After narrowly evading a near-death climbing experience, professional climber and Perfect Bar athlete Matt Lloyd endeavored to better understand the psychology behind fear and its effect on optimal human performance. His findings, quite simply, transcend the sport of climbing. And, if studied and applied correctly can help any athlete or everyday person better cope in high stress environments or life-threatening situations.
It’s important to note there are three distinct stages to any traumatic experience: the event, subsequent shock and the body’s response.
While climbing a 90-foot ice curtain in Vail, Colorado, Matt was 50 feet up, and progressing comfortably. “The climb was challenging but well within my limits,” he recounts. “Then suddenly, the ice curtain shattered and broke horizontally just above my knees, leaving me suspended but still attached to a 100,000-pound ice-bomb ready drop at any moment.” Terrified, he immediately realized the gravity of the situation—pun intended.
The 3 Physical Responses to Trauma: Fight, Flight or Freeze
In Matt’s case, he experienced all 3 physical responses. “I became paralyzed, completely frozen in a motionless state of limbo for a few seconds with a hyper-awareness as time slowed almost to a halt,” recalls Matt. “Then, the sympathetic nervous system ignited and a radiating heat that electrified my body, as I started to shake uncontrollably due to an overflow of catecholamines—epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine.” These stress hormones prime the body to either fight or flee in response to perceived harmful events, attacks or threats to survival.
If neither, fighting or fleeing is an option, like when you’re suspended in the air climbing a frozen ice curtain, the body will naturally shake to neutralize the hormones.
After what felt like an eternity, Matt was able to breath deeply while forcefully exhaling to gain his composure. “I focused on small specific tasks and panic finally subsided to more pragmatic goal-oriented thinking,” he recounts. Eventually Matt was able to maneuver and escaped unscathed.
In retrospect, what could he have done better, or better yet, what can we learn from his recount of his traumatic encounter? After all, he was simply pursuing his life’s passion and as they say, anything in life that matters requires risk.
According to Psychology Today, mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Being mindful can help identify real stress/danger as opposed to perceived stress/danger. Whether real or perceived, the body will deploy the same physical and emotional response unless one remains mindful or present with open attention.
“Maintaining an accurate and realistic assessment of your personal ability is an important part of proper risk management,” said Matt. “No matter what sport, profession, or skill, the best perform well because they know—without doubt —that they are capable of executing and delivering their full potential.” More appropriately, it’s called battle-hardened confidence. When you’re prepared and well practiced there’s no reason to doubt yourself.
F The F Word
Fear. It’s your worst enemy and critic. “Avoiding the fear state is the single most effective way to perform in high-intensity and high-risk situations,” advises Matt. “The moment fear enters the mind, the body’s natural physical response takes over and you’re done.”