My son and I took up climbing a few weeks ago. At the climbing club, I helped him get in the harness. I looked at him. He looked frightened. It was new to him, so I don’t blame him for hesitating. What would happen when he got in the harness?, I heard him think.
Me: Just the right foot. That’s all you need to focus on now.
My son: Okay.
Me: Good job. Then the left leg. And the left leg is all you need to focus on now.
He put in the left leg in the harness. And suddenly he was wearing the harness. We walked out to the routes. He chose one. The blue and green hand holds went all the way to the roof 27 feet up. I felt my chest tighten. Luckily he didn’t notice. How could he? Although when I bound him up, he stared at me. Hesitating. I found myself hesitating.
Me: The rope can lift our car, I said.
My son: Really?
And up he went. All fears were gone. He instantly trusted me because of the information I gave. 13 feet later. He looked down and told me to get him to the ground. I did. He’s 4½ years old. He loves it!
I hesitated when I saw how tall the routes were. I felt anxiety. How my chest tightened. How I was out of breath for a short while. That if it was me, I would have to trust people I at the moment didn’t know. As stuttering climbing is:
- socially challenging
- mentally taxing
- physically challenging
And it hit me that I would do the same when I stuttered. It made me realize that speaking being a stutterer and climbing have a lot in common. It’s about anxiety and facing fears.
Let’s dive in and see what we’ll find that’s useful for you and your situation. There are so many benefits to climbing as a stutterer that you won’t believe it. We’ll get to that later.
But climbing is hard you say. Sure it is, but everything worth doing is hard. You don’t completely stop speaking because it’s hard when you stutter. I know, I know every once in a while we all shut up, because it was easier. We gave in. We didn’t face our fear. We let out emotions control us. We let our stuttering habit control us. Let’s change that.
Research has shown that you can self-regulate and use that regulation to achieve greater things. Although the research was conducted on children, it still applies to adults. Another great thing is that when you confront your fears and anxiety you develop self-confidence.
Self-confidence is not something that happens overnight. It has to be nurtured. The best way of doing that is to cultivate it through difficult and challenging sports like climbing.
Your brain on climbing
Any fitness is good for you regardless of what it is. The main thing with fitness is that it improves blood circulation. That means the lung and heart work faster to deliver oxygen to your body. Increased blood flow not only benefits your body like arms and legs. The brain also benefits, because it thrives on oxygen and therefore increases overall brain functioning.
When your brain gets better blood flow it grows brain cells (neurogenesis), because hormones are released and the hormones prime the brain for neurogenesis.
You need new brain cells when you learn something new, but the new cells have to be connected to the existing network of cells. That happens when you learn new stuff. But new brain cells aren’t the only thing that matter. You also need new synapses (connections between brain cells). And that is developed when you repeat learned stuff over and over. That’s why it’s easy to ride a bike or your car now, but it was difficult when you first tried it.
Any sport will bring this benefit to your body and brain. Although climbing will bring a few extra benefits to the equation.
Benefits of climbing for the stutterer
Generally, the benefits of climbing can be divided intro three areas: physical, mental and social.
- Lean muscles, endurance, core muscles, cardio, hands and fingers, low impact workout, entire upper body and entire lower body and everything between.
All that is fine and an important part in today’s life where everyone does less and less work. But the best part of climbing is the mental benefits.
The physical battle, which climbers will face, is the body itself. Once a climber has allowed the mind to become too afraid, the body opens the adrenal glands to pull a climber through the rough. The problem with this is the body becomes extremely weary after the use of all the adrenalin. Once this happens, the climber begins to breath quicker and with shorter breaths. Another disadvantage of climbers is most are at high altitudes, which forces them to breath even faster. This is happening because the body is trying to supplement the heart with enough oxygen. While the lungs try to supply the heart, the heart is trying to pump arterial blood through the body. The main area where this oxygenated blood is being absorbed is in the high stressed muscles. A problem that starts to occur in these muscles is lactic acid begins to form. This is due to the lack of oxygen that the muscles should be receiving from the arterial blood. In return, this causes the heart rate of the climber to rise, for the heart is trying to compensate for low levels of oxygen. While the body continues through its cycle, the blood that is carried away from the muscles is now blood lactate.
The downside of this is that blood lactate has trace amounts of lactic acid. This process ultimately starts poisoning the body and fatiguing it rapidly. What can occur is lactic acidosis, which is “high levels of lactic acid in the blood, which is potentially fatal” (Fandeck et al. 403). Now that the heart rate is high and the muscles are beginning to absorb lactic acid instead of oxygen, the climber will find he is worried, tired and extremely soar. Often times this can lead to a severe fall or causing the body as well as the mind to completely give up and fold. Once this occurs, the only choice is retreat. –Myles Moser, Rock climber.
The only choice for the stutterer who faces fear and anxiety is a retreat. In the aforementioned quote, you could replace climber with stutterer. It’s the same experience they have whether it’s on the wall or talking to people.
Climbers must endure many feats. They must power through the unpredictable situations of weather. They must control there physical abilities as well as there mental battles for they will overcome the climber. Rock climbing is a sport where one becomes an individual player, who must make all the right choices or accept failure. Failure will try to attack the climber, but for this sport, one must overcome. The body can only take so much pain, but the mind controls the body and the climber controls the mind. –Myles Moser, Rock climber.
You control your mind even if you don’t know it. People like your speech therapist, in particular, have taught you to doubt yourself. They want you to believe that you need them to handle stuttering. Fact is. You don’t. The mind controls the body and you the stutterer controls the mind. Believe in yourself that you can overcome stuttering. That’s the first step towards a life without stuttering. It all begins on the wall. Doubt yourself that you can climb the wall, and you can’t. Believe in yourself that you can, and see what happens.
Achieving the goal of saying what you want to say is a major stress relief. The speaking effort takes you all and in return, takes it all of your shoulders. The sense of achievement gained by saying what you want is second to none. You will find yourself changed every time you do it. And every time you will gain trust in yourself, that you can do it. That you have what it takes to overcome stuttering. By achieving something that seems near impossible, it forces you to realize your true abilities versus your perceived abilities. And that increase your level of confidence.
When a challenge has already been accomplished, anything is possible.
Speaking your mind builds character and ultimately leadership skills. I used to be a student of how to overcome stuttering habits. Now I am a teacher sharing my knowledge. That way I belong to a community.
You build social skills whenever you face your fears of stuttering and speak your mind anyway. Every time you build your network of friends to support your endeavor. And over time the more you open up to the more friends you have. Friends that you can count on and who will support you, when you challenge your beliefs about yourself and stuttering.
Beating anxiety and coming back
You might have moments along the way where your body is scared, but you know that you can. To me it takes rationale to look at it from the outside and say, “I’m scared, but I’m still holding on. I’m still fine.” – Alex Honnold, pro climber
Every now and then anxiety creeps in on you when you’re standing there with all your talents talking to someone. According to Peter A. Levine, ph.D., trauma expert, the body has three ways of handling stress. One is to freeze, the second is to fight and the third is to flight. But when neither of these is possible, the body starts to shake. You might have seen this function in action. On the Savannah, when the gazelle has escaped the cheetah, the gazelle shakes. It literally shakes off the trauma of being hunted.
Unlike rock climbing, you as a stutterer can move away. You can fight, flight or freeze. But it’s not a great response. It’s not something that helps you move forward. Fortunately, we have something called the prefrontal cortex, which gives us the ability to combat these irrational responses to the situations we face and perceive as dangerous.
The prefrontal cortex is presumed to act as a high-level gating or filtering mechanism that enhances goal-directed activations and inhibits irrelevant activations. This filtering mechanism enables executive control at various levels of processing, including selecting, maintaining, updating, and rerouting activations. It has also been used to explain emotional regulation. – Wikipedia
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has executive functions. The primary functions of this part of the cortex include cognitive flexibility and planning. This is great when the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex kicks in and negotiates with amygdala about how to deal with the situation. The orbitofrontal cortex takes care of reward/punishment in relation to adaptive learning and emotion. Whereas the ventromedial prefrontal cortex actively deals with the amygdala by dealing with emotion and inhibiting our response to emotions.
The amygdala is linked with anxiety. Feelings of anxiety start with a catalyst. For rock climbers, it could be the fear of falling. For stutterers, it’s the fear of speaking. What happens is that amygdala prepares the body to fight, flight or freeze. This is triggered by adrenaline. When the danger is over or you realize that you can’t do anything and freeze, a shaking may occur. This happens because the blood returns to the rest of the body.
The prefrontal cortex is important when you face fear because with the right tools you can overcome anxiety and arrive at a place of mental clarity and presence that optimize your performance.
The two most important tools are visualization, centering, and self-talk.
Visualization and planning
Visualization is about planning. It’s a very powerful tool if you use it right. Either you can visualize being done with the conversation. That doesn’t work. Or you can visualize being ahead with obstacles. You get the results you prepare for. No matter how much you want to achieve your goal. The best way to use visualization is to visualize how you prepare yourself for the challenges.
How do you visualize?
There are several methods for visualization. One is associated visualization. This type of visualization is when you perceive yourself in first person doing things. The more details you have, the better. You will visualize how you breathe, how you deal with people you suddenly meet, and how you begin talking. Visualize how you feel (how great you feel that is.) And visualize what you’ll do before, during and after meeting somebody and talking with them. If that is too difficult begin here on how to develop visualization skill.
Centering and cognitive flexibility
Centering is about being present and having cognitive flexibility, which deals with the amygdala. When you experience anxiety. Stop, take a step back, and pay attention to breathing and your body. It’s a great tool to stay present and release any thought concerning past or future, worries, and plans. It’s just you and your breathing right here right now. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the bigger picture.
Careful, this kind of mental and physical training takes practice. Everyone knows you can’t get strong fingers in one campus board session; it’s the same with your mind. The important thing is to realize that and take the first step down the road of learning. – Steph Davis, rock climber
You need to do mindfulness and practice centering so that you know how to do it, when you need it. When you stutter, pay attention to how much of your attention goes to be in the present moment. Notice how you inhale, exhale and the sound your breath make. Check your pulse, not judging it, just noticing. This will bring you back to the present moment. And you will be able to talk without stuttering. But you have to practice on a daily basis in a safe environment. Observe yourself when you’re calm and speaking well, then it will be easier to be present when you’re entering situations that would make you anxious.
Self-talk and de-stressing
Stutterers have a tendency to have negative thinking and self-doubt creep in on them. It takes out every ounce of confidence. It is possible to change how you think. You can change your mental attitude with small changes. Awareness is the key to change. What do you say to yourself when you stutter in front of someone? What do you think? What do you feel? Are you angry with yourself? Saying things like: “I’ll never learn to speak.”, “I’m stupid.” or “Nobody understands.” Sometimes you might have tried to say work against your thoughts saying things like: “I can do it. I can speak fluently.” The thing is you don’t believe it. And your brain’s bullshit alarm goes off. Then you find yourself doubting your abilities again.
Accept that your thoughts create reality and it’s possible to see how your self-talk is impacting your speaking performance. Instead of thinking: “Fuck, I stuttered again.” Try “Yeah, I stuttered, but it means I’m trying. And not all of my talk was stuttering.” Go slow. Take a step back and evaluate your thoughts.
What do you think your friend is thinking about your stuttering, while you do it? If you think about it that way, you might be more friendly to yourself. Everyone knows we are our own worst critics.
You should do this exercise in real time and after you’re done talking.
Transfer from climbing to stuttering
- You’ll be mentally, physically and socially stronger.
- Yes, you’ll be anxious, but the brain has built-in capacity in the prefrontal cortex to overcome anxiety.
- Visualization, centering, and self-talk are ways to overcome anxiety.
- You just have to start.
Back in the climbing club
My son got down from the route. He looked at me, and I realized something was missing; he wanted more. Like he was a bit disappointed in himself.
Me: What is it?
My son: It’s just that… It’s just that I wanted to go to the top dad.
Me: Then go do it, I said smiling.
My son: But I’m scared.
Me: Hey, what if I pull you up. The only thing you have to do is to hold on to the rope.
My son: Yeah
I pulled him up. It was harder that I thought, but I did it anyway. I wanted him to go there. He wanted to go. He held on to the rope and I pulled him 27 feet up. He hung up there for a few seconds and then he came down. He was excited about it, and not embarrassed at all that he didn’t do the climb himself. Next time we agreed or the time after that. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s doing it at his own pace.
Get started with climbing and info
Links to get started. Have fun climbing and overcoming stuttering and anxiety.