Silencing the Noise: Climbing Through an Anxiety Disorder

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, professional climber Molly Mitchell discusses her experiences with clinical anxiety and how coaching has helped her reignite her love of climbing.
Molly Mitchell Molly Mitchell
Professional Rock Climber & Coach
November 09, 2019
Silencing the Noise: Climbing Through an Anxiety Disorder

You’re climbing on a busy day at the crag, surrounded by incessant chatter and constant commotion. Sometimes you find this noise pleasantly engaging, but today you just want to tell everyone to be still – be quiet. The voices follow as you start your climb, continuing to echo in your brain even as you climb higher. They seem to be demanding your attention, and suddenly it feels like your mind is fighting between listening to the voices and trying to block them out. But the problem is that both options leave you unable to focus on the present moment. The “what-ifs” start to seep into your head, and before you know it, you fall.

I compare these voices to my thoughts, and they don’t just harass me at the crag. They occur regularly, much of the time in the quiet of my own home. I get hooked on destructive thoughts and become focused; obsessed. I feel like I’m battling a negative feedback loop I cannot control.Sometimes my mind feels overbearing. I’m a 26-year-old professional rock climber and I am living with an anxiety disorder.

Struggling in silence

Anxiety is something I’ve struggled with for many years. But I did not always recognize that I had anxiety. When I was 20, I developed a viral thyroid disease called thyroiditis. This general term refers to inflammation of the thyroid gland and it can present in a variety of ways. It made me feel awful most of the time. I aspired to compete in climbing competitions, and had dreams of becoming a professional climber, but physically I wasn’t able to keep up. I remember several training sessions with my coach where I broke down crying because things that had previously come easily suddenly felt incredibly difficult. It was a dark time in my life.

The thyroiditis lasted close to a year, and an unexpected longterm impact was a new mindset that overanalyzed every detail about how I was feeling, all the time. My mind fixated on signs about whether I was having a good or bad day. If I fell on a warm up, or felt tired on a climb I should be able to do, I would automatically consider it a “bad day” and assume my disease was getting worse. I would obsess over this to no end.

Even though the disease was a definite negative factor in my everyday life, as I reflect back now I see that this mindset created by it was potentially more damaging. It trapped me in a constant negative feedback loop, and the side effects of the disease reinforced this pattern. Only now do I realize that many aspects of my life were controlled by my thoughts even before the disease. The what-ifs, the obsessing, the worrying, the hair pulling – I’ve had these patterns since my early teens. My mind sabotaged my efforts by attaching itself to thoughts of failure. My doctor finally recommended I see a psychiatrist.

Learning control

My psychiatrist introduced me to a form of therapy called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” or ACT. In this, I learned how to defuse thoughts and make room for uncomfortable feelings. The idea is that, whether thoughts are true or false, you can detach from them. ACT gave me the space to process that my mind seems to want to do its own thing, but I can directly control my behavior. And even when you don’t like a feeling, you can still bear it. It’s not easy, and I still get hooked on thoughts and let the feelings overwhelm me, but I’m learning.

About the same time that I began practicing ACT in 2015, I had the opportunity to learn how to trad climb. Trad climbing involves placing cams and nuts into cracks as you climb so that if you fall, they will catch you. When I first started climbing in 2009, I never thought I would get into trad. I had always loved sport climbing, where you clip into bolts in the rock as you go up, but trad had not really appealed to me. Your safety is more in your own hands with trad climbing because you have to find the right piece of gear to fit, or risk it pulling out. I liked that sport climbing lacked this element, and was more about the physicality of climbing. However, something about trying something new, without having expectations, really appealed to me during this time of my life.

To my surprise, I fell in love with the mental aspects of trad climbing. Commitment is a part of every kind of climbing, but it’s heightened for me with trad. You place your own gear, and whether it’s a good placement or not, you have to trust it in order to succeed. Put simply, you have to place a piece and move on. You must focus on the present moment, even if you are far above your last piece or feeling scared. There’s no room for other things going on in your mind.

To me, trad climbing represented a very extreme version of what I was learning when it came to dealing with my anxiety. Each time I experienced moments on the wall where I was unsure of a placement or far from my last piece, I would have so many thoughts racing through my mind, and it felt really scary. Yet being able to break through that and still control what was going on right in front of me was like a shot of relief from my anxiety. It was uncomfortable. It was overwhelming. But most of all it was liberating.

I guess you could say it was like having a “do or die” mentality. I was never more present than in these moments. Never before in my life had I been able to turn off my mind, but this allowed me to actually focus. Learning how to tap into that mindset of control carried into other aspects of my climbing as well. I moved to Las Vegas in 2016 and started sport climbing more, trying to apply the same level of commitment and presence as I did on my trad routes, trying harder and harder sport climbs. I found difficult sport climbing less mentally demanding and scary than the trad climbing I was doing previously, but I still doubted my ability to control negative thoughts on the wall. I wanted to break through.

Practicing grace

A huge part of my anxiety is that I obsess. I have always viewed this as a negative thing in the past. Most of the time it is. But, I have learned that sometimes these obsessive tendencies can be channeled. I started focusing my obsessive thoughts on training and coaching, creating a positive feedback loop. Coaching inspired me to train harder. The more confident I felt about my training, the more confident I felt in coaching, climbing, and all other aspects of my life. These positive outcomes continued to feed each other, creating more and more positivity.

Over time I noticed that I was happiest in my life when I woke up at the break of dawn to train, went outside climbing, coached team practice in the evening, and then finished with more late night training. Close to a year after I moved to Vegas, I climbed my first 5.14 sport route – a huge breakthrough for me. I never thought I would be able to climb 5.14. I believe that the combination of obsessive training, as well as what I had learned about being present from trad climbing and my therapy, allowed me to tap into fight mode on the wall.

In 2018, I moved back to Boulder. I have an incredibly busy schedule here – coaching, training, climbing, events, etc. I split my focus between sport and trad climbing, and I currently am working on the next route I want to complete. I now know that the busier I keep, the less my mind has room to wander. Even though I sometimes overdo it, it’s still better than days where I laid in bed agonizing over the same thoughts in a spiral.

Anxiety is something that you don’t ever really fully overcome. I still have bad days where I can’t seem to get out of my head. I have days where I lack the confidence to feel like I can make it through, and I am still constantly working on myself. But I also can say that I am proud of the progress I have made. I am proud of my breakthroughs. I feel as though climbing has become a tool. It encourages me to never give up and always keep fighting. It reminds me that I cannot engage with all my thoughts, nor can I fight them. It shows me that success comes with presence, patience, and acting upon what you value. Climbing takes my focus away from all the noise in my head. Climbing does not allow for the “what-ifs.” It only knows what is.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.