Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Power of a Smile

In his books The Rock Warrior’s Way and EspressoLessons, Arno Ilgner recommends taking a few steps to help mental focus while climbing, such as breathing control, looking with “soft eyes,” and consciously relaxing the posture I would add another small task to this list--smiling. 

Neuroscience has taught us some interesting things about the way the brain perceives emotion.  (Here is an article from Scientific American on the subject; one relevant research article can be found here for those so inclined.)  Notably, the brain uses physical indicators as feedback for how it should activate your limbic system to make you feel.  For example, when you see someone else frown, you frown too, causing you to feel a negative emotion, likely similar to what the other person is experiencing.  This is particularly valuable as it creates a ready pathway for empathy, thereby facilitating productive social interaction. 

Similarly, when you smile, your brain senses the position of your facial muscles and makes you feel happy.  Note the ordering there--you smile first, then you feel happy.  Once you feel happy, you keep smiling, and your brain continues releasing the neurotransmitters that make you feel happy.  It’s a beautiful feedback loop.

What does any of this have to do with climbing?  It’s hard to focus when you’re tense, distracted, and thinking negatively.  Ideally, we want to be relaxed and open when we’re climbing.  Unfortunately, it’s those nerve-wracking, stressful, physically demanding climbing situations that make us most anxious, precisely when we need to be the most relaxed.  One easy way to reduce stress is simply by smiling.  Forcing a smile causes your brain to recognize that it’s supposed to feel happy and, more importantly, relaxed, at that particular moment, even if you don’t necessarily feel like smiling.

The next time you’re sketching out high above your gear or cruxing on what was supposed to be a for-sure redpoint, find a stance or a rest, pause a moment, and smile.  I can almost guarantee you’ll be more relaxed and focused.  You may not send, but you may very well do better than you previously thought.

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