My mom recently told me the story of a woman remembering the moment Nazi soldiers came to take her father from their family home to a concentration camp. She recalled him slowly rising from the dinner table. He methodically gathered his things as the family sat rapt at the table. As he neared the door to leave, he turned to say one thing to his family: “Stay calm.”
Not I love you so much. Not I’m so sad. Not this is terrible. Just Stay Calm.
His point was, if we remain calm, we retain our power. Don’t lose your head, because that makes you a victim.
Those words have been echoing in my head lately, because we get upset and lose our cool about all sorts of petty things. Someone cutting us off in traffic. Not getting the job we thought we deserved. Losing our keys. Falling off our project. If that man could remain calm through one of the most horrific experiences imaginable, what does it say about me that I’ll get angry about not being able to send a sport route, and let it hang over me the rest of the day?
By letting ourselves lose calm and get upset by things like that, are we actually giving up our power? Letting ourselves become victims on some level? We’re allowing ourselves to be reactive instead of active. At the very least, we know that stress is linked with disease.
Climber John Long, in his intro to The Rock Warrior’s Way, says, “At the recreational level, climbing is often held in an entirely different light than one’s ‘normal life.’ The casual climber sees her climbing as a welcome if not essential restorative practice. Half way up the climb, she transcends her daily stressors and ‘morphs’ into a different person. But when she confronts the summit headwall, and her abilities are stretched to the breaking point, the ‘different’ person reverts to old habits. She will meet the challenges with exactly those qualities she’s cultivated—usually unconsciously—at work and at home.”
So, basically, when we’re under stress, our inner attitudes and unconscious ways of thinking boil up to the surface. Of course, the point of The Rock Warrior’s Way is to become conscious of those habits and begin thinking differently about challenges from within, so we can move past mental blocks in our climbing. But shouldn’t those same principles apply to stressful situations in life in general?
Some say you can actually make stress your friend. Why would you want to do that, you ask? Because new research shows that, even more than the stress itself, the belief that stress is bad for your health is actually linked with health problems and death. In her recent TED talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that physical stress responses, like breaking into a sweat or our heart beating faster, aren’t inherently bad things. She says when we change our minds about stress, we can actually change our bodies’ responses to stress, making them less detrimental.
According to McGonigal, if we become conscious of those physical stress responses and view them as something positive—our body’s attempt to help us make it through a difficult situation—instead of getting angry about the stressor, we’ll be much better off. She cites research showing that when people look at their bodies’ stress responses as positive, something helpful, their bodies actually respond in a more healthful way. This different way of looking at stress—and the corresponding bodily responses—could be the difference between someone having cardiac arrest in their 50s and living healthfully for several more decades, she says.
Where does that leave us as climbers? And, more importantly, as humans? It sounds like we should be rethinking the way we react to stress—and worry about it less. Maybe just…take it easy, man?