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The Mental Health Benefits of Climbing


Two fighter jets screeched through the air over the Greek island of Kalymnos, ripping the silence. I braced on the stone, limbs splayed on the monster tufas that drip from the Grande Grotta. The immense sound made me grasp the rock even harder in anticipation of falling bombs. Intellectually, I knew that Kalymnos was an unlikely target, but there was no denying my visceral terror. The goats on the hillside below and the birds darting in and out of the cave scattered, their peaceful morning reverie interrupted. The planes—Turkish jets, I would later learn—continued, perhaps to deliver lethal cargo to another land.

Four years ago, I clung to the rock, riddled with anxiety, breathing erratically. Slowly, as the roar of the jets dissolved and the silence returned, I began to climb again. The tips of my toes edged ever higher and my hands sunk into coarse, gold-stained pockets; the higher I climbed, the better I felt. Climbing, as it always does, had re-centered me. I grimaced thinking of those who hear this same roar followed by an even more terrible sound: the WHUMPF of bombs exploding all around them. This is a grim reality for many people in our world.

We live in times of global turmoil and strife. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that since the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, over 10 million Syrians have been displaced both internally and externally, while an estimated 5.6 percent of the total population in the Middle East is displaced. I wondered how those who live in war zones stay sane after all the trauma they have experienced; I wondered if they have something like climbing to re-center them.

Related: Can Climbing Be Used to Treat Depression?

Physical activity has long been used as therapy to treat trauma, but the use of climbing as such is just starting to gain ground. Several organizations across the globe are using climbing in their work with refugees and at-risk youth, among other populations. Our sport requires a high level of concentration and coordination—engaging both body and mind to move in a cohesive, fluid way. This is an effective prescription for trauma: As Barbara Rubin Wainrib writes in Healing Crisis and Trauma with Mind, Body, and Spirit, “The harmony of body and mind has been found to be therapeutic after natural catastrophe and can give you inner peace.”

In 2012, the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology published a study in which researchers from Penn State University tracked the daily activities of 190 college-age students and found that the more physically active the students were, the more likely they were to report greater general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. Exercise has also gained credibility with treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A preliminary study done in 2005 used a 12-session aerobic-exercise program to treat individuals suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The results, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, showed a marked decrease in symptoms. Exercise—climbing included—boosts mood-related chemicals in our brain like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, helping to lift our spirits. A 2015 study conducted at the University Hospital in Erlangen, Germany, asked whether climbing—specifically indoor bouldering—had a therapeutic effect on people suffering from depression. The 16-week study had half the 47 participants climbing regularly while the other half served as a non-climbing control. Participants suffering the most with depression had greater improvement in symptoms compared to those in the control.

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