Skip to main content

Sport Climbing Offers Alternative Approach to Facilitating Recovery

June 12, 2020

Recently, a study was conducted at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, to explore the effectiveness of sport climbing on emotion to assess how experiential adventure therapy could be used as an enhancement tool for substance use recovery maintenance.

Adventure therapy allows participants to take calculated risks and explore personal issues in a safe and supportive environment while allowing them to reconnect with themselves by relying on their own abilities and provided resources to overcome the challenges that are presented. Rock climbing, a form of adventure therapy, is a type of sport that combines several features which can have an impact on cognitive and emotion regulation deficits. Because the difficulty level can be flexibly varied according to an individual’s fitness, climbing is particularly suitable to promote a sense of goal achievement. While climbing, the opportunity to achieve several small goals is encountered, creating a pattern that facilitates a steady release of dopamine inside the brain.

Self-efficacy is also improved. In climbing, it is not always obvious which path is the right way to get to the top. One constantly must readjust hips, footing and body movements to achieve progress. Climbing also requires and trains the cooperation between individuals within small groups and can improve communication and social skills because there are commands that must be used with the intent of communicating clearly to avoid putting self and others in danger. Climbing exposes one to social situations by having to communicate.

The goal of the Mansfield study was to examine the impact on change in emotional states in persons during a single climbing experience. The Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) developed by Tellegan and Watson (1988) was used to measure emotional impact. The PANAS questionnaire was completed before and after a single climbing session amongst a sample of 23 participants. Participants were guided by trained belayers.

Results showed that climbing was related to a change in both positive and negative effect on emotion. There was a clear change in short-term emotion in response to the climbing session, with an overall 20% increase in positive emotions and a 28% decrease in negative emotions. Overall, there was a significant decrease in feelings of irritability of 53%. Feelings of being upset dropped by 42%, followed by nervousness at 39%. Feelings of guilt and hostility saw a decrease of 33% and 28% respectively. All positive emotions showed an increase. Overall, there was a significant increase in feelings of pride, which rose 52%, followed by feeling active (35%) and strong (29%). Feelings of enthusiasm and inspiration increased 21% and 19%, respectively. Interviews with participants when asked about their experience were all positive. Four of the participants voiced a concern of “fear of heights.” These individuals became more comfortable throughout the climbing session, and were observed pushing themselves higher toward the top of the wall each time. The largest indicator of the effect on emotion was the apparent smiles displayed on the participants’ faces. The six subjects who had never climbed expressed a high level of desire to engage in the activity again.


Findings demonstrate that sport climbing in an indoor climbing facility is associated with short-term emotion regulatory effects. Adventure therapy is expected to be a useful tool for substance use recovery maintenance. Based on these observations, these results are expected to have implications for counselors, treatment centers and peer advocates who work with people in recovery, as it provides a quantitative evaluation for climbing activity as a method of maintaining recovery.

The utilization of concentration, coordination and goal achievement are contribution factors to this response. Moreover, climbing as an adventure therapy method can be used as an enhancement tool to activate some of the same neurotransmitters in the brain that substance use acts on. Therefore, recreational climbing can help combat relapse in substance abuse behaviors.

Climbing is a great metaphor for recovery. An individual in recovery is climbing a seemingly insurmountable mountain of fear, insecurity, doubt and pain. As individuals climb metaphorical mountains in recovery and achieve their goals, they can also reach new physical heights as well.

Bethany Conway is the proprietor of Finger Lakes Outdoor Adventure Therapy support group, a research technician at Corning Inc., and a trained peer recovery advocate.

Back to Top