Fear Management: How to Prep Your Mental State for Your Next Backcountry Objective

Fear is part of the human condition, especially if you like to adventure. Whether you are ascending an exposed ridgeline or standing at the top of big, hairy line, the jitters can hit you and you work through it—or you don’t and turn around.

The threshold—what sends cortisol running through your body and when—is something every backcountry athlete pushes. To feel more confident in your ability to charge a line, you can work on your mental game, building a skill set for coping with your anxiety before and during your next tour.

There are many risks in the backcountry, so knowing how and when to deal with fear can be an important safety tool. [Photo] Matt Kiedaisch

There are many risks in the backcountry, so knowing how and when to deal with fear can be an important safety tool. [Photo] Matt Kiedaisch

Learning to manage fear, however, might represent more of a self-preservation instinct than you may realize. Fear can cloud decision-making and a freaked out touring partner can turn around and leave you in the lurch. A distraught, anxiety-ridden person can’t effectively make decisions in a rescue scenario, so knowing more about how to help yourself and others deal with debilitating fear can be a useful tool in the backcountry.

Utah-based sports psychologist Dr. Nicole Detling, who works with professional outdoor athletes including several Olympians, believes that fear can be a liability, but it also can keep you alive.

“You have to find the proper amount for you,” Detlin points out. “Everyone starts at different levels. If you’re a pretty high-strung person and you feel fear, that will be your norm. By contrast, if you are pretty mellow and you feel fear, it’s going to be a lot different from what you’re used to.”

How Stress Affects Your Body And Mind

Detlinger recommends finding a balance in your fear levels by first determining what’s an acceptable level of stress to manage. You should be in tune with your emotions enough to know what’s unsafe versus what’s simply adrenaline-seeking. Once you have a clear idea of where that line is, pay attention to how you react to stress.

Cortisol can dramatically affect your cognitive and physiological response. It increases muscle tension, diminishing your climbing and skiing abilities. It narrows your focus and field of vision and slows your cognitive processing, allowing you to miss more subtle cues of danger.

The anxiety you experience from stressful backcountry situations can change the messages you are giving yourself from, “Okay, I got this” to “Oh, shit.” Once you’ve hit your anxiety threshold, Detling says, you get “freaked out about being freaked out,” which exacerbates the problem.

Why Anxiety Might Not Be All That Bad

Despite the negative mental and physical affects of excessive stress, Detling argues that low-grade anxiety is a good thing, because it keeps you focused and alert. She recommends recognizing your incoming jitters as a sign of your readiness to drop a line.

In other words, when you get the butterflies think, “Oh there are the butterflies—this is going to be fun and exciting,” in order to prevent you from thinking, “Oh, crap, this is scary, and I could die.”

“I would actually be more concerned if you had no anxiety [during a tour], and think, ‘Okay, let’s just do it,’” Detling explains. “Your focus would be too broad, and you could miss something. I think not having any anxiety is just as dangerous as having too much.”

Dealing With Fear: Build Confidence and Lower Anxiety

Confidence and anxiety are inversely related. If you’re looking to decrease your fear in the mountains, Detling says you can build your confidence, lower your anxiety, or do a bit of both. Here are some of the techniques she suggests to help you.

Before You Get On Snow

Practice visualization away from the mountains. Don’t just visualize your ascent and descent. Visualize what you’ll be thinking and what you’ll be telling yourself. Imagine that your heart is racing before your descent, and remind yourself that that’s a good thing. Imagine a rescue scenario, and review what you’re going to say to yourself to stay calm.

Before You Drop In

Prior to every descent, create a routine that gets your mind in the right place. Whatever your routine includes, do those things every time in the same order so that you know you’re warmed up and mentally ready to go.

For example, Detling recommends, checking in with your body and noting how much tension you feel. To release tension in your muscles, inhale, pull your shoulders up toward your ears, exhale, and then relax your shoulders.

Next, she recommends tuning into your breathing by taking distinct breaths. Stressful situations often cause people to hold their breath, which releases more cortisol. Instead, think “Breathe In” while you inhale and “Breathe Out” while you exhale. It will calm you down and relax your tense muscles.

Use Solution-Based Thinking During A Rescue Scenario

Take three to five seconds to establish a clearer decision-making strategy. As you are running to help your partner, ask yourself what you are you doing with your body to be in the best position to help your partner.

Next, review your thought process. If you’re thinking, “Holy crap, we are going to die,” it’s going to release more cortisol. Instead of allowing the scenario to dictate your thoughts, focus on solution-based thinking. For example, consider what action you can take to help and go over your options.

Finally, focus on slowing your mind down. This reduces your body’s physiological responses to stress. When you exhale, tell yourself, “Be calm.” As your adrenaline decreases, you have better chance of making a safe, well-thought decision that will get you are your partner out of the backcountry faster and hopefully in one piece.

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