January 8, 2024

Why the distinction between rational and irrational fear isn't that helpful

Hazel Findlay

In climbing, we often need to make decisions that seem scary. For example:

Should I skip this piece of gear?

Should I push higher above this bolt?

Should I try this route on lead or just toprope it?

When considering these decisions, climbers often talk about the distinction between rational and irrational fear, or between real and perceived risk. The idea is that you should go for challenges you only perceive to be risky, setting aside any “irrational” fears. For example, you could argue that the risk of hurting yourself on a steep sport route is not real (or is very minimal), and therefore it’s irrational to be scared of sport climbing.

Lots of people use these distinctions, and they have their uses. However, we believe that it's more useful to think in terms of “Is this a good decision for me personally at this stage of my climbing journey?'”

For example, would it be appropriate to tell someone who is scared of falling to take a 20-metre whipper down the face of El Capitan—to face their fear head-on with this gigantic fall on this massive, exposed wall? You could make this fall as logistically safe as possible (modern climbing gear can certainly withstand such forces), reducing the risk to one that’s only perceived—and thus making any attendant fear “irrational.” But your efforts are likely to backfire.

Why is this?

It’s because what the real/perceived or irrational/rational risk distinction fails to take into consideration is psychological harm. We think that so long as we don't break a leg, we have not been harmed. But really scary experiences can cause psychological trauma, setting back our climbing progression. Therefore when assessing risk, we must also consider psychological harm and whether we're psychologically prepared for the experience even if we’re not likely to sustain physical injury.

At Strong Mind, we often find that climbers push too far outside their comfort zones because rationally they are “safe” or because they “shouldn't” be afraid. (I use scare quotes here to signify the kinds of ill-informed messaging around fear we get from climbing partners and ourselves.) But then they are so stressed by this overreach that they’ll ingrain fear responses that show up again in similar scenarios, which, of course, is the opposite of the desired outcome. This is a kind of micro-trauma of the mind, caused by not having the psychological resources to manage and therefore grow from an experience.

That said, some people find it helpful to tell themselves they're physically safe, and in saying this, they are able to lower that psychological stress response. Mantras like Right now I’m OK or I’m OK where I am can help to calm us in the moment.

When thinking about how helpful these distinctions are, ask yourself whether you feel any safer when someone tells you your fear is “irrational.” You may find that this misses the point – it often shows a lack of understanding of psychology and other people's subjective experience. It also fails to recognise that we cannot simply choose to not be afraid even if “rationally” we understand something to be safe. A classic example of this is looking up at a route from the ground and seeing that it is safe, but once you’re up on the rock experiencing a strong stress response. This points to the fact that human emotions are a more powerful driver than logical thought processes.

Fear management is not as easy as simply turning our body’s stress response because, rationally, we deem it to be situationally inappropriate. We are not robots. The brain has a very generalised fear-response system, one activated by things we perceive as risky even if, rationally, they are not. Fortunately, we have ways to dampen our stress response—things like deep breathing, mantras, and mindfulness tools. However, the main thing to understand is that we need to gradually and incrementally expose ourselves to those things which trigger our stress response. We do this by tuning into our stress responses and using our knowledge of what we find stressful to guide us towards appropriate challenges, whether the risk is “real” or not.

Feel free to contact us with any questions or queries and as always, happy (and safe) climbing!

DISCLAIMER: Strong Mind content may not be appropriate for someone suffering from a mental health disorder. If you are unsure whether you should try some of the techniques or advice referred to on this site or in this text, please consult your doctor or therapist first.

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