Don’t worry, be climbing – The surprising effect of climbing on depression

“I can’t take it anymore!!”

“Really, I’m so sorry to hear that. Tell me more.”

“No one cares about me.  Nothing EVER goes my way!”

“Well. What happened”

“Christy just ate the last cookie.  And I wanted it!”

If you have ever had children or even been around children, you have more than likely heard a similar tale of despair.  For the most part we smile, laugh at it and maybe even write it in their baby memories book.  I’m pretty sure that my granddaughter Brilynn will have many such meltdowns.  At twenty-two months old, she is already a Class-A drama queen 😉 

However the truth is that for many of us, the ‘I can’t take it anymore’ is more than just a drama ploy.  It is hellish reality of every day life, a nightmare of hopelessness that suffocates.  ‘I can’t take it anymore’ is the inner cry of a soul blinded to any future dreams or desires or passions by the blackness of despair.  And anyone ignorant enough to suggest that you just need to suck it up, or think happy thoughts, or snap out of it, is either poorly informed or has never stepped out of their mothers arms into the harsh reality of life. 

This week is Suicide Awareness Week.  As many of you know, my son, Caleb, an avid rock climber, took his own life in 2012.  Bliss Bouldering and Climbing Complex is named after one of his favorite quotes: ‘Follow Your Bliss’.

I recently found an article published in BMC Psychiatry entitled: Indoor rock climbing (bouldering) as a new treatment for depression: study design of a wait-list controlled randomized group pilot study and the first results.  In the study, they took groups of people and either set them up with scheduled bouldering sessions with an instructor/therapist or more traditional treatment without the climbing.

The results were pretty impressive. There was a significant improvement in standard depression scores by the individuals who participated in the bouldering

I can say from experience that I noticed that in my son Caleb as well. When he was climbing, his demeanor, his attitude and his entire countenance would improve.

What we know about depression is that it’s symptoms are caused by chemical imbalances, not unlike many other diseases.  These imbalances, however, happen in the brain in the realm of neurotransmitters.  That’s significant, because these neurotransmitters can be affected by physical, mental, emotional and social activity.   Bouldering has all four.  

Physically it works the muscles, often in very strenuous ways.  With the shorter length of climbs in the boulder room, more muscular and gymnastic movement is possible, which in turn, stimulates the release of endorphins. 

Mentally, climbing encourages both the use of problem solving skills to discover the most efficient movement, as well as the need to shut much of the rest of your day out to concentrate on the difficult task at hand.  In effect, it offers a momentary escape from the pain of depression while also stimulating the brain (the organ affected by depression).

The emotional aspect of climbing has a couple of aspects.  The first is fear.  As we tell all of our climbers at Bliss, climbing in inherently dangerous.  And while we can help minimize some of that danger, it will always be there to a certain extent. The cool thing for depression though, is that danger again stimulates the release of neurotransmitters (remember the old ‘fight or flight’ lecture from high school), the very thing that is diminished in depression.  Beyond that though, we also experience the thrill of victory: the satisfaction of completing a problem.  While that obviously produces feelings of happiness, it also goes further in re-wiring the brain to believe that what at one time seemed too dangerous and too difficult can in fact be overcome.  (and that there preaches!)

Finally and perhaps most important of all is the social aspect of climbing with others and having friends applaud your efforts and share your failures.  Depression produces a sense of aloneness and low self-esteem.  What better way to

fight that than with the cheers of others experiencing the same thing that you are.

The authors of the article hypothesized that these positive aspects of climbing were very possibly what produced their outcomes, but agreed that more study was needed.  Certainly, climbing alone should never be used as a sole treatment for such a dangerous and devastating condition.  Professional treatment and supervision of all of your treatment is mandatory.  

The good news though is that depression is very treatable.  If you suspect someone is struggling: ask them, listen to them, be empathic.  If you are depressed, don’t be afraid. Seek help. 

Now, if I can get my grand daughter to Diva-down the crisis caused by her sister stealing her doll, I’m going climbing.  I could use a smile 😀

Climb hard and Follow Your Bliss,


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