On climbing and anxiety

My heart thuds in my chest so hard that I’m sure I’m having a heart attack. I gasp for air and each breath is short and unsatisfying. Everything closes in around me and every muscle tenses. It’s at this point I either freak out completely or I talk myself off the ledge. When it happened the other day as I dangled from a very high wall at the climbing gym I had no choice but to literally talk myself off the ledge. Thank god for yoga breathing. It works. I sit in my harness for what feels like hours, but is likely maybe 30 seconds, trying to slow my breath down but I am so aware of Zeke down below, belay glasses on so he sees me in a magnified panicked state.

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Looking through belay glasses. (Photo from Wikipedia.org)

“Just move your foot up to the hold on your right!” He yells from below me. I don’t want to move my foot, and yet I do want to. But I’m frozen. I have worked through these panic attacks before…and not just on the climbing wall.

I remember having my very first panic attack at the age of 17. I was at a local theatre with some friends and it was hot and crowded and I was stressed out for some high school type reason. Suddenly all of the above happened and I collapsed in the crowd. My friends rushed me outside and the cool, crisp air brought me back. It was probably something I should have taken note of, but I brushed it aside. I had no idea what it might mean down the road.

I didn’t have another panic attack for years, but nearly ten years later in grad school, after a break up, I developed severe insomnia which has continued to this day. I have tried everything you can imagine to improve my sleep and yet, I continue to be terrible sleeper. People always ask me, “so you stay awake at night? You can’t fall asleep? You wake up too early?” Hmm…how about all of the above? Luckily there are some things that do help me sleep through the night but it’s been a very long time since I have managed a drug free sleep. It’s on my very long to-do list.

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I am so envious of cats. They make sleeping look so easy. Maybe I need to be more like a cat.

So, about five years ago I went to the sleep clinic at the University of British Columbia, had a consult with a sleep doctor, did sleep tracking for a month and was told, “it’s all in your head. You have no physical problems. You just get anxious.” Yep, that was my “diagnosis.” I get anxious. No solution provided. No help given. Nothing. I was back to square one.

This past fall was a deeply stressful time for Zeke and I and during those months I had at least five panic attacks. Ones that scared me and shook me up and made me realize I had to tackle this problem head on. I went to my doctor in preparation for our move to Toronto just to re-up on all my medications and when I asked her about these panic attacks she casually said to me, “oh yes, I see here you were diagnosed with anxiety at the sleep clinic five years ago.” I sat there dumbfounded. I had always thought maybe it was depression, or something along those lines, but to have her tell me that I was diagnosed with anxiety five years before was a shock to my system. That’s five years I could have been finding solutions, researching, making sure I had everything I needed in order to be a healthy, happy person. Before I left the office she prescribed me some medication that might help but had side effects and sent me on my way.

It wasn’t until about an hour after I left her office that I thought of the question I should have asked, “why didn’t the sleep doctor tell me this five years ago? Why didn’t the doctor give me any advice at all?”

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Sometimes I feel like my anxiety and sleep issues are like a giant treadwall -constantly climbing and never getting anywhere.

There are days where leaving the house feels like an enormous task. There are days where making a list of the tasks I need to do feels like an even more enormous task. I have found and I’m finding my own personal ways to combat my anxiety, but so many times it is beyond me. I’m slowly learning that this is okay. That I’m only human. That the fact that it’s “all in my head” means that it is in my head and it is a mental health issue. Aren’t our heads part of our bodies mister sleep doctor?

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And here’s one of the great ironies that life just loves to wrap us up in. Climbing helps me combat my anxiety, in addition to giving me the odd panic attack. As I hung on that wall I couldn’t help feel that irony. And the shame I felt because of it. After Zeke lowered me down I couldn’t look him in the eyes. I walked around the corner and sat against a hidden wall, the tears threatening to burst through my protective emotional dam. I just couldn’t look at him. How could I not finish a route well within my skill level? Yes, I have an intense fear of heights and it had been a hard day, but I’ve been working on this every single week since I started climbing and I thought I’d made progress. I thought I’d moved forward, and then this happens.

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My thought here was something like, “my god why am I doing this again? The view…focus on the view.”

One of the most aggravating and yet wonderful things about climbing is that it never stops challenging you. Just when you think you are making progress, something new comes up to keep your ego in check. Just when you think – yep, I’ve got this fear of heights thing under control, you have a panic attack on the wall. It also forces you to find your happy place or you just don’t climb well. When you are stressed or unfocused or angry or upset – climbing is terrible. The moment you are able to breath out all the stresses of life and find that zone, the place where everything clicks…only then can you really climb. When I tell people I climb, so many people say to me, “oh man I wouldn’t have the upper body strength. I couldn’t do it.” Sure, it helps to have strong back and arm muscles, but I’m telling you, mental strength is the most important part of climbing. This is why this sport is so highly addictive to those who love it. It’s all encompassing. It forces you to be in the moment and in your body and most importantly, to “free your mind, and the rest will follow,”to quote En Vogue. It simply will not accept anything less. Damn, man. It’s awesome.

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In my zone at a climbing gym in Hamburg, Germany.

And so the battle continues…both in climbing and in life. One thing I have learned in recent years is, we never really know what another person is dealing with, so our default setting should be compassion. Let’s all be a little kinder. Let’s all learn to talk openly about mental health issues. The strongest person you know may have struggles that you can’t even imagine.

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Despite my smile here this was moments after having a serious panic attack on my first day of outdoor top roping in Portugal.

To all of you who have battles of your own, I salute you for your daily efforts, for how you try to balance life and health and happiness and work and family and friends and..you name it. I think the late and great Bowie had it right folks, it sure ain’t easy.

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