What Do Climbing And Staying Calm During COVID-19 Have In Common?

Nik Berry is a nurse. But he’s also a climber, first and foremost, and lives in his van. So times have been a little strange lately. It can be stressful in the emergency departments where he works while living alone in a van, so he’s flexing the same mental muscles he developed as a rock climber to stay calm and focused on the task at hand.

“I definitely never expected to be in a situation like this or experiencing this,” he says, of the pandemic—and sleeping in the van at the hospitals where he works, without the option to climb on his days off, or even go to a coffee shop to check email. The flexibility he built his life around has become a double-edged sword. But he ticks off the things he’s thankful for—that he’s not caring for an at-risk family member he might spread the virus to, and that he’s young and healthy himself.

“Many of my coworkers have actually moved out, if they lived with families, and are living isolated on their own because they’re scared to bring something home and expose their family members,” he says. “That’s so heavy, it would be really hard to live with that.”

For better or worse, the emergency departments have been somewhat quiet, Nik says. People are scared to expose themselves to others who may have COVID, he says, and they’re also doing a good job sheltering in place and not hurting themselves by doing the kinds of things that would send them to the ER. Still, when Nik clocks out of a 12-hour shift, he returns to the same world of social distancing we all live in—alone in his van. Here’s how he’s applying the mental strength he’s learned from climbing to daily life during the pandemic.

Separating irrational fears from rational fears.

“Just like in climbing, if you let fear take over you, it just cripples you,” Nik says. “You aren’t able to move, you aren’t able to flow, you aren’t able to function at all on the route or have any sort of progress. This digs right into route climbing’s core—looking at irrational fears versus rational fears."

Normally the more you understand a situation, the more your anxiety decreases because you can build a game plan to move through it, he says. But with the pandemic, so much is so unknown. It’s easy to let your mind go down a rabbit hole of worry. But once you start thinking like that it makes you anxious, Nik says.

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One way Nik keeps his fears in check is by putting the news headlines in context. For example, when the numbers of COVID cases look high, he compares them to the actual population of the state or the country. Just like in climbing, there’s always a chance that something unexpected might happen—but by putting those chances into perspective, it allows him to compartmentalize them, he says.

“I think it’s really important to not be ignorant—to know enough to make sure I’m not impacting others and spreading the disease,” he says. “But I don’t want to be actively seeking fearful articles or just mulling over it. It’s not good for your mental health. You have to look at your own sanity, and take that into account.”

Staying busy.

“For me it’s been pretty important not to just sit,” Nik says. “Even if you’re stuck at home, maintain some sort of normal schedule by giving yourself a task list, something to do. You can always read books, work on the mental side of your climbing by reading mental health books.”

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Nik says this time of isolation has given him a chance to focus on the tertiary tasks he usually doesn’t have time to get to. “I think it’s a great time to focus on those other loose strings in life that you wouldn’t necessarily focus on otherwise, so you can really hit the ground running when all this starts to dissipate,” he says.

Self-care is sanity.

When you think the apartment you’re holed up in is small, think of Nik in his van (he recently spent 10 hours sitting in a Lowe’s parking lot to use the wifi to complete online modules for a new nursing job)—and take a note from his self-care tactics.

“I’ve been running in the park, and hangboarding, things like that, obviously practicing social distancing,” he says. “That’s been huge, still going outside but in a socially responsible way.”

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Nik suggests taking ownership of the situation at hand by using the time to work on the mental aspect of climbing. “If I’m bored, I have the control to do something about it, by learning something on the internet instead of just letting my mind wander. Or reading a thoughtful book.”

Ready to take your mental game to the next level? Here’s Nik’s recommended reading list.

Elevate Your Excellence: The Mindset and Methods of Champions by Christina Heilman

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

The Champion’s Mind by James A. Afremow

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey (Very applicable to climbing, Nik says)