and a purpose. This culmination of factors ultimately led climbing to monopolize my time and, in turn, teach me not to give up.

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Climbing has long been featured in wilderness therapy programmes, but recently, scientific developments have been made in regards to climbing’s impact on treatment for depression. Clinical evidence suggests that climbing may be a legitimately effective form of treatment. As an alternative mind-body therapy, climbing becomes a catalyst for improved mood. Climbing won’t “cure” depression, but you may as well add it to your treatment plan.



The community

Climbers are usually found hanging out with other climbers. Who else knows what it means to “chuff” or “punt”, right? Within the gyms, crags, and mountains, we all share a passion for the sport. We make weird motions with our bodies while staring at rocks, share beta, and hold one another’s lives in our hands. The generally supportive climbing community provides us with friendship, opportunity, and trust.


Mental illness tends to test our relationships with others, making recovery even more cumbersome. Lucky, climbing is far removed from work, family, and all of the other typical life stressors. Climbing buddies are practically in a separate realm from everyone else. There’s my boring normal life and my climbing life. Climbing life is always preferable. We get to be outside, travel, socialize, and cheer each other on. There’s something truly satisfying about feeling accepted into a community. Climbing can provide that sense of purpose and inclusion.



Physical activity

Countless studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between increased exercise and improved mental health. No question about it. There are the obvious benefits of building physical strength, fitness, and maintaining a healthy weight (not obsessively so). On the other hand, climbing specifically provides a diverse range of activity. From lengthy approaches to burly sequences, our bodies are tested and pushed to their limit. 

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Climbing is fun. Well, for most of us anyway. Compared with running on a treadmill or lifting, climbing yields way more mental stimulation. Beta is a puzzle-like sequence that requires the mind and body to work strategically in order to send.  There’s much less repetition, which makes climbing feel less like exercise and more like a game, but with the physical benefits of traditional exercise.



Tangible achievements

Grades, although incredibly frustrating at times, create a system for measuring progress. At first, progression between grades, particularly with sport climbing, can happen rather quickly, getting you hooked on overcoming numerical barriers. That learning curve amps up as our climbing ability progresses. Suddenly, the difference between v9 and v10 seems insurmountable… until it isn’t.


Sending hard is gratifying regardless of your ability level. For a moment, reward centres are activated and dopamine rushes through your brain. Theoretically, this rush of dopamine makes us feel happy, aroused, rewarded. The repeated failure that preceded success seems insignificant when a project is put to rest.

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Often, climbers get caught up on numbers. We compare ourselves to our peers that climb harder or differently than we do, but everything is subjective. Occasionally, your weaknesses are just part of your anatomy. We have to put our minds in check and climb for ourselves, not for Instagram followers or reputation. Grades don’t matter when something feels difficult for you. If you consider yourself a 5.12 climber getting shut down on a techy 10c, leave your ego at home and just try your best. That’s all we can really do anyway.



Name: Dawn Davis
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Instagram: @dwn_dvs


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