Suddenly my chest starts to feel tight and my vision starts tunneling. I start to feel tightness in the throat and I know that the cramping in my stomach is next. My brain is thinking RETREAT RETREAT, but that is not an option. 

So I force a few breaths and start humming to myself. I start focusing on my movement. Thinking to myself: move your foot, move your hand, foot, hand, foot, hand. Eventually I reached the ledge and looked down. I had just climbed a 30ft unprotected slab and averted a panic attack. While a fall would have likely resulted in death or a major injury, the paralysis from fear could have been just as dangerous. Once safely on the ledge my body tension subsided from a 90 to 50 and I was able to focus on building an anchor and getting the rest of the group up and back down the mountain. When I got down to the bottom I started crying uncontrollably from the overwhelming emotional exhaustion.

The other day I was sitting in my office and a very similar pattern arose in my body: chest and throat tightness, then stomach cramping. But this time I was not on the side of the mountain. In theory I was safely sitting in my chair in a familiar place with no real threat to my safety. But the body does not know the difference between real danger and perceived danger and behaves similarly in both situations.  When we are in a state of fear our reptile brain takes over our body forcing us into fight or flight mode. Neither of these modes are good for cognitive function or ideal for climbing and getting work done.

Through climbing I’ve learned strategies for managing fear and stress. I recently learned that my habit of humming when I’m scared is called distraction and is a useful tool for dealing with anxiety. I’ve also learned that mindful movement is an important strategy for relieving the stress response and relaxing the brain. Mindfulness, “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, ” as defined by Kabat-Zinn, helps decrease the stress response and its long term effects. When we have the ability to move with control and focus on present sensations we are telling our brain things are “ok”.

Stress and anxiety don’t always present in a full fledged panic. Sometimes it’s tight shoulders, a headache, or stomach aches.  In times like this full of uncertainty, insecurity and a lack of control for the future I’m sure more and more people are experiencing stress, anxiety and even panic. In fact, according to polls the rate of anxiety and depression are going up and are expected to keep rising. I don’t say this to create more fear but to remind everyone these experiences are common and there are things you can do to help.

I am not a therapist, and if you are experiencing anxiety disorder or panic attacks you should seek out a professional provider. If you are just looking to help with your daily stress and moderate anxiety symptoms I highly encourage a mindful movement practice.

To practice mindful movement try focusing in on one specific aspect of the movement. Many people like to focus on breathing, but you can also focus on the sensation of your foot hitting the ground while walking or do a body scan while sitting on the ground.