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Climbing Everest Also Requires Emotional Stamina

• October 22, 2012 • 8:30 AM

New research suggests fear won’t help you get up the world’s highest mountain, but a tendency to savor small accomplishments just might.

Metaphorically speaking, we all have mountains to climb, and some of us manage to ascend to a higher plateau than others. What psychological traits help people push their way to their peak?

A new study of actual mountain climbers—specifically, adventurous people who attempted to climb Mount Everest—suggests one promising path is to manage your anxiety and savor small victories.

In the spring of 2008, a team of researchers led by psychologist Jim Cartreine of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston (elevation 141 feet) surveyed 71 people at the South Base Camp of Mount Everest, as they prepared to make the ascent up the world’s tallest peak. The climbers were overwhelmingly men, and came from a variety of countries, including the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

Participants completed a brief survey designed to reveal their attitudes toward risk and their current emotional state, including the degree to which they were feeling euphoric, excited, and anxious about their impending climb. One month later, 42 of them had sent back a follow-up questionnaire, reporting the highest altitude they had reached and whether they had reached the summit. (Sixty-four percent did so, about average for that spring).

Perhaps not surprisingly, those with high levels of anxiety did not, on average, make it as high up the mountain as those who reported they were relatively calm. Specifically, “each point decrease on the 22-point anxiety scale increased a climber’s odds of summiting by 25 percent,” writes lead author Greg Feldman, a research psychologist at Boston’s Simmons College.

Conversely, a prior study linked anxiety with performing well in a rock-climbing competition. Feldman and his colleagues write that while fear may be helpful in that sort of short-duration exercise (it can keep the mind sharp and help climbers avoid accidents), these benefits “may be outweighed by costs that may become evident in longer, high-altitude climbs,” such as “distress-related physiological depletion.”

So what disposition does help? The researchers found that, on average, climbers who had high marks in “reward responsiveness” made their way higher up the mountain. Those are the people who responded positively to such statements as “When I’m doing well at something, I love to keep at it.”

They speculate that climbers with that mental attitude “are energized by the attainment of each smaller goal en route to the summit (e.g., successfully crossing a challenging crevasse), and this helps to fuel continued engagement.”

Cultivating such a mindset may be difficult, but there are many methods of developing anxiety-management skills. Doing so, the researchers write in the Journal of Research in Personality, “might enhance the likelihood of climbers’ success.”

“Anticipating thrills may draw some individuals to extreme environments,” Feldman and his colleagues conclude. “However, these results suggest ability to maintain a reward focus, and savor each accomplishment during the relative drudgery and discomfort inherent in tasks like mountain climbing, may be crucial to success in such endeavors.”

Given that “drudgery and discomfort” play a role in pretty much any task worth accomplishing, that advice sounds valuable for even those of us who stay at sea level.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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