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Mental health focus: Facing adversity, fear and uncertainy

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Since the pandemic, restrictions meant that we had to stop working with our groups. As has been the case with many people, the mental health of the young people and volunteers connected to us has suffered. To try to help, we created a project called ‘Talks to Elevate and Inspire’ to engage the young people and volunteers through weekly video talks around the themes of resilience, confidence, mindset and dealing with failure (the main themes of our rock climbing programme).

We have learned a huge amount over the last months and hope that some of these takeaways are useful for you, too.

Jamie Andrew, quadruple amputee, climber

Jamie is a quadruple amputee, meaning he has no hands and no feet, but has climbed some amazing mountains around the world like the Matterhorn and Kilimanjaro. Jamie’s story about resilience and overcoming adversity is one of the most gripping you’ll hear.

Jamie’s techniques for dealing with adversity include:

  • Finding positives out of negatives: It's hard to imagine you could find positives from losing both your hands and feet, but jamie did. Jamie found that he didn’t get freezing hands and feet anymore when he was cold weather walking and ice climbing and found it gave him a positive boost! It also gives you insight into Jamie’s slightly dark sense of humour when dealing with adversity!

  • Setting a small challenge everyday: Jamie set himself a challenge everyday, however small it seemed, but it gave him something to focus on and get a sense of achievement. These challenges ranged from brushing his teeth and getting dressed on his own, to skiing and snowboarding.

  • It's okay to be not okay: Jamie described how he had to pass through negative emotions into more positive feelings, and even saw that experience as constructive - as an achievement. He also got through those difficult times with the support of family and friends, being there but giving him space, "You have to go through the dark emotions of guilt and denial", but he knew people were there to support him, without necessarily having to help him.

  • Humour: Black military humour helped Jamie immensely, with his mates suggesting things like, "they go to the pub and get legless"!

  • Look back and see how far you've come.

  • Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Jamie Andrew, quadruple amputee, showing his incredible climbing skills at EICC, Ratho

Robbie Phillips, pro climber, Urban Uprising Ambassador

Robbie is an Edinburgh-based climber and coach. He has competed internationally and is famous for his cutting edge ascents on alpine rock. Robbie has always been inspired by what others have achieved and believes that part of the art of progressing is taking that inspiration and using it to push beyond your perceived limitations.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Finding purpose is very important. He found purpose and focus through climbing at a young age. Try new things and find your purpose.

  • It is healthy to hang around with a diverse group, age, occupation, gender, race etc. He did this at a young age and it was a great boost to his social development.

  • Trying to get support from your family for what you love to do is helpful but there is still a way if that support is not there. He was lucky to have this support.

  • Travelling to different countries is a very good tool for personal development.

  • He feared lockdown would remove his purpose but he found a new way to keep his purpose and adapted to keep working towards his goals.

  • Give things a go without worrying about failure too much.

  • It is important to plan for your goals and work towards them in a structured way but if something goes wrong or you don’t achieve your goal you need to be adaptable and keep positive.

Robbie Phillips at an Urban Uprising session, Eden Rock Edinburgh

Hazel Findlay, pro climber, Urban Uprising Ambassador

Hazel Findlay is one of the best climbers in the world. She was the first British woman to climb E9, and to free El Capitan in Yosemite. She has red pointed 8c sport and 8c+ trad and ‘onsighted’ many 8as. Hazel has always been interested in the psychology of climbing and the mindset approach she discussed within her talk. You can see how it can be applied to both climbing and everyday life.

Here are some of the many points we discussed:

  • Climbing is not something we are programmed to do, it can make us feel uncomfortable and we need to grow our resilience to this feeling/emotion over time by tiptoeing in and retreating back to safety, many times over.

  • There is a large range of psychological experiences available to us as climbers; sometimes this can be quite negative due to the feelings of fear, failure and frustration, and sometimes these can be the best days ever; completely absorbing, fun and a way to connect to nature.

Stress & Fear management:

  • Often when climbing we experience fear. This is an emotional response/sensation. Our minds often inflate negative thoughts by predicting what could happen in the future, our minds jump into the future. To overcome this Hazel teaches people to be more present or mindful. You can do this by paying close attention to something sensory. eg Your breath, the view, a tiny piece of the rock face.

  • Thoughts pop up when climbing: Sometimes they are not useful, distracting, and often untrue. Thoughts are like sounds, you can’t get rid of them, instead shift your attention to something sensory like your breath.

  • You are already doing this to some degree, but having words to describe what is going on in the mind can help us actively practice this skill, and it can transfer to other aspects of your life.

Fear of Failure

  • Have a positive relationship with failure, and use failure as a metric of your success. Hazel’s example - “If I didn’t fall off during a weekend of climbing, I would see that as a failure”

  • Finding the right level of challenge is to fail about 50% of the time.

  • Focus on the process rather than the outcome. We can do this with kids by telling them to put their practice hat on and then swapping it for a performance hat. Practice hats can help alleviate the pressure to succeed that children perceive from their coach or peers.

Alex Staniforth, adventurer

Alex Staniforth is a record-breaking adventurer, endurance athlete, speaker, author and mental health advocate, from Chester. He is no stranger to adversity, having suffered epilepsy, bullying, a stammer and anxiety throughout school. At just 24 years old, he's already made two attempts to climb Mount Everest, and in July 2017, he became the fastest person ever to climb all 100 UK county tops. He has raised over £85,000 for charity and won the Pride of Britain Granada Reports Fundraiser of the Year 2017. Alex shared lessons from his adventures on overcoming our fear of failure, looking after our mental health and staying resilient during these challenging times.

He has provided the following takeaways for us:

  • "The COVID-19 pandemic has been an 'onsight' [climbing term: meaning without having previously seen the terrain] for society and we might feel like the top of the mountain is still out of reach. Many of our challenges and self-limiting beliefs can be overcome when we accept that we can't choose our challenges in life - but we can choose how we respond to them.

  • Life will of course bring more setbacks beyond our control, but failure isn't an obstacle if we focus on the positives and new opportunities that emerge. Break things down into small steps, take it one day at a time, and there's no shame in asking for help. Small acts of kindness can go a long way, especially in tough times like these. Don't just ask - ask twice.

  • What if you could achieve just one positive thing each day?

We'd like to say a huge thank you to all our speakers. If you'd like to find out more about how we use rock climbing to improve the physical and mental health of young people facing disadvantages, click here.

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