Pushing through the panic

I spent last weekend in the stunning scenery of the Cairngorms National Park. This was my second winter weekend in Scotland this year, having had a wonderful weekend in Glencoe in late January. Both times, I had planned a weekend with a guide to do some winter mountaineering to try and build my confidence in trekking and climbing on more technical terrain.

After my inspirational trek to the summit of Mera Peak, I am very keen to return to see more of our wonderful world from the beautiful high altitude mountains. I know that in order to do so, I need to be able to cope with more challenging terrain. Whilst I am learning to manage my fears of exposure and drops, they remain ever present and the terrain on the mountains that I am considering for my next trek will push me even further outside of my comfort zone.

To try and keep myself in the happy state of being outside of my comfort zone but not suffering from immobilising panic, I am spending time learning skills to build my confidence. For me, its a difficult balance between challenge and panic!

As I struggled to put my feet on a tiny ledge in a position that I felt would be safe, or as I tried to climb up what felt like a sheer rock face in howling wind, or as I saw what these activities had done to my poor knees, I questioned why I was here, why I was pushing myself so much and why I wasn’t satisfied with having an easier weekend!

But just as quickly as the panic came, it was forgotten when I made the move across the rock face or found a hold for the ice axe. I had a huge smile on my face as I got to the top of the rocks and looked out across the amazing view. The sense of achievement was incredible and my knees will be better in a few weeks….

So why does the panic come? How do I try and manage it? And why am I pushing myself so much?

The panic, when it comes, is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t experience something similar. On the one hand, I know that I am roped up and secure, with an experienced guide on the other end of the rope. If I lose my footing, I logically know that the worse that will happen is that I fall into the rock and bounce off, needing to find my footing again. But my brain also has an illogical part to it, which focuses on the fact that most of my boot isn’t on the ledge, due to its narrowness, and that below me is a drop. What happens if the rope snaps? What happens if I fall into the rock and break something? What happens if…? In the moment of fear, my brain can come up with a huge range of disaster scenarios, causing me to panic. This panic manifests itself in a multitude of ways. I can scream, swear, shake and be convinced that I can’t do whatever I am trying to do and need to give up.

Over the last few years, I have learnt to manage this by slowly pushing myself into more and more extreme (for me) situations. By doing so, I become more confident in what I can do.

Ten years ago, on my first big trek which was an amazing trip along the Great Wall of China, I spent most of the trek in panic mode due to the (to me) narrowness of the Wall. I needed a huge amount of support and coaxing from my wonderful husband to put one foot in front of the other at times. Six years ago, when climbing Kilimanjaro, the moments of panic came when climbing up a rocky wall and descending a steep scree slope. I learnt to accept help from the guides when it was offered and to ask them questions so that I could understand more about what I should be doing. Two years ago, on the way to Everest Base Camp, the moments of panic came when crossing wobbly rope bridges across deep ravines. I learnt not to wait for help to be offered but to ask for it and not be embarrassed to do so – it was always kindly and willingly given. Last year, on my trip to Mera Peak, there were moments of extreme nervousness but I managed to keep the panic at bay by doing a huge amount of preparation and being open with everyone I was with about my fears, which, again, led to wonderful help. Last weekend, the panic was well and truly back again on the rocks! But, if you had told me in 2008, when I struggled to walk along a narrow wall, that just over ten years later, I would be doing rock and ice climbing, I would have told you that you were talking about the wrong woman.

So I have learnt that preparing well, not being afraid to ask for help, being curious to learn about techniques and experiences and continuing to push myself, all help me to manage the panic that threatens to overwhelm me at times.

And why do I push myself? I have a wonderful husband, family and friends and a career that I love. I don’t need to be pushing myself in this way. That is true but what is also true is that I wouldn’t have achieved what I have in my life without pushing myself.

I truly believe that we can all achieve so much more than we think we are capable of. But we won’t achieve that if we don’t push ourselves, if we don’t put ourselves outside of our comfort zone.

So, as I shook with fear last weekend, and asked myself ‘what am I doing?’, I knew the answer, even through my panic. I was pushing myself so that I could, hopefully and eventually, achieve my next adventure goal. I was also pushing myself so that at challenging moments in my life, I knew that I would be able to cope. And I was pushing myself because, deep down (very deep down at times!), I knew I could do it.

I know how lucky I am to be able to chase my dreams, whether the next adventure or the next stage of my career. I know I am incredibly blessed to have the support to do so. I therefore want to make more of a difference to those around me to show how grateful I am for all of their support. I also want to raise more for charity to make a small difference in our wonderful world. And so I keep pushing myself – in life as well as in my adventures. And that means sometimes feeling immobilising panic and somehow finding a way through it.

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