Rock climbing is a sport that pushes both the body and the mind to their limits. You don’t know what focus is until you’ve tried to scale a vertical slab of granite! (Or so I’m told – personally, I’m not a big fan of heights.)
Because rock climbing is as much about the mental as the physical, some researchers have looked to rock climbing and rock climbers to learn more about human behavior and the human brain. Here are three things they’ve found.
1. Rock climbing can be addictive
It’s common to describe someone who seeks the thrill of extreme sports as an “adrenaline junkie,” and there really might be some truth to this phrase.
A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that regular rock climbers who abstain from rock climbing appear to experience withdrawal symptoms. Specifically, they report loss of pleasure, lower mood and cravings.
The study also found that more skilled rock climbers experience stronger cravings.
2. Rock climbing might help depression
Research published last year suggests rock climbing might be an effective intervention for depression.
The study looked at whether “bouldering therapy” made a difference in people’s depressive symptoms. Bouldering is a kind of rock climbing that takes place at lower heights and doesn’t require any equipment.
Sure enough, the group who went through eight weeks of weekly climbing sessions saw a significant reduction in their symptoms relative to the group who was put on the waitlist for bouldering therapy. So far no other studies have been done on the topic, but this seems like as good an excuse as any of you’re looking to get into rock climbing.
3. Competitive rock climbers are more successful when they’re anxious
You might think rock climbing is all about keeping your cool while you’re hanging off the side of a mountain, but at least one study suggests that a little anxiety is helpful for highly accomplished climbers.
In particular, among elite climbers participating in a high-level competition, those who experienced more physical symptoms of anxiety (like butterflies in the stomach) beforehand ended up doing better. Climbers who went slower on the hardest part of the climbing path were also more successful. Basically, a little anxiety can be helpful for being careful and staying on top of your game.
Because of the demands rock climbing puts on the human brain, studying rock climbers has helped researchers learn about everything from behavioral addictions to depression to the performance-enhancing effects of moderate amounts of anxiety. Who knows, maybe “bouldering therapy” will be a thing soon.