A blog by Sophie C
Sophie joined the BB staff team early in 2020, and spent much of her younger years training and competing in climbing comps. She competed in 5 consecutive USA national championships, specialising in speed climbing, and also represented in regional and divisional competitions in sport, speed and bouldering. During the Covid-19 lockdown she thought she'd share some of her thoughts on the relationship between mind and body in climbing and what her comp experience has taught her about it.
Mind and Body: The Physical Connection to your Emotions
As a climber I get frustrated with myself quite easily whether it be my inability to complete a climb, or the fact that my heel keeps escaping from the depths of my climbing shoe. When I was young, I climbed in high-pressure competition environments for 6 years, and this had a tremendous effect on my mental and physical abilities. There were sometimes up to thousands of people in the audience with all eyes on me, meanwhile I was supposed to be focusing on the climb and my performance – as you probably know, during a comp one mistake can end your season. Isolation is a whole separate story, personally I found it the worst part of competitions. Especially when you are one of the last people to climb, you are DOOMED because you have to sit there for several hours with the pressure and thoughts in your head constantly building up ready to attack your already fragile mental state. This can be more or less daunting depending on the person, but personally I struggled with this at every competition. Occasionally there would be other competitors so nervous they’d throw up, and many of them on the verge of tears. These feelings clearly took an effect on my ability to climb because I always performed better during the low-stress environments put forward during practices than the high-stress environments of competitions. The aim of this is to help show that your emotions have a much larger effect on your body than you might think.
Going back to GCSE Biology for a minute here, when you touch a hot stove an electrical impulse is sent to your brain telling you to pull your hand away before it becomes damaged beyond repair- the result being you can’t climb for a few months, and no one wants that do they? Emotions are the directors in the scene of your body. One of the key areas in your brain that recognizes the body’s reactions to emotions is called the limbic system. This is where the electrical impulse is sent when, for example, you are experiencing anger or fear. These emotions then cause your heartbeat to increase rapidly, as well as the hormone adrenaline being released which induces the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Historically, humans had these emotions, so they weren’t brutally ripped apart by a lion, or stepped on by a hippo, because you feel fear, and this tells the body to MOVE or RUN before it is eaten or smooshed. A current study conducted by the University of California, Berkley, submits that there are 27 basic human emotions, as opposed to the original 6. Although, there are many more that cannot be formed into words. These are pertinent to our survival; they tell our bodies what to do in a situation before we can form it into a thought. Some emotions are used in a different way to which they were initially meant. More recently they cause increasing negative effects, such as feeling disappointed when you didn’t get enough likes on your most recent post, where you crushed your last project.
A book called How To Be Human: The Manual by the comedian Ruby Wax includes the author discussing a ‘trade-off’ theory that explains this in more detail.
“Our mammalian brain is about 100 million years old (giving us some emotional range and ability to bond). About 200,000 to 500,000 years ago, an area of our brain known as the neocortex had a growth spurt, giving us the ability to plan, to self-regulate, to control our impulses and become aware of ourselves. With this more advanced part of our brain, we learned to speak, to use symbols, solve problems and imagine the future. The downside was we started to worry and ruminate about ‘what if?’ scenarios, not to mention the mother of all worries - knowing we're all going to die - which all adds up to make us a very jittery race."
A small tangent, but it is a great read and I would recommend to anyone trying to be more human.
The question is, how can I change my mentality so I will climb at my best ability? First and foremost, you must learn to regulate and control these emotions, so they do not get the best of you. There are several ways to do this, but one prime example is breathing. My mom (who is a yoga instructor) always tells me, “6 deep breaths will change your brain chemistry”. (Seriously, it improves your cortisol levels and attention span. Look it up!) What she means by this is by deep breathing and focusing only on that, you can change your mood comprehensively. An adequate way to do this is by meditating, because you can practice your breathing in a controlled environment. It is always better to meditate for a short time rather than a longer time so that it is easier to focus your mind, and it doesn’t feel forced. Guided meditation is a good way to practice this zoning of your mind for novices, here are a few examples:
- The first is known commonly as The Golden Ball of Light Guided Meditation. You begin by sitting or lying in a comfortable position and taking slow, deep breaths in and out 3 to 5 times. The last time you breathe in take a short pause, and as you exhale imagine you are releasing a foggy cloud, then breathing in clean, fresh air. This is releasing physical and mental toxins. Repeat this another 3 to 5 times. After this the next time you breathe in imagine a warm and sunny light entering your body, then you exhale the same warm and sunny light. As you breathe this in it becomes a bubble in your stomach, and as it continues the bubble becomes more pronounced. The bubble grows large enough to touch the people next to you, and then is released and starts to travel up into the sky where it eventually falls back to the earth over everything. The ‘ball of light’ is a metaphor for positive attitudes and feelings. The ability to access this will allow you to stay calm.
- The next is simply sitting or lying in a comfortable position and breathing in and out slowly and deeply while repeatedly saying “ohm” when you exhale. The word creates a vibration that can be felt in your body and is meant to be the spiritual sound of the universe. It will also help to say this if your mind begins to wander and you become distracted to re-focus your mind.
- A third example of a guided meditation is known as “yoga nidra”, this is mainly for relaxation. Firstly, you lie down, then you begin to work your way up the body relaxing each part as it comes to your mind. Beginning with your feet, then ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, ribs, fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arm, shoulders, neck, and finally, face. This is a great way to practice complete relaxation of your body and mind. Applying this technique before a climb, perhaps, will help to clear your mind so you are able to have a more enjoyable session. Or before a competition will allow you to focus properly and perform at your peak ability.
All of these are great examples of guided meditations. They are more helpful if you can find a yoga class where an instructor will talk you through the meditation. This allows you to reap the full benefit of the practice. Although, it is possible to complete these on your own as well.
Meditation and deep breathing are some of the best ways to control your emotions because they can help you find peace in any situation. This can be applied to climbing, for example, when you become angered by a certain climb. You can take a few deep breaths (in my opinion 6 is the best number) and find the calm you need to work the climb more successfully. My old coach used to tell me to “use my anger to finish the climb”, which in a way is exactly what is happening here. By controlling those emotions, they can be channeled and changed to become more constructive.
Sophie joined the BB staff team early in 2020, and spent much of her younger years training and competing in climbing comps. She competed in 5 consecutive USA national championships, specialising in speed climbing, and also represented in regional and divisional competitions in sport, speed and bouldering.
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