Putting Ellis’s ABCs into Action to Manage Fear

This article is part of a series exploring research done by professor Jeff Elison and Don McGrath for their upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, titled Vertical Mind.  The book is due out in mid-January 2014.

In a previous article, we introduced the performance-arousal curve, which describes the trade-offs between your level of arousal (or excitement) and your climbing performance. In another article, we introduced Ellis’s ABC, which are helpful in modifying maladaptive behaviors. In this article, we provide some tips on how to use these concepts to identify behaviors you want to change and take steps to change them.

ABC’s in Action

Modifying maladaptive interpretations provides an ideal example of the ABC process.  In the extreme, choking (or failure) is the undesirable Consequence in this example.  The initial Antecedent may be some climb or situation, but let’s fast-forward to the point where we perceive bodily effects of anxiety and treat those as the immediate Antecedent.  (We can and will move backward, chaining these events together to address fear and bodily effects as unwanted Consequences).  Irrational Beliefs that commonly lie between physical symptoms and subsequent choking include: “These symptoms are going to get worse,” “I’m going to lose control,” or simply “I can’t do this; my performance will suck.”  Now that we have the ABC sequence and some B’s to work with, let’s start debunking/questioning them.  What evidence do we have for and against these beliefs?

model for modifying rock climbing scripts

First, being all logical and scientific, refer back to the Performance-Arousal Curve for counterevidence.  Science tells us that being under-aroused is a bad thing, bad for performance.  So, maybe your anxiety is a good thing.  Praise Science!

fear and training for rock climbing

Performance Arousal Curve

Second, make science personal.  Have you ever felt like this and performed well?  Unless your fear is really intense, I’m guessing you have.  I don’t know your personal experiences, so I’ll give you my favorite example and hope you can relate: job interviews.  I can remember my first interviews as a high school student and new college graduate.  I was nervous and my nervousness distracted me.  I didn’t do my best, but they worked out.  I got an offer for almost every job for which I interviewed.  This allowed me to form a new script, reinterpret my anxiety, and improve my performance in future interviews.  I was able to tell myself that my racing heart and sweaty hands were part of performance-enhancing anxiety.  It even allowed me to say, “Interviewers are used to clammy hands, so don’t worry about shaking hands.”  In fact, now I can take 90% of those bodily effects and either ignore them or leverage them, knowing they lead to better performance.  This frees up my attention and working memory for the problem at hand: interpreting questions, reactions, and coming up with the best response.  On a good day, climbing is just like that.  I’m amped for the route, try to adjust my level of amped-ness, and use it to my advantage.  It’s like FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Third, look for evidence.  How often have you choked due to anxiety?  If you are very lucky the answer is never.  More likely, the answer is rarely.  However, as climbers, some of us put ourselves in potentially choke-inducing situations far more than other folks.  If the answer is frequently, then we sure hope these suggestions can help you re-write your scripts to be more effective.  And maybe the next point will make that easier.

Fourth, question the losing control aspect.  Arousal often rises to the appropriate level—the level at which you need to be—and doesn’t’ continue to the downhill part of the curve.  The appropriate level may even be a bit of anxiety.  If you don’t let fear spiral, if you don’t misinterpret sensations, if you believe in optimal arousal, then you can keep fear under control.  We’re not saying you can eliminate fear in all circumstances, nor would you want to.  However, with knowledge and practice, you can gain greater control over your fear and increase your performance.

Hopefully, these examples illustrate the importance of fear perception and interpretation of bodily reactions.  We can magnify the significance of accelerated hearts and clammy palms and end up in the downward-spiral-to-choke or we can make fear our ally and optimize our performances. In future articles, we’ll delve even deeper and provide even more tips to improve your rock climbing mental game.

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