Five Things Rock Climbing Has Taught Me About Stress Management


From the C-Suite to the shop floor, stress is an ever-present reality in any organization. How we handle it affects our personal wellbeing as well as our work.

I asked my good friend and fellow rock climber Dawn Baker MD to share some ideas about how to perform well when the pressure is on.

Dawn is a board certified anesthesiologist, so she knows first-hand what it takes to function at the highest level in stressful situations.

In this post, Dawn uses her love of climbing to illustrate some powerful principles of stress management and self-care.  Whether you are a seasoned leader or just starting out, you will benefit immensely from Dr. Baker's insights. I know I have.


Dawn anesthDawn Baker MD.

I've been rock climbing for about 15 years now. Of the many styles of climbing out there, my preferred type of climbing is sport climbing - a more athletic style involving pre-placed fall protection (bolts) in the rock usually up to about 100 feet high, which translates to greater focus on the physical movement required to get to the top of a climb. For a better description, read this

One of my favorite aspects of sport climbing is the process of sending a project route. You pick a "project" - most likely a climbing route that is at your maximum or slightly beyond your perceived ability, and you work out the moves from ground to apex. You "send" the project once you've completed all the moves in succession, "on lead" (clipping the protection bolts along the way), without falling or using any "help" of supporting your body weight on any of the equipment.

As you can imagine, this process involves not only mental and physical conditioning but also a problem-solving, positive mindset. Cross-training, diet, social events, weekends, trips, work schedules, etc. might be arranged to increase your chances of a send. And once you send your current project, you might move onto a new one at a harder difficulty level.

This process, which we often term "projecting", has taught me many life lessons... some of which can be directly applied to the practice of stress management and self-care in our lives:

Don't believe everything you feel. Listen to your body just don't necessarily take everything it tells you at face value. Sport climbing is physically demanding, and if you're not careful you can get tendon or joint injuries trying certain moves over and over. Rest, good nutrition, sleep, and other modalities of self-care are as essential to the send as they are to the prevention of burnout. But kind of like knowing when to hold 'em vs. when to fold 'em at work or school, there is a fine line between taking care of yourself by dialing it back vs. being open to the possibility that you CAN do more than you think. This balancing act can only be mastered through a combination of experience and self-awareness.

Value micro-improvements. Focus on the process of improvement instead of the end-result. Many times I have retreated from a project feeling deflated because I didn't send, when my belayer points out, "Hey, you reached a new high point there, aren't you psyched??" In climbing, burnout is avoided by seeing the positivity in small improvements as opposed to worrying about success or failure. Maybe you worked out one further move, or you figured out a resting sequence half-way up which will become very valuable later. I know it's cliché, but the old saying "The journey is the destination" rings true... and this is key to maintaining sanity in life as well. People who practice present-moment thinking with an attitude of gratitude are the most successful at stress management.

Be vulnerable.  Admittedly this hard to do, especially for high profile leaders. But it's necessary. As psychologist and shame/vulnerability expert Brene Brown says, "Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." If you don't take a chance trying to send a hard project, one where you may not even be able to make all the moves at first, you never know what you're capable of. And if during the process of trying to send you don't push hard and experience failure (like taking a short pendulum fall on the rope, or risking a flail in front of other climbers), you will probably not succeed. In the workplace or any stress-inducing scenario, you occasionally need to go against the grain to get what you need or want. You have to be willing to ask for that flexible work schedule or that extra afternoon off to see your doctor, even if you risk disapproval from your supervisors.

Learn from others. In climbing, we call this "beta". Sometimes you can glean useful beta by watching someone climb your project their way. Their tips and tricks just might work for you on that difficult move, or maybe they won't work because the person has five more inches of wingspan on you (or in my frequently-encountered case, because they are half a foot shorter than you!) And in the realm if stress and self-care, others have most likely been down the same path before you. Take advantage of established mentorship programs (many exist both in person and online), or identify your own potential mentors. Ask them for their beta, and learn about what's in their black bag!

Don't compare yourself to others. There will ALWAYS be someone better/faster/smarter/stronger. My husband and I have added the phrase, "There will always be someone who warms up on your project" to our collected life-lesson sayings... you know, the kind your grandma says to you in her infinite wisdom. It happens all the time (especially in Rifle, where famous climbers are always traveling through). Perfectionism is one of the traits linked in the literature to poor coping skills and an increased risk of burnout (see my Anatomy of Stress post); making comparisons to others is a fruitless endeavor, one that will pull you out of present-moment thinking and keep you in an ego-driven vicious cycle of stress.

Rock climbing has taught me to view my professional issues, certifications, educational goals… basically all of life’s endeavors as I do the project route. “Sending” requires a blend of self-focus with the ability to reach out to colleagues, in addition to a present-moment mindset that overshadows outcomes or comparisons. I hope these lessons challenge you to seek more truths about stress management from your favorite stress-relieving activities! 

Dawn Baker is an anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City, UT. She writes at PracticeBalance.com, a blog focused on sharing experiences and information regarding stress management and self-care for professionals.