Editor’s Note: High-Clip is following the format of WebMD articles in an effort to distill the findings of two studies that compare rock climbers to substance users. This format is used to present these findings in an easily readable manner. Rock climbing addiction will be used to refer to climbers’ experiences discussed in the studies, not an actual condition.
What is rock climbing addiction* (RCA)?
Rock climbing addiction is when a person becomes addicted to climbing like a drug user becomes addicted to a drug. These similarities to substance users are present while climbing and while not climbing; climbers can experience positive and negative reinforcement while climbing and climbers can experience withdrawal while not climbing. With a rock climbing addiction, a person’s withdrawal symptoms may worsen with exposure to climbing media and be more extreme in more experienced climbers.
Rock Climbing Addiction Symptoms
With RCA, a person may have symptoms including:
- feeling a rush/high while climbing
- lessened interest in other, even previously pleasurable, activities, especially while not climbing
- strong urges or imperatives to climb
- structuring their schedule and lifestyle around climbing
- feel angry, agitated, restless, or just wrong while away from climbing
- using climbing as a stress reliever or other coping mechanism
- dramatic mood improvement while climbing
- may need to climb more dangerous things over time
- decreased positive relationships while away from climbing
Evidence suggests that people can develop a RCA over long exposure to rock climbing, as symptoms tend to worsen in more experienced climbers. Addictive behaviors (non-drug activities like shopping, gambling, etc.) have been found to activate similar regions of the brain as substance use. Extreme sports tend to make the brain release chemicals like dopamine and glutamate.
High sensation seeking traits and heightened impulsivity are found in rock climbers. Thus, people may rely on climbing to satisfy their sensation seeking traits. Similarly, people may use climbing to manage negative feelings, causing a reliance on climbing.
The research on RCA and addiction with other extreme sports is still relatively new. Consider reading the studies to see where you may experience sensations similar to those of a substance user.
Withdrawal symptoms were less severe when the climber felt that they had control over the situation. This means that it was easier to stay away from climbing by choice rather than something like an injury.
Rock climbing may be a treatment for drug addiction. In the future, there may be research that indicates how drug users may use climbing as a therapy. Because of the similarities of physical and mental experiences between climbers and substance users, climbing may have real potential to replace drugs in addicts’ lives. Likewise, researchers may be able to use climbers to study addiction in order to help substance and behavior addicts.
Rock climbing is a dangerous sport. People can develop minor to serious (even fatal) injuries through accidents, negligence, or overuse. Using safe practices and maintaining personal health will go a long way in preventing complications, but there is always inherent risk with climbing.
*Addiction is used in this article less literally with regards to climbing. This is because not only is climbing legal/socially acceptable, but it allows people to learn new skills, grow, connect with others, and travel to new places.
Heirene, Robert M et al. “Addiction in Extreme Sports: An Exploration of Withdrawal States in Rock Climbers.” Journal of behavioral addictions vol. 5,2 (2016): 332-41. doi:10.1556/2006.5.2016.039
Roderique-Davies, Gareth, et al. “Development and Initial Validation of a Rock Climbing Craving Questionnaire (RCCQ).” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 2018, p. 204., doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00204.
- Please feel free to drop more article links in the comments! Here are sources 1 and 2.
- The use of words like “symptom” and “worsen” are not to indicate that RCA needs to be treated; rather, they are used to help draw parallels between RCA and drug addiction.
- This article is not meant to discuss the merits/consequences of substance abuse and rock climbing, but merely to discuss the similarities between the two based on current research.
- Listen to our podcast to hear a story of how climbing can replace drug use! Meet our guest here.
- As always, please stay safe out there!