How to Overcome Challenges – Lessons from Rock Climbing

Marwa Fadol

challenges, overcoming challenges, self-care, rock climbing, bouldering, mental health, resilience, counselling, therapy, counsellor, therapist

Just over a year ago I began bouldering – a form of rock climbing that involves climbing shorter walls (approx. 3-4 metres high) without ropes or harnesses. I was apprehensive to try it, but once I did, I loved it! In the year since, I’ve been climbing 2-3 times a week. As a result, my climbing has improved, and I’ve learned many important lessons for overcoming challenges along the way. Here are three that stand out:

1. Positive thinking creates mental strength.

Since starting climbing, I cannot count the number of times I’ve found myself halfway up a wall and completely stuck. Even if I’m physically capable of making the next move, sometimes my mind won’t let me. The pervasive thoughts are usually, “I can’t do this,” “This is too scary,” or “What if I fall?”

We often approach tasks with a negative mindset. Dr. David Burns, psychiatrist and author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, talks about common thinking errors that can influence our perspective and how we approach challenges:

  • Catastrophizing – Imagining worst case scenarios
  • Overgeneralizing – Taking one instance and generalizing it to the rest of our lives
  • Fortune-Telling – Assuming we know what the future holds (usually with a negative view)

By bringing awareness to our thought patterns, we can intervene and change them for the better. Being mindful with our thinking helps stop those negative thoughts and replace them with more positive or realistic ones. The more consistently we do this, the more our brain begins to default to this positive pattern of thinking. Positive thinking and mental strength can impact our mood and emotions for the better, allowing us to feel more empowered and in control of our mental states.

I now approach the wall with positive self-talk like, “You can do this,” “This might be hard, but you can overcome difficult challenges,” and “You are strong and capable.” The difference I have noticed in my climbing is astounding. I am less hesitant, more willing to try harder routes, and am more satisfied with my efforts, whether or not I get to the top of the wall.

It is up to us to interpret our emotions and what they may be trying to tell us – then we can decide how to respond.

2. Fear can be healthy.

Being stuck halfway up a wall also leads to a lot of in-the-moment reflection. I can feel the rapid beating of my heart, the sweatiness of my palms, and the loud thoughts in my mind. The fear is real. When I first started climbing, I fought the fear and thought that I shouldn’t be feeling it. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with a climbing coach that I was reminded that fear is not only normal, but also healthy – especially in this context.

Our emotions can be thought of as messengers that make us alert to our surroundings. It is up to us to interpret our emotions and what they may be trying to tell us – then we can decide how to respond. Fear is often classified as negative, but emotions are neither positive or negative. As such, we tend to want to stop feeling fear even when it could be alerting us of danger in our environment. As with other emotions, it is healthier to acknowledge the emotion, regulate its intensity, and decide how we want to react.

My fear on the wall is not a bad thing. After all, I’m high off the ground, what I’m doing requires skill, and the possibility of injuring myself exists. What I’ve learned to do is accept the fear and work on regulating it (deep breaths, repeating my positive self-statements) so it does not overwhelm me. This allows me to continue climbing. When I’m able to acknowledge the fear and keep moving forward, I often surprise myself in my ability to achieve goals. When I complete a climb that I wasn’t sure I could do, the sense of exhilaration, pride, and accomplishment that I feel is incredibly rewarding.

We are not meant to push through everything.

3. Sometimes it’s not worth it.

One of my biggest learnings is that sometimes it’s just not worth it. There are times when I’ve been attempting a climb and everything in me is shaking and nervous – my mind is sending me messages that it’s not impressed with my choices. During those times, I have to make a decision about whether I attempt to push through or listen to the instinct that’s telling me to climb back down.

Not everything about our emotions is overtly experienced. There are many times when our emotions are subconsciously trying to signal us. This is often referred to as our gut instinct or intuition. Whatever you call it, there’s often merit in tuning in and listening. It’s not easy – particularly if you’re a more logical person – but it’s a lesson I’ve come to appreciate.

There are times I’ve pushed past these instincts to finish a climb, and the first and most persistent thought when I’ve come down is, “That wasn’t worth it.” It isn’t joy, pride, or even relief. I’m not sure I can accurately name it, but I now know that ignoring my gut instinct isn’t worth it. There may be times in life when we feel pressure to take a risk and push through our reluctance. We need to learn to tune into our emotions and decide if it’s worth it, and if not, we need to engage in self-compassion and give ourselves permission to stop.

Whether we’re learning a new activity or taking on challenges or risks, it’s important to set ourselves up for success. The best way to do that is with mental strength and positive thinking. We need to recognize that fear and apprehension when taking new steps should be expected and are in fact healthy. Lean into the fear. Accept its presence, listen, and decide how to react to it from a regulated place. The reward when we come out the other side can be a beautiful thing. However, one of our reactions may be to decide it’s not worth it, and that’s okay. Sometimes we have to listen to those gut instincts that tell us to stop or slow down. We are not meant to push through everything. Self-awareness and self-acceptance, that’s how I learned these lessons while rock climbing.


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Author: Marwa Fadol (MA, RPsych)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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