Anxiety in the mountains and learning to overcome – Part 1

This is part 1 of my experiences this past weekend on dealing with anxiety around heights. Part 2 of how I overcame in a few days

I’m currently writing this from a tent near Lake Tahoe where I’ll be pacing my friend Julie through a few segments of the Tahoe 200 race. Currently my wife is out with her, about to start a segment that will take them over the highest point in the course, around 9400 ft. Thankfully, my sections don’t go much over 9000, but it’s still much higher than I’ve ever been in my life.

I’m not a fan of heights. Despite the fact that I love traveling, I hate flying. The idea of having nothing under my feet except the body of the plane, causes me a lot of anxiety. The first part of this trip involved two flights to get to Reno, not my favorite way to start my day. Thankfully they were smooth and easy and I felt like I was able to relax a bit more than normal, but it still wasn’t my favorite thing to be doing.

Now, cue the mountains. I’ve been near some high mountains, but for the most part I’ve never been more than 6000 ft in the air. One of the things that causes me a great deal of vertigo and anxiety is looking out over a vast valley between mountains. Seeing something as tall as myself in the distance, but with a gaping chasm in between, makes me very uncomfortable. Needless to say, this trip has been full of challenges for my anxiety.

Upon first arriving, I questioned if I had made a mistake. As soon as we’re done at Tahoe, I head to Colorado to pace my friend Mike in a 100 mile race which will put me up in the 9000-10000 ft range. Yet another bunch of time spent in a place that I’ve never been comfortable. However, maybe this entire experience is a way for me to learn how to overcome all of this. There’s no reason that I should feel anxious when climbing nicely laid out trails that go up high. Hundreds of people a year take the same trails that I’ll be on, and are never in danger of falling off the side of the mountain.

Since I don’t run until Sunday, I’ve already started to work on processing all of this. One thing that has gotten better already is driving the mountain roads. After a solid two days of driving up and down various mountain passes, I’ve started to be able to relax more and be less distracted by my feelings of discomfort. I’m no longer the timid driver who’s holding up the lanes of traffic and getting honked at. That’s not to say it’s still not a challenge, but with exposure, I’ve gotten more comfortable.

I’m trying to keep a mantra in my head when I’m up high… “I’m still on the ground”. The same dirt I’m walking on when I’ll be up on those hills, is the same dirt I’m walking around in town. Just because that dirt is higher up, doesn’t mean I’m any less connected to the ground. Unlike an airplane, my feet are still solidly planted on Earth. The ground isn’t going to come crashing down thousands of feet from underneath me. It’s solid.

As I wait for my opportunity to test myself, I had to deal with a bad anxiety attack last night. I laid in my tent wanting to run away as quickly as I could. I was coming up with every excuse in my head as to why I couldn’t do this and I just needed to bail on everything. Yet, I’m still here, and after the attack, I’m starting to feel better. Soon I need to put my feet on the ground and see what I’m capable of. How that goes will be part 2….

2 thoughts on “Anxiety in the mountains and learning to overcome – Part 1

  1. michael

    It’s amazing how with time, intentionality, and effort we can change something like that about ourselves, even if just incrementally. Sounds like you need to do some more hiking on mountain passes. 😀

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