Experiential Therapy, Rock Climbing, and Showing Up

This is the story about my own experience of experiential therapy, rock climbing, and showing up.

Gripping the cold stone wall seemed almost impossible as my arms and legs trembled. I really wasn’t up to that high, so why was I so nervous. “Get a grip Tiffany!” I told myself. Being the therapist that I am, I knew logically that the battle was all in my head, and it was a matter of convincing myself to push through the negative thoughts, but my body had a different plan. It was reacting to old trauma, the fear of falling. I had fallen from a two-story home when I was about 3 years old. It was from a bay window, and I was leaning up against the open screen. Miraculously, I walked away with hardly a scratch, yet my body stored that information as trauma that I continue to fight each time I walk close to the edge of a cliff or ascent up high. As a therapist, my first awareness of encountering a trauma response, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder,) was after a fairly intense car accident that I had experienced on a snowy day. Luckily, I walked away unscathed, yet, once again, the memory was stored in my body as trauma. Every time I got in a car and we had to drive in either rain or snow, my body would tense up, my heart would accelerate, and I would be gripping the door handle telling the driver to, “slow down.”  Here I was, a therapist who failed to recognize that my body’s reaction to driving in wet weather was due to my prior car accident. All this time, I felt as if I was crazy, overly anxious, or somehow managed to get into a car with bad drivers. Then one day it hit me! All the pieces came together, and I realized that my graduate program subject of PTSD had become a reality. I felt embarrassed that it took me so long to realize it. I am much more self-compassionate, realizing that being a therapist does not make me immune to emotional struggles. 

Since my experience, this has allowed me to gain insight and empathy for others, in particular, my students. I often educate them on trauma, triggers, and how to manage difficult emotions.  When you are presented with a perceived threat, your brain switches from its frontal cortex to the amygdala, which leaves you in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, commonly resulting in an impulsive decision to keep yourself safe. Often, even if you know logically you are safe, your brain has already gone off course and your body automatically reacts as if you are in danger. Another therapist told me, “trauma is not logical,” so helping our students understand this concept as well is very important. They often are triggered and don’t even realize why their body is reacting. The better we can help our students recognize when they are in trauma, and find ways to ground themselves, the more likely we can help them along the healing process in therapy. Often, grounding skills involve a way that engages their senses because trauma is stored as an experience in our senses as well.  

The day we took the boys rock climbing as a bonus activity, I knew I would have to face some of my own personal triggers and fears. I had only been rock climbing two other times, and my body trembled the whole time. It was scary and challenging. Yet this time, I was determined to not only climb, but to climb with confidence. As a therapist, we often are good at counseling others through difficult issues, and now it was the time for me to practice what I had preached. A few of our boys that day were also nervous; some of them refused to climb. Others, such as a Bermuda student, came down the wall after making it about halfway up, with the biggest grin on his face, while stating, “I am the first to ever climb in my family.” I watched as other boys conquered their fears while contemplating how it directly related to their difficult journey here at Oxbow. There were a few boys who tried to climb and particularly struggled to ground themselves afterward. I watched as their therapists individually talked and help them work through their emotions that morning. There were some boys who flat out refused to climb, but eventually built up the courage to try it. As I watched  the boys climb, the quote by Brene Brown ran through my mind, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”  Though not all of our boys climbed, the fact that they showed up was enough.

Now it was my turn to climb, and I was determined to make it past the point that everyone was struggling with or giving up. That was my goal. One hand in front of the other, not ever looking down, I climbed with more focus and strength than I ever had. I took deep breaths as I got to the most challenging part, and my legs began to shake. As I worked through my breathing to ground myself, I also told myself I was safe. If I fell, I would be caught by the rope. I pushed through and finally reached the top! Coming down I felt the adrenaline pumping through my body and a sense of great accomplishment. I felt stronger and more capable. I know that as we do these experiential activities with our students, we are also helping them overcome negative self-talk or disbelief. We help them build their ego strength and realize that they can do hard things, that it is worth the effort, and that showing up and leaning into pain pays off in the end.  “The willingness to show up changes us, it makes us a little braver each time” Brene Brown.