Getting Accustomed to Stress at a Very High Level

Getting accustomed to stress at a very high level

by James Porter February 06, 2020

Just saw FREE SOLO, the documentary about Alex Honnold, who climbed up a 3000 foot granite cliff at Yosemite National Park with no ropes or safety equipment. When I wrote about this in a previous blog, I had only seen a mini documentary about the making of the film, not the film itself. It's surprising how nervous you get just watching this film, even though you KNOW he is going to make it.

 There's one point at about 2500 feet up, hours into the climb, where Alex literally has to move about twenty feet sideways across the wall with virtually nothing to stand on or hang onto. It's an almost perfectly flat part of the cliff. At this point in the movie we've already seen him practice this section of the climb many times with ropes and safety equipment to catch him and we've seen him fall many times. So when he gets to this same place with NO safety equipment what so ever, it's absolutely nerve-racking to watch.

 At one point, early in the film he goes to a medical facility to do an MRI scan of his brain to get an idea of how his nervous system reacts to stress. While he was in the MRI tube (a nervous making experience in itself for many people) the technicians showed Alex pictures and videos of stressful scenes, like the Titanic sinking and then with the machine focused on his brain, were able to watch how his amygdala (where our stress response originates) would react to these stressful scenes. The person doing the analysis reported that there was virtually NO "activation" in the amygdala to any stressful images that were put in front of Alex during the test.

 This brings up an important point that I often write about which is stress sensitivity. What permits Alex to do these amazing feats - without getting so nervous that it hampers his performance - is that his brain is wired in such a way (the opposite of my brain) that he is impervious to much of the stress that normal people feel just WATCHING what Alex does. I'm super sensitive to stress. Alex apparently is not.

 But still, Alex had to train himself - using safety equipment - to feel so comfortable with that tricky spot in the climb so that he wouldn't feel stressed when he approached that point with no ropes or safety equipment. At about 2/3rds the way through the movie, Alex abandons an attempt to climb the cliff without ropes- with a full camera crew there to capture the attempt - and just decides that he's not going to do it. He didn't want to try it until he was supremely confident that he could make it past the tricky part of the climb. In other words, he needed more practice with the ropes.

 I learned a similar lesson when I first started to do public speaking, which I was terrified of initially. What I figured out though, was that if I practiced my program all the way through  20 times (with no audience) I knew that no matter how nervous I felt walking out on that stage before hundreds of people, the program would still go well.

 So as Alex shows us in his documentary, no matter what stressful challenge you face, it's not just about your natural born resilience to stress (which clearly Alex has), but the time you are willing to devote to the preparation for that challenge. Almost anyone can learn to deal with almost any level of stress if they are willing to take that stress on in small doses, gradually increasing the dosage until you are fully accustomed to that level of challenge.

James Porter
James Porter