Last summer, I went bouldering for the first time. It was my partner’s birthday, and he wanted me to try it out since he’d started earlier that year and really enjoyed it. We went to First Ascent Humboldt Park, which is in our neighborhood. I was skeptical. After all, I wasn’t particularly strong and didn’t like heights. I could see a glimmer of appeal after our first session together, but it took me a few more visits before I had this eureka moment. 

Even though the heights continued (and still continue!) to challenge me, getting on the wall helped to get me out of my head. This is a big deal for me, as I struggle from generalized anxiety disorder (and comorbid depression) and can at times be paralyzed by what’s going on in my mind. Finding out that climbing was an opportunity for reprieve felt pretty revolutionary once I recognized what was happening.

Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember, and it impacts just about every experience in my life. I’m not alone either, as it’s estimated roughly 18% of the U.S. population experiences anxiety disorders. In my experience, it has made simple things like interacting with other people or even going outside difficult and sometimes straight-up impossible. For a long time growing up, I just assumed that this was how everyone felt. Thanks so the support of friends over the years  (shout-out to my roommate Ben who walked me to my first counseling session in college!), I’ve learned that there are other ways of experiencing life and that I can work to calm my mind. For me, this work comes in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation, and learning to be kinder and more patient with myself. It’s meant retraining my inner dialogue and challenging long-held belief systems.

One component that’s been absent – and which many folks cite as being helpful with mental illnesses like anxiety and depression – is exercise. Since adolescence, I haven’t had the most healthy relationship with physical activity. The inner perfectionist made activities exhausting and turned everything into a chore. A product of my environment, it also often functioned in tandem with less-than-healthy behaviors and attitudes surrounding food and body image. Climbing has been the first physical activity that I’ve done since I was a kid that I really enjoyed, and which hasn’t triggered an unhealthy mindset. 

Bouldering has provided the healthy and fun exercise outlet I never knew I could have! It surprised me when I first started how social it is, which was a little intimidating at first. Now, this is a huge appeal to me. It’s a great opportunity to hang out with friends and meet some new folks. It’s fun discussing strategy and taking turns trying tricky sections of problems. The sense of community at First Ascent is so refreshing.

It also necessitates that I focus on the task at hand. Planning my path up the wall forces me to slow down, be patient, and reflect on what I’m about to attempt. I have to be fully present and engage my body in ways I never have before. When I don’t finish a problem, I have an opportunity to reframe the natural “you failed” inner dialogue with “what can I try next?” I’ve learned to embrace incremental progress. The first time I topped out I was so pumped! The same happened with my first V2, V3, and V4. And each one of these successes was based on trying, learning, and growing. 

Climbing has made me so much stronger, both physically and mentally. I’m trying problems now that I never would have imagined attempting a few months ago. Sessions are now often limited by raw hands (or hunger!) rather than tired muscles. I feel different, and I know that confidence has come from this. I still have many moments of doubt and anxiety, but these are tempered with feelings of pride. I’m actually able to do some physical things that are a challenge! It’s even prompted me to share in a public way my experiences with mental illness, something for which I’ve often felt shame. Stigma be damned!

This spring, I struggled to effectively manage my anxiety in the face of grad school, full-time work, and an unexpected move. A predictable and prolonged period of depression followed. Even in the midst of this, I found the motivation to go to the gym and climb, and I never regretted it. It was such a welcome break, spending some time with friends even if it was hard to be social, getting my body moving, and shifting my focus away from me and to the wall. And it helped me to keep pushing forward until the fog finally lifted.

I’m thankful to have been introduced to this sport, and I honestly never expected it to have the impact that it has. It hasn’t cured me of my anxiety and depression, nor do I expect it to. Rather, it’s one more tool in my toolkit to help me manage symptoms and learn new ways of experiencing the world.

Shelby Silvernell is a Chicago-based imaging and museum specialist, photographer, and FA member.