Fear of falling can make rappelling difficult. Here’s how to overcome it.
Fear of falling, fear of heights, and rappelling fear go hand-in-hand. In their most advanced stages, they can severely damage one’s quality of life, as they can trigger an irrational response even in the most basic of situations. People who suffer from a phobia of heights are overcome with crippling fear whenever they sit on a ledge, on a balcony, or even stand up on a chair.
A fear of heights ties in directly with a fear of falling. Moreover, the act of rappelling natively involves lowering oneself from tall buildings or cliffs. This fear is further accentuated by a “leap of faith” element, as you basically rely on your rope, your anchor, and your harness to bring you down safely.
I should note that fear of falling, sometimes referred to as basophobia or basiphobia is not the same as a fear of heights, although the two are closely related. The difference is that a fear of falling comprises the anxieties and various discomforts associated with the act of falling from a great height. Therefore, it doesn’t relate directly to the heights themselves. I will say this, though, fear of heights is considerably more debilitating and dangerous, especially in the case of acrophobia.
In its severest form, fear of heights turns to acrophobia, which often requires treatment as well as the attention of a psychologist. To find out if you suffer from this condition, have a look at the symptoms below and cross-reference them with your own experiences. Keep in mind that all humans experience a certain degree of discomfort when exposed to heights. When this discomfort turns physical, however, one should definitely seek medical help.
What are the main symptoms of acrophobia?
- Shaking suddenly whenever you find yourself at an elevation.
- Sweating profusely.
- Feeling paralyzed or stunned by fear, unable to act or to speak your mind.
- Panic attacks followed by shortness of breath.
- Getting dizzy whenever you lift off the ground.
- Feeling the sudden need to kneel or get on all fours when you get high off the ground.
While some people refer to a fear of heights as “vertigo,” that’s actually just an uncomfortable spinning sensation – a possible symptom of acrophobia. I’ll say it again: if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should seek professional help before you attempt rappelling, climbing, or belaying. However, if your phobia of heights and your fear of falling are mild and don’t usually cause any physical discomfort, there are a few ways to overcome them.
Practice in a controlled environment.
I was fearful at first. I was. And while it wasn’t a true crippling fear that prevented me from going out there all together, there was this lingering voice in the back of my mind that made me feel like I should just do something less exciting and less dangerous instead. After all, there have been quite a few reported accidents while rappelling, and why should I even subject myself to that kind of risk anyway?
Because I was so afraid of the risks involved, I decided to try out my luck in a controlled environment. Once I got there, my instructor told me that this is actually the best way to overcome the fear of falling as a beginner. All beginners are afraid at first. It would be unusual not to be. However, practicing in a climbing gym, or just going out bouldering, dramatically improved my self-confidence and made me believe that I could do this after all.
Naturally, the climbing gym offers a simulated, controlled experience that varies greatly when compared to the real thing. Still, the experience that you gain there can go a long way towards helping you overcome rappelling fear, especially since you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people, some of which can share their experiences with you and maybe even go out with you when the time comes. Which brings me to my second tip.
Don’t go out alone.
Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, I would never recommend free solo climbing or rappelling. The idea of going out there alone might seem appealing for some of you. Maybe it would give you some sense of accomplishment, or maybe it would reinforce your sense of independence. However, no matter how powerful the impulse may become, just don’t do it!
Instead, always go in groups or with at least one other climbing partner. This way, everyone’s safety is pretty much ensured, and the chances of an accident are minimized greatly. Having someone by your side to guide you and reassure you can also help you overcome your fear of falling. It doesn’t have to be a close friend or a relative, but it definitely helps if the two of you have already established some level of trust.
If your partner is more experienced than you, ask him or her for advice beforehand. Don’t expect to perform exceptionally on your first try, and don’t beat yourself up too much if you make mistakes. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to get over your fear and perform this scary activity as best you can. Nobody will fault you for showing your fears, as long as you don’t allow them to control you.
Learn everything you can about fear of falling.
Another thing that you can do before going out there is to learn everything you can about your fear of falling or your phobia of heights. Keep track of your symptoms and decide which ones are most likely to cause you trouble. The fact that you’re reading this right now is a big step forward, but don’t limit yourself to my advice alone!
Whether you get your information online or offline, it doesn’t make much difference as long as you get something useful out of it. Ideally, you should keep an eye out for various forums or social media groups where people share their climbing experiences and success stories.
Medical books and independent studies can also share some light on the root causes of your fear and how to overcome them. I did some digging on my own and it looks like fear of heights stems from our natural fear of falling and being injured. As I said before, we all fear heights to a certain extent, it’s just that some of us have a more radical response to this fear than others. The more you know about your own fears, the more you can do to keep them in check and overcome them.
Spend some time at higher altitudes.
I’m not saying to knowingly subject yourself to stressful situations, but pushing your boundaries bit by bit can help you in your quest for elevation toleration. Visit some rooftop terraces with some friends sometime, or just spend time at various tourist attractions that involve heights. Treat yourself to a few minutes at the merry go round – if nothing else, you’ll get a fun time out of it. Moreover, if you’re just eager to learn about rappelling before you give it your first try, make sure to check out this simple guide that includes all of the basics.
Knowing where you are right now and where you want to be in a few months can make all the difference. You just have to put together a plan and see it to the end. Try to defeat your fear of falling with baby steps, whenever you have time. When it comes to rappelling, you don’t even have to do it from great heights.
Study the basics, practice them, and just rappel a few feet away from the ground. There’s nothing wrong with that. As you do it over and over again, just repeat the same steps at a higher elevation. Before you know it, you’ll be climbing and rappelling with the best of them. Your fear of falling will be a thing of the past. Probably.
Completely avoid the fear state.
This is a big one, and perhaps the most difficult thing to pull off on this list. Completely avoiding the fear state is the single most effective way to overcome your fear of falling. However, it’s also the most difficult thing to achieve, as it requires considerable mental discipline and fortitude. If you allow yourself to get scared, and I mean really scared, you’ll quickly spiral downwards into a cascade of doubt and helplessness.
As your body begins to take over, you’ll notice that it becomes difficult to pull off easy tasks, and soon enough, you might lose control altogether. In order to prevent your body from entering the dreaded fight-flight-freeze response, you have to consciously avoid the fear state. You do this by pouring in every ounce of mental effort that you can muster. It’s a bit like entering a trance, or a “zone” if you will. It’s worth noting that beginners will have a very difficult time avoiding the fear state completely. At first, you’re busy paying attention to the smallest movements and the simplest techniques, just to be sure you’re doing everything right.
That’s why avoiding the fear state is something I’d normally recommend to experienced climbers. Experience and muscle memory go hand-in-hand, which leaves the brain free to focus on different things. Another way to avoid the fear state is to cut down completely on any negative talk. Sentences like “I can’t do this” or “I’m going to fail miserably” have no business being in your vocabulary. Be prepared both physically and mentally for the challenge ahead, and you’ll notice how your fears shrink so much that they soon become unnoticeable.
Trust in your ability, but push your limits.
I know it sounds corny, but believing in yourself is key when it comes to overcoming any fear, not just your fear of falling and rappelling. You see, you absolutely need to be in the right frame of mind when you do this. That’s why I told you to take baby steps – they build up confidence. Now, it’s true that some people have too much confidence, and this causes them to be reckless at times. But you’re not going to be reckless, are you? No, you’re going to do things you never thought you could do, and you’ll do them the right way.
When expert climbers know they’re about to tackle difficult tasks, there’s no room for doubt in their minds. They know they can do it. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it every single time without any issues. That’s because they know exactly what they’re capable of. Indeed, I’m basically describing “experience,” in its purest form but every little thing you learn each day, and every small inch you climb each time you go out there, you become more and more experienced. You also become more confident, because now you know you’re better than you were yesterday, last week, or last month.
On the other side of the coin, failing can lead to a dramatic decrease in self-confidence. I’ll give you a slightly unrelated example: after I first got my driver’s license, I was confident I could drive pretty much anywhere, and I was actually enjoying myself. I was relaxed, and even though I didn’t have much experience, I trusted my skills completely. I was so confident that I went out for a joyride even though the road was frozen and slippery. I entered a turn with too much speed and lost control of the vehicle, spun around a few times and crashed it into a wall. Now, physically I was fine, but it took me months to get back to the level of confidence that I had before.
Before I failed, I had plenty of confidence, maybe too much. After the accident, I wanted to give up on driving for a while, and even after my car was fixed I took the bus to work. Luckily, my friends and family pushed me to get back behind the wheel, and as I drove around some more, I got my mojo back. My point is that failure can be traumatic, and it can severely limit your confidence even when it’s obvious that you can, in fact, succeed.
Back to the topic at hand, you’ll notice that as you manage to push fear and doubt out of your mind, you’ll be able to truly enjoy climbing and rappelling, and everything else you set your mind to. We, as humans, can achieve incredible things, but most importantly, we’re able to adapt in order to survive and overcome our obstacles. As Woodrow Wilson once said:
“The only use of an obstacle is to be overcome. All that an obstacle does with brave people is, not to frighten them, but to challenge them.”
Know the difference between real and perceived danger.
We’re fearful of things that can hurt us, true, but sometimes our fear is unjustified. For instance, you can become afraid of falling while climbing, even though you’re actually completely safe, securely anchored, and supported by your harness.
The feeling of fear, unjustified as it may be in this case, can sabotage you and place you in actual danger, as it causes you to make mistakes. Therefore, it’s important to know when we’re justified to feel fear and try to avoid falling into that state when the situation clearly doesn’t mandate it.
A good way to analyze your present situation is to weigh in the nature of the potential accident and the probability of it actually happening. In our case, we’ll use falling as an example, which is a serious, life-threatening potential consequence of climbing and rappelling. However, if you’re at a climbing gym, while the possibility of falling is real, the actual risk of getting hurt is minimal, as many climbing gyms have special floors that cushion your fall in order to prevent injury.
On the other side of the spectrum, imagine that you’re a 5.2 climber soloing a 5.3 terrain high off the ground. Yes, if you were to fall, it would be tragic, but the probability of you actually falling is so low that the experience is worth the risk. In both cases, the actual danger to your well-being is very low. Your perception of danger, however, can be completely different.
Learn how to transition out of your fear of falling.
Avoiding fear of heights and fear of falling is all well and good, but what if you simply can’t do it? What if you let yourself be gripped by fear, even for a few seconds, and you find yourself unable to continue? In this case, it’s very important to learn how to transition out of fear. This exercise also requires a fair amount of mental discipline, but you’ll be glad to know that almost anyone can do it with a bit of practice and will.
If you find yourself in a tricky situation while climbing or rappelling, you’ll be faced with two very important decisions.: you’ll either have to climb up or go down. Picking the right one can make all the difference between a good day and a terrible one. Being able to transition out of fear is crucial in this situation, as it will help you make the right decision. Fear takes root in the amygdala, which is in the lower part of the brain. It’s a primal response to danger, a deep-seated trigger that’s difficult but not impossible to overcome. Fortunately, by leveraging our rational prefrontal cortex, we’re able to “bargain” with our instincts and think calmly and rationally even when the situation seems dire.
In order to achieve this zen-like state, you can use certain psychological tools such as visualization, centering, and self-talk.
- Visualization involves picturing each move that you’re going to make and taking in as much context as possible. You can do this before your rappelling or climbing session, or the night before, just lying in your bed and going over the most important steps. You should create a detailed picture. Include the feelings that you might encounter, the physical sensation of gripping the rope, the mountain air hitting your face, or the sounds of wildlife in the background. Visualization improves confidence, which keeps fear at bay.
- Centering basically helps you stay in the moment, and it allows you to get in touch with yourself. Best practiced right after you experience fear, centering can help you overcome your fear of falling by focusing on smaller aspects of your experience as opposed to the bigger picture. Yes, if you think about falling while you rappel or climb, you’ll look down and imagine the worse. However, if you shift your focus to your hands, your rope, your harness, and the rocks in front of you, your brain will be forced to put things into a new perspective. You can also look inward to your breathing, your pulse, and your heartbeat. Analyze the inhales and exhales, the sound that they make, and the way that they make you feel. In order to get really good at centering, it’s best to practice it when you don’t feel afraid. This way, when fear does grip you, you’ll know exactly what you should focus on in order to overcome it.
- Self-talk is a great tool that you can use to calm your lower brain or amygdala. You can talk to yourself in your head, or you can do it out loud – whatever works best for you. This basically involves giving yourself a pep-talk. Just tell yourself “I can do it,” “I’m fine,” or “I got this.” It doesn’t hurt to smile while doing it. Even if it may feel unnatural at first, it could be your gateway to a calmer state.
Let’s do a quick review of the things you can do before getting off the ground in order to minimize the effects of fear:
- Assess your own ability, as well as the risks involved.
- Practice in a controlled environment.
- Educate yourself on the causes and effects of fear.
- Spend some casual time at high altitudes.
- Learn to push negative thoughts out of your mind as soon as they start to pop up.
- Believe in yourself and your skills in order to completely eliminate the fear state.
- Use visualization, centering, and self-talk to come out of the fear state.
- After you are done, review your experience and take note of what went well.
Mental training is key when it comes to succeeding at high altitudes. Whether we’re talking about rappelling, climbing, belaying, or canyoneering, having the right frame of mind is of paramount importance. Fear is natural, but the way we handle it is what makes us good or bad at what we do. It’s not about avoiding fear altogether, although that is surely an ideal scenario, but about managing our fears, learning from our mistakes, and building up a strong foundation of confidence.
I really hope that this article has helped you overcome your fear of falling. I’m glad to say that these techniques have helped me quite a bit over the years. Actually, I now see fear as an old, estranged friend that rarely visits. And it feels good.