“Climbing has an extremely positive impact on my mental health. It has definitely boosted my self-confidence. When you climb, you focus on what you can achieve, as opposed to what you can’t. I tell my friends that the wall is my happy place.”
Ask someone to list the benefits of learning to climb, and you will probably be told all about improved stamina, endurance and muscle tone. However, for 30-year-old Lizzy Kelsey from Reading, United Kingdom, it is the sport’s mental benefits that have been the most powerful of all.
Speaking to the IPF, Lizzy shares how climbing has helped her through bouts of depression and anxiety, quietening her “inner monologue” and boosting her self-esteem.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I work as a biomedical scientist in an NHS hospital, and love being a science geek all day long! In my spare time, I like practising yoga, going out to dinner with friends and watching live music.
How did you get into climbing?
About three years ago, I was on holiday and noticed a day trip to climb some cliffs. I presumed that I would be absolutely rubbish at it because I had very little upper-body strength, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Back home, I wanted to get more involved in climbing, but had just started a part-time MSc.
Can you tell us about your own experiences of poor mental health?
I then broke up with my long-term boyfriend and had to start all over again. I knew that I needed to find a hobby and began climbing at my local wall. The sport is now a massive part of my life.
I have had an ongoing relationship with mental illness throughout most of my adult years. I had depression when I was 16. At the time, there was lots going on in my family. I then suffered from another episode when I was at university.
I think it stemmed from not looking after myself properly, drinking too much, the workload, being away from family. I went on anti-depressants and stayed on them for seven years, with my GP increasing and decreasing the dose depending on how I was feeling. Earlier this year, I experienced some anxiety, again to do with work.
I found that interesting. I had always had depression, never anxiety. Yet I could tell that, in my headspace, something was not right. Going to my doctor and getting some counselling was very useful.
Do you think climbing has an effect on your mental health?
Not only is climbing a social activity, but it enables you to switch off.
When you are on the wall, you can’t think about anything that is upsetting or distressing you.
All you are worried about is falling off the wall and hurting yourself! There’s a huge sense of accomplishment when you finish a route.
Have you done any climbing outdoors? Did that affect your mental health in a different way?
You are in nature, which I think is very beneficial. It also feels more authentic, because you are climbing on real rock, instead of being indoors. I always finish trips outdoors with a real sense of achievement, plus I get to spend the day with my friends in a beautiful setting and doing something awesome. What is not to love?
Is there anything about the climbing community that makes it stand out?
When I go to the gym, it can be quite intimidating, particularly because I lift weights, and going into the “men’s” weight room can be a mental hurdle. With climbing, everybody is very supportive and inclusive, and we all try to help one another to finish a route.
Everyone is there for the right reasons – no-one is climbing to look good. You are climbing for yourself, not for other people.
Has climbing had an impact on how you view yourself?
It has definitely boosted my self-confidence. When you climb, you focus on what you can achieve, as opposed to what you can’t. Over the last two or three years, my perception of my body has changed. I think far less about how much I weigh, and more about what my body is capable of doing. When I bring friends along to the wall, I am proud to be doing something positive for myself.
Has climbing taught you anything about staying well?
To feel the fear and do it anyway. That has been a big thing for me, especially recently. Also, being in your head all the time is not helpful. You should pay attention to your thoughts. If there is a feeling trying to come out, then you should listen to it. That said, getting out of your general head-chatter is a good way to look after yourself.
Climbing shuts off your inner monologue and gives you some space. There is a meditative aspect to it, particularly when your climbing begins to flow.
What would you say to someone who struggles with their mental health and wants to start climbing?
I would definitely recommend it. Climbing is an amazing sport for anybody, but I think it can definitely help your mental health.
I started climbing at a time when I had a lot of bad and sad thoughts in my head, and was really struggling personally. I would be feeling horrible, go for a climb and walk away feeling much calmer.