Climbing your way out of depression

Photography by Jeremiah Doehne

Nobody likes to think about depression. It’s uncomfortable. It’s personal. But that’s why it’s so important to talk about it.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over 15 million Americans suffer from depression. That’s 6.7% of the population over the age of 18. Let that sink in. Someone you know, someone you love has probably struggled with some form of depression in their lifetime.

For me, depression struck six years ago after the passing of a close friend and neighbor I grew up with. Around Christmas time when I was sixteen, I got the disturbing news from my sister. She received a text message that informed both of us that our neighbor George had passed away.

There still has never been a time in my life when I’ve felt more paralyzed. For years, I struggled to cope with George’s passing. I tried writing, even wrote a book dedicated to his memory. But ultimately, that fed my depression. It made me dwell on all the things I was going to miss out on — George’s 21st birthday, his college graduation — and it led me to tailspin half way to insanity.

It wasn’t until I rediscovered climbing in college that I was truly able to take a step forward in my life. Through the exercise, the clarity I got from being outside, and the friendships I made through the sport, I was able to pick myself up and take a step in the right direction.

The Seriousness of Depression

Let me preface the rest of the article by saying that depression should always be taken seriously. It’s a disorder that fundamentally changes how your brain functions. It can even manifest in physical symptoms — chronic fatigue, insomnia, increase in aches and pains.

To show just how serious depression is in the United States, consider that 15% of those who are clinically depressed die by suicide. In 2015, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. This is not an issue to take lightly.

All of us have a duty to our loved ones and to ourselves to do everything we can to help those who need it. Whether it’s encouraging a friend to get the help they need or taking them out to get some exercise, the effort could help change someone’s life.

The Exercise

It’s not news to anyone that exercise makes us feel good. But did you know that working out actually releases feel-good brain chemicals like neurotransmitters, endorphins, and endocannabinoids? Rock climbing indoors and outdoors releases these same chemicals. In fact, researchers in Germany have begun using rock climbing as a form of therapy in large part due to this effect.

A team of researchers led by Eva-Maria Stelzer and Katharina Luttenberger at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg discovered that because of the mental focus and physical exertion involved with bouldering, most of the participants in their study saw their depression levels drop significantly. Stelzer believes that their treatment will be able to help people for whom other forms of exercise are not an option.

“Bouldering not only has strong mental components, but it is accessible at different levels so that people of all levels of physical health are able to participate,” Stelzer said.

Another part of what makes bouldering so effective at combating depression is the effect that the exercise has on your entire body. In addition to the release of feel-good brain chemicals, the exercise also reduces immune system chemicals that worsen depression and increase your core body temperature, which can have calming effects for those with severe anxiety. Regular exercise helps build confidence and can serve as a distraction from negative thoughts. There’s another reason to feel good about hitting the gym!

One of the incredible things about climbing in particular is that it also makes us happier at the psychological level. In a recent article in Outside Magazine, writer Brad Stulberg interviews Acacia Parks, associate professor of psychology at Hiram College. Parks explained that Eudaimonia, a form of happiness that comes from doing meaningful things, is “inextricably entwined with positive emotions,” and that we know we’ve done something good “because it brings us a feeling of satisfaction and contentment.”

Parks goes onto explain that stuffing your face with fast food and abusing narcotics can’t bring you this form of happiness because “when it comes to enduring happiness, there are no quick fixes that last.”

So, how does this relate to climbing? Well, think about a long-standing project you’ve had — the hours and sweat that went into training and refining your beta. That sense of accomplishment and joy you get from finally standing on top of that block is Eudaimonic happiness.

By its nature, climbing forces us to push ourselves. It’s almost as if the sport has catharsis built into it. Every time we push to the next V-grade, we feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s one of the reasons why the sport is so addictive.

Getting Outside

We’ve all been told that fresh air can help clear your head, and that advice could help with your depression. One of the most common treatments for depression is sunlight. The Vitamin D we receive from the sun plays a vital role in brain functions. Researchers have suggested that Vitamin D affects the amount of chemicals called monoamines that we receive and how they work in the brain. In fact, many antidepressants work by producing more of these monoamines.

For some, this effect may put the term “winter blues” into context. Months without sunlight can be damaging to the brain, and it’s the reason why states like Alaska have such alarmingly high rates of depression. The issue is so serious that some cities in Sweden have begun offering light therapy at bus stops.

This means that every bouldering trip you take, whether you’re a weekend warrior or a professional athlete, helps prevent depression. From the Vitamin D to the exercise, these trips help brighten colder months. And besides, that’s when we get the best conditions!

The Socialization Effect

When you’re depressed, your instinct is to withdraw, to hide within yourself. It’s one of the reasons why roughly 50% of Americans with depression don’t seek treatment for the mental illness.

This is perhaps why I was attracted to bouldering to begin with. I just didn’t want to be around other people. I would go to the gym outside of peak hours and avoid large groups. I didn’t want other people to see what I was dealing with. But anyone who’s bouldered for a long period of time knows that the crowds are sometimes unavoidable.

At first, this made me hesitant to continue with the sport. But then that addictive aspect of it kicked in. I got to a point where I could no longer progress without learning proper technique and training practices. I needed other people.

So, the crowds became a tool. I’d scour the gym floor for strong boulderers who could give me beta on my projects, I’d help spot and belay other climbers at the gym, and eventually I joined the University of Texas at Austin climbing team. While at university, coach John Myrick taught me how to train, how to appreciate the physical and mental challenges of bouldering, and how to share my passion with others.

Thanks to John and to the sport overall, I learned how to deal with something that had crippled me for years. I even met my fiancée while sport climbing with a friend on Austin’s greenbelt. Without climbing, I would not be the person I am today.

Whether it was the exercise, the sunlight, or the impetus to socialize, climbing was the catalyst that helped me manage my depression. I can comfortably say that my life is better because of the sport, and I’ll never be done repaying it for that.

About Austin

Austin is a sponsored rock climber from Dallas, TX currently living in Seattle, WA. He won two national championships while on the University of Texas at Austin climbing team and has developed climbing in Texas, Switzerland, and Spain.


Feature photo provided by Jeremiah Doehne Photography. For all inquiries, contact Jeremiah here.